Bad boy, hero, and Kannada filmdom’s rough-hewn icon

BIG THREE: Close friends Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan greet Kannada thespian Rajkumar at an event in December 2000. DH File Photo

Ambareesh was Kannada cinema’s most popular actor after Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan. He was also the only one, of the three, who took a successful shot at electoral politics.

Unlike his two senior colleagues, who thought of themselves as middle-class role models, Ambareesh lived it up in full public view, making no secret of his love of flamboyance---and that included horse racing.

Ambareesh became a sensation with his very first film, Naagarahaavu (1972). He owes his debut success to Puttanna Kanagal, the famous director with an unerring finger on the pulse on the Kannada audience. Ambareesh resembled Shatrughan Sinha, and was known to flip a cigarette stylishly into his mouth. When he went to audition, with no previous experience in acting, he did the flip successfully at the first go. That got him the role.

As Jaleel, the wayward Romeo who gets beaten up for harassing the heroine, Ambareesh established a powerful screen presence. The film catapulted both hero Vishnuvardhan and villain Ambareesh to stardom, and their friendship, like their careers, endured.

A little after he had debuted, Ambareesh was cast as a hero, and he acted in many potboilers. By his own admission, he wasn’t choosy about his roles. But he did get some memorable roles too. In Naagarahole (1977), he played a philosophical if brusque driver, becoming part of a jungle adventure with a bus full of children.

Ambareesh was then cast in many films in angry, anti-establishment roles, earning the title of Rebel Star. The most popular in this series was Antha (1981), in which he played an upright policeman. The same year, he delivered perhaps his most mature performance in Ranganayaki, a Puttanna Kanagal film again.

Not many of his younger fans know about his connection with T Chowdaiah, the violin legend. Chowdaiah was his grandfather’s brother. Whenever he was asked why he hadn’t taken to classical music like Chowdaiah, he had a candid answer: “He told us not to; he was afraid we would ruin his name!” But Ambareesh did get to play a classical vocalist on screen, in a Malayalam film called Gaanam.
Ambareesh’s humour was disarming, and he did not shy away from colourful language. In recent years, the Kannada film industry considered him a patriarch, and sought his intervention when faced with tricky problems, such as the #MeToo row between Shruti Hariharan and Arjun Sarja.

Ambareesh won three parliamentary elections. He was a Central minister for a while, holding the portfolio of information and broadcasting for about two years. He later became housing minister in the Siddaramaiah Cabinet in Karnataka. All things considered, his political career was not as remarkable as his career on the big screen.

An actor with a career spanning five decades has exited. He lived it up all through the years, and his excesses took a toll on his health. The Kannada film industry and his countless fans will miss him sorely.

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Bad boy, hero, and Kannada filmdom’s rough-hewn icon

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