Full of surprises

Full of surprises

S Nanda Kumar speaks to veteran actor Ramesh Bhat on his time in the Kannada film industry, the years before his venture into cinema, and more.

Ramesh Bhat has carved a special place for himself in the hearts of the Kannada filmgoer, playing various character roles over the last 35 years with admirable aplomb.

When I met him on the sets of a Kannada film, I found that the actor was just as simple and self-effacing in real-life as in the many roles that he had played. I almost missed him when I walked onto the sets — he was playing the role of a simple man tormented by personal problems — and he was leaning against a wall quietly as the shot was being readied.

The fact that he was able to carve a niche for himself as a character actor when many stalwarts ruled the Kannada screen in the 1970s and ‘80s speaks volumes of the actor’s abilities.

The audience easily accepted him. For many, memories of his roles in 20-year-old films, and as the ‘Crazy Colonel’ in a popular TV serial of the ‘80s are still fresh. Kannada filmgoers always speak of him with great fondness.

“I think that is my greatest treasure. I have not acquired property or great wealth — but whenever I meet people, they are always so full of goodwill and affection. There are so many instances I can quote.

Some years back, I was stranded at Shimoga railway station as I had missed my train. Somebody recognised me, and said, ‘Mr Ramesh Bhat, I have a car, and am travelling to Bangalore. It will be an honour to take you with me.’

I was so touched. On another occasion when I visited a rural area, the people there were so affectionate. One person did not know what to give me — but he insisted that he had to give me something out of affection.

Although I protested, he filled my car with coconuts! This is the kind of love that people have for me — people I have never even met in my life — what more can a man ask for?”

Mastering the character sketch

In the past, artistes playing character roles in Kannada films, just as in other Indian films, were given as much prominence as the main actors themselves.

This has perhaps changed over the years. The actor agrees. “Those days, the character actor was important to the story, whether male or female.

One look at the kind of roles Narasimharaju or Ashwath played in Kannada films will give you a clear idea of what I am saying.

These days it has just become a kind of filling in the blanks. We have become like side dishes for the main course. Anybody would do. Even when one gets those nominal kind of character roles, there is not much of a scope for acting — one has to simply come, deliver the dialogue and go. That is difficult for someone like me.”

Despite all these changes in Kannada films, and the whittling down in the importance given to character actors, awards are given every year in this category. Ramesh Bhat was recently given the State Award for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for his role in Uyyale. But viewers and many in the industry felt that the award was a tad late in coming. The actor smiles wistfully. “That excitement of getting the award is not there.

If that award had come 20 years ago, when I was much younger and had portrayed roles in movies like Minchina Ota, Accident, Ondhu Muttina Kathe, Karunamiyee, Ashwamedha, Beladingala Baale — where everybody praised me for doing those roles, and I also felt satisfied with my work —  it would have meant so much to me, as I was eagerly looking forward to it. There were so many stalwarts still working in the Kannada industry then.

In the midst of all of them, had I been recognised with an award, it would have made me so happy. Well, it has come now. It is like an official seal of approval, that’s all. Of course, I am happy, but it doesn’t hold so much meaning now.”

But this boy from a small village called Manki near Kundapur in Dakshina Kannada district has come a long way from portraying national leaders like Nehru in school day functions. His father’s decision to migrate to Bangalore brought him closer to his love for the stage. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the city had a vibrant Kannada theatre scene, and the young Ramesh worked with groups like Spandana, Nataranga, and Benaka. His father, Rathnakar Rao, who initially worked as a cook in the house of renowned Kannada actor L V Sharada, later opened a shop selling savouries and snacks like chakkali and kodu balle in Basavanagudi. “I used to go and sell them at the City Institute,” says the actor in a matter-of-fact manner.

Ramesh opened another shop in Gandhi Bazaar that quickly became famous for its novel approach to business, as people were allowed to barter items for goods they wanted.

“One could bring, say, 10 coconuts, and they could choose something they wanted, like flour or rice! You could trade anything here, from nuts and bolts for a scooter to other groceries — in short, from a pin to an elephant,” laughs the actor, as he fondly remembers those years.

The shop had some special touches that people still remember to this day. “There was a board outside the shop, which would list out all the play rehearsals, the venues, the timings, even things like friends leaving messages for others, such as who was waiting for whom in which theatre for a morning show! It became very popular with college students.”

Working in theatre brought him notice as an actor, particularly with another young dynamic person — Shankar Nag. His enthusiasm in playing roles, and his easy-going nature drew Shankar to him, and he quickly became one of his closest associates. His association with Shankar resulted in several memorable plays and films, as well as the now-iconic TV serial, Malgudi Days.

“I worked as the first associate director to Shankar in that serial. Since Shankar had spent a long time in Bombay, he wasn’t so conversant with all the seasonal rituals prevalent in South India. So our team would explain this to Shankar, who would patiently listen to things such as when sandigey was made and put out to dry, which festival required specific flowers etc. It was such great fun.”

Does he have any regrets? He thought carefully for a while. “I don’t think I have regrets. But when some stranger meets me, and says he has watched many of my films, and declares that the industry has not exploited my talent fully, I do feel a sense of disquiet.

But I always take the compliment in that statement. I think I am in the luckiest profession in the world — I can play a doctor, a police inspector, and a minister, anything! Yes, I would love to play a role that would bring me even closer to the common man. But above all, I have the love and affection of thousands of people. As I have said before, what more can anyone want?” The associate director comes and gently reminds him that the shot is ready.

As he turns away to give his next shot, he gives me a great exit line. “Have some ambition, or a goal, otherwise tomorrow will not be interesting. I am like any other artiste — always waiting for something better to come my way!” As the sky darkens, the bright lights on the sets are adjusted, and as the camera rolls, I could not help thinking that this versatile actor still had plenty of surprises in him.

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