'People see Ambareesh in me'

WATCH: Sumalatha bares her heart

Sumalatha Ambareesh lives near the golf course in Vasanth Nagar, a posh neighbourhood that also houses Bengaluru’s top luxury hotels.

With Ambareesh’s passing two months ago, all eyes are on her as his political successor. Many questions are being asked, since his party, the Congress, is in a coalition with the Janata Dal (S), and the latter is likely to field Nikhil Kumar, Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy’s son, as a candidate in Mandya, from where Ambareesh was elected three times to the Lok Sabha.

Sumalatha spoke at length to Metrolife, discussing, besides politics, her taste in books (she has read a bit of Nehru, but is an avid reader of detective fiction, especially Agatha Christie), films (she loves the work of Meryl Streep and Puttanna Kanagal) and music (old Hindi songs are a favourite).

Would it be goodbye to films if you plunge into politics?

First of all, I have not decided yet to plunge into politics. I am thinking about it. It is a huge decision because it was not on my agenda. We always thought that he (Ambareesh) was the one who would be in politics and we would only lend moral support. I have been trying to come to terms and it’s not easy. He was such a larger-than-life personality. And about whether films will take a backseat, I was doing only one or two films a year, and I will never put an end to anything. I will go with the flow.

Who are the politicians who have inspired you?

Growing up, I admired Indira Gandhi. I was witness to the war of 1971. I had several relatives serving in the army and air force. Indira led the country very strongly. People like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Ramakrishna Hegde and Devraj Urs are legendary leaders. I remember Farooq Abdullah would come home and he once sang a Krishna bhajan, sitting on the floor. Those leaders had qualities beyond petty personal reasons and put-downs. I wonder where are those men with dignity who used to be in politics.

What exactly is your political ideology?

I am somewhat of a centrist, neither right nor left. I don’t like seeing religion or communalism in politics. So that way, I would not swing to the right. I am not too much for populist schemes or reservations, so I am not leaning towards the left either. People should be educated to vote and know what they are getting. Only then can we be a progressive country.

When you inherit the love and affection that Ambareesh enjoyed, you also inherit the criticism he faced. How do you react to the criticism that he was happy-go-lucky and not cut out for politics. What are your prospects?

I have not decided whether I want to take this plunge because I don’t know if I am capable. It’s not easy to go out there. If there was no alliance, then I would have been the person they (Congress) would have approached because there is a vacuum in Mandya. Party workers keep coming to me every single day. If I say no, then people should not feel that I have betrayed them.

What were Ambareesh’s equations with the JD(S)?

Ambareesh was on friendly terms with them. Kumaraswamy and Ambareesh shared a good rapport and he has come here several times, even after he became chief minister this time. I don’t see it as challenging them. People see Ambareesh in me. Congress workers feel orphaned. They say if they don’t put up a fight now, then there’s no chance for Congress ever in Mandya.

Would you consider contesting as an independent?

That requires a lot of courage. This is not on the agenda.

If you are elected, what can Mandya expect?

I would love to take Ambareesh’s work forward. He would always say ‘Mandya is India and India is Mandya and I want to see Mandya as No 1 in India’. This may just be a dream but we can work towards achieving it. Mandya is about farmer’s problems. And being a woman, I would look forward to empowering women. Politics as such doesn’t interest me much but I would like to be in a job where I can do good for the people.

People of Mandya calling

Sumalatha’s attributes her interest in politics to the outpouring of emotions she sees in Ambareesh’s constituency. After his passing on November 24 last year, they would visit her and console her. And then, she says, it was her turn to comfort them.

In her words: “They were so upset and grieving, I reached a stage where I had to console them. I had stopped crying but they wouldn’t. I cannot explain what I see in their eyes. His popularity transcends movies and politics. People tell me they are lost without him. I cannot look into their eyes and say no. When I tell them I have not thought about politics, they tell me, “No, we have held his hands all these years and you cannot let our hand go.” I would be lying if I said I was not moved by that. Whether I come into politics or not, I am not going to sever my connections with Mandya. And if I do take up politics, it will be the biggest challenge of my life.

‘I was always an introvert’

Sumalatha is a polyglot, fluent in Telugu (her mother tongue), Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and ‘a bit of Malayalam.’ In the course of an interview with Metrolife on Monday, she looked back at her life with Ambareesh and shared many memories from the world of cinema.

You have said your tastes and Ambareesh’s tastes, in everything from music to home lighting, were completely opposed.

That difference made life that much more interesting. Like they say, opposites attract. Even he was attracted by my nature, which was opposite to his. And I was fascinated by his outgoing nature, his friendliness and the way he reached out and connected to people, strangers, and enemies too... I was always an introvert.

You had contrasting tastes in music as well.

I was always inclined to soft and melodious music but he liked the loud music, dance music. Even when we are sitting in the car, we used to fight over which radio channel to play. He would always win.

You have acted in 200-plus films in five languages, and with top heroes such as Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, Amitabh Bachchan, Mohanlal, Chiranjeevi, Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborty. Which of your roles would you say are the most memorable, and why?

I have done more films with Chiranjeevi. He is one among the most professional actors I have worked with. He is dedicated, passionate and an easy costar. My first film with Dr Rajkumar (Ravichandra, Mohanlal) was when I was 16 years old. I was most nervous because I didn’t know the language. I cannot forget the way the family treated me. They treated me like a child. Dr Rajkumar was the first superstar that I worked with. He would always come down to my level and talk about subjects that I could relate to. Looking back, I can see how great he was.

Did you ever consider working in arthouse cinema?

There was not much of an arthouse cinema in the ‘80s. I have done a few good films in Telugu and Malayalam films. I have had the opportunity to work with Bharath Padmarajan. My Malayalam film ‘Thoovanathumbikal’ is still loved and admired. I have also had the opportunity to work with people like K Vishwanath and Bapu. Films like ‘Swayam Krushi’ were not strictly arthouse but they gave me good scope for performance.

Can you name some films that inspired you and you wished you were a part of?

My biggest regret is that I have not had a chance to work with Puttanna Kanagal. I was his greatest admirer and I’ve seen his films multiple times. It is very rare that female actors get the opportunity to really play out their potential. Also, films like Shabana Azmi’s ‘Arth’ and
those by Gulzar are truly inspiring.

Are you happy with the choice of the five Ambareesh films chosen for the forthcoming BIFFes, since he is not the main character in four of them?

Ranganayaki is one of his finest performances. Puttanna drew out a certain quality in him that no other director could tap. Naagarahaavu was a legendary film. I think they must have had a good reason to choose the films they did.

Given the family background, will your son Abhishek (he is debuting soon) have it easy at the movies?

I don’t think anybody can have an easy start. It is the consumers who have to taste the product and say whether they like it or not. I am sure he is going to be compared to his father. It is going to be a tough challenge for him. We all learnt on the job and I am sure he will too.

Will he enter politics too?

Abhishek was always keen on politics. He holds a master’s degree in international politics. In fact, he has followed his father’s politics more keenly than me. But right now, he wants to concentrate on his movies and reach somewhere on his own.

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WATCH: Sumalatha bares her heart

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