Banking on immense talent

Banking on immense talent

He played the marooned villager, Ganapa, in Girish Kasaravalli’s Dweepa, tormented with inner emotions. He has also played the sorcerer Ramachandra Acharya in P Vasu’s Aptharakshaka with equal ease.

He has played villainous roles that cover the entire gamut of society, from politicians, police officers, corrupt businessmen, historical characters, to village strongmen — the list is endless. For over a quarter of a century, Kannada actor Avinash has, with his intense acting, steadily built a place for himself in the industry, straddling the worlds of ‘parallel’ and ‘mainstream’ cinema with equal ease.

It seems apt to use a cricket analogy, since Avinash is a keen cricket enthusiast himself — he is like a quiet, talented batsman who lends commendable support to the players on the opposite end, and before one is even aware of it, has also scored a century for himself.

It is in a similar fashion that Avinash has spent over 25 years in the Kannada film industry, lending support as a character actor of merit, often lifting the plot to a higher plane. One often talks about art having no boundaries, and this actor has proved it by carving a parallel career for himself in Tamil and Telugu films as well. But Avinash never dreamt that he would become such a vital part of the South Indian film industry.

A Master of Arts in Literature from the Mysore University, he began his career as a lecturer of English. In the beginning, he was active in the English theatre circuit in Bangalore. A meeting with B Jayshree, the noted Kannada theatre director and singer, at an Ashok Mandanna English theatre workshop, steered him into Kannada theatre. He joined Jayashree’s Spandana, the Kannada theatre group. Working in Kannada theatre brought him in contact with Shankar Nag, who was staging various Kannada plays with his theatre group, Sanket.

Actor Devaraj, who was also busy in Kannada theatre at that time, took Avinash along with him to meet theatre director T N Narasimhan, who was planning a film. Narasimhan was conducting interviews and camera tests, and the two went “just for the fun of it.” Unexpectedly, both were selected to play major parts in the film. The producer of the film already had two films lined up for release, and as luck would have it, they bombed at the box-office. Avinash’s film remained in the cans.

He later acted in many other films at the time, but it was not until 1987, when he played Madhvacharya in G V Iyer’s film, that people sat up and took notice. There was no turning back after that. Avinash, who was spending a lot of time away from college shooting for films, decided to quit teaching and embrace films as a full-time career.

A film with Shivarajkumar (Samyuktha in 1987) nudged him closer to the top bracket. Avinash went on to work with frontline directors of the time, establishing himself as a character actor.

But, just like in a film script, two telephone calls would change things forever for Avinash. One was a call from Parvathamma, who asked him to play a role in Puneet’s debut film, Appu. “She told me that Rajkumar was insistent that I play the role.

He had seen me in Madhvacharya and I believe he had liked it. I was shooting for another film at that time, and had no free dates available. But they waited for me, and Appu went on to become a phenomenal hit. When I went and met Rajkumar later, he was very happy. That film was a turning point for me,” says Avinash. The other call was from Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, who was playing the lead role in Chandramukhi. “That was a huge break — working in one Rajinikanth film was like working in 50 Tamil films!” exclaimed the actor. These two breaks catapulted him into the big league, and he became busier than ever before.

The busy actor shuttles between Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, living out roles that he never even dreamt he would be playing when he stepped into the world of theatre a quarter of a century ago. He has even worked in a Malayalam film with the renowned Mammootty. “When the offer came for Doubles, even though I didn’t know Malayalam, I grabbed it, just to work with Mammootty,” he says with glee. Among the actors he admires is the inimitable Anant Nag. “During my college days, when I watched Anant sir, I felt he was all that a good actor should be. I really admire him. I am so proud to say I have worked with him in many films — something I never imagined that I would do when I watched his films as a student!”

The conversation turned to the present state of Kannada films. His face clouds over with concern. “ Kannada cinema is going through a difficult stage — I don’t know if it is a transition,” he says. “I am not saying that there are no gifted directors around — Yograj Bhat and Soori brought in some freshness, and we did see the Kannada audience returning to cinema theatres. But just four or five filmmakers are not enough,” he says contemplatively. Avinash recalled the years when filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, K Balachander and Balu Mahendra made it a point to come and make Kannada films.

“There were just 30-odd films being made in a year those days — now there are about 130 Kannada films being churned out annually. It’s become a huge business. Producers are looking to recover their investments quickly. And in this haste, quality is sometimes a casualty,” he says ruefully.

He says that directors and writers have to move with the times and keep up to date with what is happening out there in the real world. “I think that’s where somebody like Yograj Bhat scores — he keeps himself abreast of what is going on in the minds of people. Directors like Puttanna Kanagal made films on contemporary subjects — I wonder why nobody is trying out more current topics. We also need to preserve that sense of Kannada identity that movies of the yesteryears were so good at. We shouldn’t become like Hindi films, which, except for a handful, are losing their roots and are pale copies of Hollywood movies. We need more passion in our filmmaking process. If we achieve that, then we can expect the Kannada audience to return to the theatres,” he says, leaning back.

Between his hectic shooting schedules, he spends quiet times at home with his actor-turned-politician wife, Malavika, and his three-year old son, Galav. Did he plan to turn to direction, after having seen so much from close quarters? “I may have understood the grammar of filmmaking, but that does not mean I have the creative capability to direct. It’s a huge responsibility, and I don’t think I can do that.” And politics, like his wife?

The reply comes without a moment’s hesitation. “Absolutely not. I don’t comprehend politics. I don’t understand how it works. If I were interested, I would have joined long back. I think it is far safer to be a politician’s husband,” he declares with a laugh. As I prepare to leave, I ask him if he is looking forward to any dream roles. His eyes light up.

“I would love to do a role like that of Irfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar. What a performance! To my mind, that is what new-edge art films are all about. The moment I finished watching it, the first thing I thought was, ‘how I wish I would get a role like that!’ ” Clearly, 26 years in the industry hasn’t dimmed this actor’s enthusiasm one bit.

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