Rebel with a cause

A star act

Rebel with a cause

He became an actor by chance, but has been stealing every scene in Kannada movies for the last 46 years. Bindu Gopal Rao talks to Sandalwood legend Ambareesh about films, politics & more.

The first time I called Ambareesh for this interview, I was quite pleasantly surprised that he answered the phone himself and gave me an appointment to meet him in the next two days. As I caught up with the actor-turned-politician at his sprawling bungalow, I could not help but notice that he had managed to balance his various roles with amazing ease, considering his current responsibility as the Minister of Housing. 

Looking back

Born Malavalli Huchche Gowda Amarnath, Ambareesh had never set his sights on acting, but was hoping to become a businessman. Naturally, films were the last thing on his mind. “I was not keen since I did not know how to act. However, when the casting for Nagarahavu was taking place, my friends Sangram Singh and Rajendra Singh Babu approached the producers and took me for an audition since at that time a lot of people believed that I resembled actor Shatrughan Sinha,” he said.

Recalling the incident, the veteran added, “I clearly remember that we were supposed to meet at 8.30 am, so I slipped out of the house an hour early to avoid meeting them. But my friends tracked me down and we reached the audition venue in the afternoon, but by then almost everyone including actor Vishnuvardhan had been selected for their roles. Putanna Kanagal simply looked at me and asked me to apply makeup and audition. I had to mouth a dialogue and toss a cigarette to my mouth, which I did, and I was selected. It was really Puttanna who saw the actor in me, even when I did not know that I could be one.”

In fact, the duo of Ambareesh and Puttanna made several successful movies together including Paduvaaralli Pandavaru, Shubhamangala, Masanada Hoovu and Ranganayaki. Naturally, even today, Ambareesh holds Puttanna in high regard. “He was a person who always challenged traditional norms and yet managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. He knew my capacity as an actor and ensured that each and every character I essayed could convince the audience.” Post his debut, Ambareesh worked as a villain in several movies and then went on to play the lead in several others. “In my first film as a lead, I played the role of a driver and the character’s name was my real name — Amarnath,” he reminisces. While the repertoire of his work is immense, some of his notable films include Antha, Ranganayaki, Tony, Rani Maharani, Olavina Udugore, Hrudaya Haadithu, Hongkongnalli Agent Amar, Mannina Doni and Odahuttidavaru. And after playing the angry young man of the 1980s, the ace actor continues to act, even after 46 years!

Changing times

Having been part of the industry for several decades, Ambareesh says that the industry has changed, thanks to the technological sophistication that has come in. Known for being best friends with late actor Vishnuvardhan from the days of making their debut together, he says that they never considered each other as competition. “Most of all, back then, there really was nothing like competition. I think there is a lot of that today, and as long as it is healthy competition, it is good. Back then, we would do everything ourselves, but today technical advances allow an actor to do a lot of things he may not be actually, physically, doing.”

Another trend that he has noticed is that earlier a lot of top names in Bollywood had their roots in the South, but today a lot of heroines from the North work in South Indian films. “Also, in those days, production houses were domineering, and all I can say is that there was dedication then, and sophistication now.”  Apart from winning many state awards and other film awards for his acting, Ambareesh was felicitated with the honorary doctorate from the Dharwad University in 2013.

Balancing act

Being a politician in office, Ambareesh knows his priorities and naturally chooses films that do not interfere with his work as a minister. “These days, I only act in films where the producer and the unit are okay with shooting at whatever time I arrive on the sets and stop when I call for a pack up. This is because I have to meet several people through the morning and resolve issues, and also there are emergency calls when I need to leave urgently, so I set the expectations right from the beginning.”

Incidentally, his criterion for selecting movies is simple. “There should be some meaning in the character I am playing and there should be some positive message. Of course, at this age, I understand that I will not be given the most important role, but as long as it suits my age and figure, I am happy,” he smiles. Having worked as a minister of state in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the actor is grateful for having had the opportunity to take oath in front of the President of India, and even in front of the Governor. “I never aspired to be an actor, and likewise, never thought I would get into politics, so I am grateful to my fans and well-wishers who have given me an opportunity to do good.”

After his recent health scare, he says that he is overwhelmed by the support of his fans. “They have given me so much love and respect that I never expected.” Looking ahead, he will be playing Puneeth Rajkumar’s father in Dodmane Huduga alongside wife Sumalatha (who will play his onscreen wife as well). Ask him if his wife being an actress helps, he agrees and says she understands the pressures of his profession well. On a closing note, I ask him if there is something about him that people don’t know and he smiles, “People always think I am a rough and tough person, but actually, I am a mild hearted man.”
 

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