Ambareesh: His life in cinema

Total recall: The Rebel Star didn’t run after success or popularity, and never tried to promote his career. He accepted everything that came to him.
Last Updated : 02 December 2018, 13:40 IST

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It is strange that the death of actor-turned-politician Ambareesh has revealed the immense popularity he enjoyed among the masses like never before. Ambareesh, who debuted at the same time as actor Vishnuvardhan, represented different facets of Kannada cinema. It was Puttanna Kanagal’s super hit film Nagarahavu that introduced both of them to the Kannada audiences in 1972. However, both had faced the camera in small roles before Nagarahavu, with Vishnuvardhan in Karnad-Karanth film Vamshavruksha, and Ambareesh in an inconsequential role in Sangram Singh’s Bangarada Kalla, both of which released in 1973.

As he was

Ambareesh was happy-go-lucky in nature, and never took anything in life, including politics, seriously. It is fascinating to note that he didn’t run after success or popularity, and never tried to promote his career. He accepted everything that came to him, graciously. Yet he became one of the most successful actors of the Kannada film industry, liked by one and all. He was also known for his openness and simplicity. In fact, no other Kannada film star has exposed his emotions, his career, his love of food and racing as did Ambareesh.

Ambareesh, who debuted in a small but significant role as Jaleela in Nagarahavu, became the darling of the viewers because of his playful demeanor. Soon after, he played the role of a villain in many of Vishnuvardhan’s films.

He was the first on-screen villain to have won the hearts of viewers, and also the first to be able to make a switch from being a villain to a hero. Strongly influenced by Hindi actor Shatrughan Sinha, he imitated many of his mannerisms on screen. As with Shatrughan Sinha, Ambareesh smoothly switched over to leading roles. His sensitive performance in Nagarahole (1977) and Paduvarahalli Pandavaru (1978) showcased his flair for acting and directors offered him lead roles in Amarnath (1978), Vajrada Jalapatha (1979), and Leader Vishwanath (1981).

It was the film Antha (1981) that gave a new direction to his career, as also redefined the action-thriller genre. For the first time ever, the nexus between politicians and the underworld was exposed explicitly on screen. Ambareesh, in a dual role as the convict Kanwar Lal, and Inspector Sushil Kumar, gave a top-notch performance, and his dialogue, “Kutte Kanwar lal bolo”, became as popular as that of Amjad Khan’s “Kitne aadmi the, Kalia” in Sholay. It was remade in many other languages, including Hindi, and soon a number of films were produced on the same lines. Ambareesh became a favourite choice for such films in Kannada, and there was no looking back after that. In fact, it was his character in Antha that earned him the moniker ‘rebel star’. Chakravyuha, which was very similar to Antha, became a huge hit, and his popularity soared high.

The industry was soon to cash in on his popularity and he was typecast in similar roles — either as an honest cop fighting antisocial elements, or as an activist fighting against the corrupt system — so much so that Ambareesh himself once confessed that he was tired of playing similar roles over and over again.

Fortunately, however, a few directors managed to exploit his acting prowess. These include Puttanna Kanagal (Shubhamangala, Paduvarahalli Pandavaru, Ranganayaki, Masanada Hoovu), M S Rajashekhar (Hrudaya Hadithu) and Joshiy (New Delhi). His performance as a low caste musician was outstanding in the Malayalam film Gaanam (1982), directed by Sreekumaran Thampi. This film had Ambareesh and Lakshmi in the lead roles. Considered as the magnum opus of Thampi, this musical won the Kerala State Best Film award and Ambareesh’s performance in the lead role was appreciated by the audience and critics alike.

For reasons best known to him, Ambareesh turned down many offers from the Malayalam film industry. As a psychotic killer in Prema Matsara (1982), and a tragic in Olavina Udugore, Ambareesh breathed life into his roles.

Though Ambareesh played several offbeat roles, they all bombed at the box office. His fans somehow refused to accept a sober Ambareesh on screen. Elu Suttina Kote and Samsara Nouke were good examples. He later returned to his favourite genre and acted in hundreds of films. Though many of them were eminently forgettable, his role in Masanada Hoovu won him the Best Supporting Actor award in the 1984-85 edition of Karnataka state film awards.

For a person with no theatre background or formal training in acting, his achievements are amazing. Known for his outspokenness and friendly nature, Ambareesh had friends from various walks of life. His magnanimity and his willingness to offer financial assistance to film industry workers were remarkable. His friendship with actor Vishnuvardhan was legendary. He commanded the respect of one and all in the industry, and was the trouble-shooter of Sandalwood after Dr Rajkumar's demise.

New direction

Gauging his popularity among the masses, Ambareesh was invited by the JD(S) to join politics with the offer of a ticket to contest in a by-election from Ramanagaram constituency when H D Deve Gowda became the prime minister of India. However, he tasted defeat. Later, he was elected to the 12th Lok Sabha from Mandya parliamentary constituency. And, for the next parliamentary elections, he switched over to Congress and represented the same constituency for two more terms in the Parliament. He was the minister of state for information in prime minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet (2006) but resigned over his dissatisfaction with the Cauvery river water dispute tribunal award. He was barely in office for six months. However, his resignation was never accepted. He later became a cabinet minister for the Housing Department in Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s cabinet. During his last days, he kept his distance from both politics and films. It is ironic to note that his last film was Ambi Ninage Vayassayto, meaning ‘Ambi (as Ambareesh was affectionately known) you have grown old’.

Published 01 December 2018, 19:30 IST

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