M. Bhaktavatsala who passed away peacefully at home in his favourite armchair on August 4th 2018, was a multi-faceted individual who, during the course of an eventful life spanning 84 years, donned many hats as writer, film producer, film distributor and film critic. As the only mannina magga to head the Film Federation of India for two terms, he was instrumental in bringing about healthy changes by way of equitable practices such as arbitration of disputes and basic human courtesy in an industry known for none of the above.
If a man is known by the company he keeps, Bhakta, as he was popularly known, was a remarkable person. He had a wide assortment of friends who ranged the spectrum from young to old and from humble to the empyrean. Gardener, pool attendant, award-winning architect and matinee idol, they all flocked to his side because he usually had a fresh and original viewpoint which he wasn’t afraid of voicing. His circle of friends included Kamal Hasan, Shekhar Kapoor, Amol Palekar, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar. His biting wit was reserved for those who clung limpet-like to the spoils of office after retirement. “How can you hope to attract fresh talent if only grandfathers are seated at the high table in Velcro trousers?” was one of his trademark witticisms.
I first met Bhakta through the architect, Nikhil Arni, who was his regular companion at the Umbrella Bar in the Bangalore Club where they shared their favourite tipple of Honeybee brandy over a light supper while discussing geopolitics, design, affairs of state and affairs. He was in the memorable words of Saint-Simon, “attracted by honourable and truthful persons, provoked by rogues who swarm at Court and made even more annoyed by those who do harm.” No stranger to controversy, Bhakta didn’t suffer fools gladly and was quick to take up cudgels on behalf of the oppressed and the underdog, whether it was over a membership dispute or a hand loan.
Bhakta produced the movie “Kanneshwara Rama” directed by the legendary M.S Sathyu and played his one and only cameo in Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s film “Chanda Maruta.” My personal connection with him goes back to the 80’s when he got me my first writing assignment with the Asian Age. I recollect telling him I had no academic qualifications in journalism whereupon he looked me in the eye and sharply said, “That is precisely why I suggested your name to Tushita Mitra.” He was an erudite person who wore his learning lightly; I remember being gently chided by him for including the author Scott Turow in a recommended reading list. “McEwan fine, Murakami ok, Philip Roth great but Turow, c’mon I say, you can do better than that…”
He remained active right up to the end with a daily regimen which included a swim at the Club and sensible eating habits. He was an outdoors person, a keen mountaineer who took to it late in life enjoying many trekking adventures in the foothills of the Himalayas into his 70’s. His favourite breakfast haunt was Sunitha’s in Gandhinagar, which makes the most divine “kali dosa” served with fresh coconut chutney. He would enthusiastically recommend the place to friends whose tastes inclined more to the ghee-drenched, crispy, benne masala dosa so beloved by MTR and Vidyarthi Bhavan fans, and would listen crestfallen to their litany of complaint about soft dosas with no sambhar before responding feebly with, “But kanna, that’s why it’s called kali dosa.”
Bhakta is survived by his wife Prema, and three children, Ranga, Manu and Siri who will treasure fond memories of a husband and father who was a serious audiophile. Bhakta with the help of his buddy, Narula, built himself a Class A amplifier with Kef speakers in his music room where the family would gather for impromptu concerts featuring an eclectic selection ranging from Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi to Tchaikovsky and the Beatles. In an online world where Whatsapp rules and Twitter trends, Bhakta remained a purist who always took the time to engage with people. Who else had the taste, discernment and wherewithal to host a concert at home with Zakir Husein and L Srinivas? Despite Dylan Thomas’s advice to the contrary, Bhakta went gentle into that good night: he will be missed by those who knew him well and only in passing.