Rise of an unlikely, unsung hero

A pioneer of daily soaps, T N Seetharam, continues to enthral audiences with his real-life characters, writes RAMAKRISHNA UPADHYA

PIONEER T N Seetharam

Karnataka has been fortunate to witness a number of outstanding writers, artists, actors, musicians, playwrights, film directors and theatre personalities who have enriched the state’s cultural milieu over the years. The richness of their contributions is reflected in the number of national-level recognitions they have secured. Among them, some have dabbled in multiple genres and produced a repertoire of excellent work. T N Seetharam has certainly been one of them.

After he shifted to Bengaluru from his native Doddaballapur — where he practised law for some time — young Seetharam saw a new world opening up before him. He derived inspiration from writers like P Lankesh and U R Ananthamurthy and directors like B V Karanth and R Nagesh and plunged himself into Kannada theatre and the new wave cinema. Beginning mid-1970s, till late 1990s, it was a golden period of renaissance for Kannada theatre as well as films, and it drew Seetharam like a magnet.

When Lankesh made his first Kannada film Pallavi in 1976, Seetharam became its unlikely hero. But, the audience loved the common man-like characters in the film, and the movie went on to win a National award. Later, he acted in off-beat films like Dharani Mandala Madhyadolage, Asphota and Beru. His directorial ventures included Mathadaana (based on SL Bhyrappa’s story, which won a National award), Meera, Madhava, Raghava and more recently, Kaafi Thota. These diversions apart, Seetharam’s focus remained on literature and theatre.

Early in his life, Seetharam recalled that his father, Narayana Rao, was keen that he should return to native Doddaballapur and practice law or look after the agricultural lands that the family owned in Gauribidanur. But, Seetharam was so engrossed in the cultural activities in Bengaluru that Doddaballapur or Gauribidanur was far from his mind. When his father passed away, Seetharam felt that not heeding to his advice might have hastened his demise and he suffered from a sense of acute guilt. The agony he felt found literary expression in a story, Baduka Mannisu Prabhuve, which won the first prize in Prajavani’s special issue.

Even as he worked as an assistant director to Lankesh, he came up with plays like Nammolagobba Najukaiah and Asphota. It was the stage production of Asphota, directed by R Nagesh, in which Seetharam played the lead role that catapulted him to stardom. The play saw more than 140 shows and the fact that legendary director Puttanna Kanagal witnessed its 100th show in Chennai gave Seetharam’s career a new twist.

Puttanna asked Seetharam to do the script and dialogue for his film Manasa Sarovara, which was loosely based on Puttanna’s tempestuous relationship with actress Arathi. Seetharam narrated his experience: “I was all excited when the shooting began at Sandur. On Day 1, when the cameras rolled, I was surprised that Puttanna put aside my script and gave his own lines for the actors. When the same thing happened the next day, I was very upset and felt humiliated. I decided to leave the film unit and the same night, I boarded a bus to Bengaluru. I had travelled just a few kilometres when Puttanna came in a car, stopped the bus and took me back.”

Seetharam recalled that being influenced by Kannada literature, he had liberally used poetry and poetic language in his dialogues. Puttanna told him that the audience preferred simple and direct words and that was the reason why he changed the dialogues. “Puttanna told me that he had enormous respect for me and asked me to rewrite the script and dialogues…. It was a lesson that helped me later in my career,” recalled Seetharam.

In 1990s, Doordarshan being the sole broadcaster during those days, opened its gates to writers like Seetharam to make Kannada serials. His serials like Naavellaru Onde, Pattedari Prabhakar and Mukha Mukhi, all of which he wrote and directed, and College Taranga, based on BGL Swamy’s famous novel, set a new trend.

Seetharam’s most famous serial Maayamruga was the product of his collaboration with P Seshadri (who has lately made some outstanding films) and actor Nagendra Shah. Seetharam reveals that it almost didn’t happen. He recalls: “It was going to be our first alternate day soap. Officials at Doordarshan told us that they could offer only an afternoon slot at 4.30 pm (when few people switched on their television sets), but that was the risk we had to take. We agreed and submitted a pilot episode for approval. Initially, it was not approved. But, the then director of Doordarshan, N G Srinivas called me late in the night and told me that he was approving the serial as he found the story completely new and refreshing…”

It so happened that Maayamruga became an instant hit among the audience and within three months, it was airing five days a week and created a record at that time with 437 episodes.

The boost that Doordarshan gave him initially helped Seetharam when E-TV Kannada entered the scene, putting an emphasis on family sitcoms with a strong storyline. It was during this period that he made Manwanthara, Mukta, Dashavathara, Male Billu, Mukta Mukta and Mahaparva among others and earned a fan-following of his own.

Currently, he is enthralling the audiences with Magalu Janaki, with a powerful female character who stands up to her step-father’s vengeful attitude towards her.

In fact, the speciality of Seetharam is that in most of his serials, women tend to have strong roles, exposing the venality or weaknesses of men. It is because of the great influence his mother and sisters wielded on him. “I find that women are much stronger than men and they are capable of giving unreserved love,” says Seetharam.

The court scenes, in which Seetharam as “CSP” excels and takes the serials to a new pitch, have just begun in Magalu Janaki, and may he continue to entertain us.

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