One of the distinct memories from the summer of 2003, when I was assigned to interview Kannada superstar Ambareesh and his wife, actress Sumalatha, was meeting them at their bungalow at JP Nagar.
An archetypal 80s matinee idol’s home; walls groaning with gigantic cut-outs, stills from his films, the couple together, and a home forever streaming with guests. The conversation was mostly about their life beyond cinema and I recall Sumalatha’s admission that she was concerned about his excessive philanthropic streak.
That he was a much-loved person off-screen was apparent from the joy experienced by the auto driver at the mention of my destination. He even gave me a discount.
With over four decades and 208 films, Ambareesh is considered the third in the triumvirate of Kannada cinema, the others being Dr Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan. “With Ambareesh, it isn’t so much about box office supremacy, it’s about his popularity on and off screen. You can love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. There was a year when he acted in 14 movies. Also, he has this unique ability to make friends from every industry—from Amitabh Bachchan to Mohanlal. He would go that extra mile for them. There is this story about how he had bounced cheques worth seven crores given by producers. But he never went after it. He was widely considered the problem solver of Kannada cinema. Probably the only time talks didn’t work was during the Sruthi Hariharan-Arjun Sarja issue,” says A Sharadhaa, the Kannada film correspondent of the New Indian Express.
After a stunning debut with Puttanna Kanagal’s National Award-winning film Naagarahaavu (1972), he followed it up with a bunch of roles as supporting characters and antagonist. We try to bring you a few of the most notable and popular roles that defined his stardom, although there were many more.
Olavina Udugore (1987)
He played Suresh, the poor little rich boy who gets disfigured in an accident, only to get rejected by his lady love (a superb Ilavarasi) in this D Rajendra Babu directorial. It’s a clear departure from his standard angry young man roles and Ambareesh is surprisingly at ease during the emotional scenes (he also won a State Award for this performance). This soft and sympathetic hero was later recreated by leading men in other languages too.
He plays a double role (Directed by S V Rajendra Singh Babu), as a righteous, family loving cop and the irredeemable gangster/murderer. The actor plays the ‘good cop’ to the T, pitching in nicely as the lovable husband and son, while also being the disciplined police officer. For the baddie slant, though the makeup and hairdo are atrocious, the actor brings in variations by adding loud mannerisms and body language that instantly help us to take an aversion to him. The switchover is effective, and he scores well in the final courtroom scene. Lakshmy, Pandari Bai, Jayamala, Tiger Prabhakar form the rest of the cast.
This film marked his induction as the ‘Rebel Star’ and provided him the much-needed stardom in Kannada. And his Amarnath represents the archetypal angry young man on screen (it was remade in Hindi as Inquilaab starring Amitabh Bachchan). An educated unemployed who is shown selling tickets in black for a living, he later becomes a cop and ventures into politics for the welfare of the people. Ambareesh crafts a controlled act, bringing different layers to the character. Ambika and Ambareesh made a successful pair back then.
The only Malayalam film he has acted in also features one of his most memorable performances. He plays a renowned classical musician from Central Kerala who is egoistic, headstrong, vulnerable and battles career highs and lows. The nuanced performance shows the character’s journey from his 20s till he is 60. There is an interesting father-son equation that reminds us of the Guru-Shishya relationship in Swathi Kiranam. Lakshmy plays his love interest, a talented Carnatic singer while Poornima Jayaram plays his wife. Noted Malayalam film director Sreekumaran Thampi has directed this film.
He makes a stylish debut as a supporting actor alongside another Kannada matinee idol, Vishnuvardhan who plays the hero. His introduction is still talked about for the swag and his dialogue delivery. Ambareesh plays Jaleela, the local rowdy who takes a fancy for the heroine only to be defeated in a thrilling street fight by the hero. Directed by Puttanna Kanagal, the film is based on T. R. Subba Rao’s three novels Nagarahavu, Ondu Gandu Eradu Hennu and Sarpa Mathsara, and boasts of an ensemble cast besides being the first Kannada film to complete 100 days in three centres.
Masanada Hoovu (1984)
Directed by Puttanna Kanagal, adapted from T R Subba Rao’s novel of the same name, Ambareesh plays a down-and-out young lad who is forced to solicit customers for a brothel madame (Jayanthi who won the State Award for Best Actress). He soon falls in love with a girl who is forced into prostitution. The character sketch isn’t that of a typical hero and Ambareesh renders an earnest act (he won the State Award for Best supporting actor) . His portions with veteran actress Jayanthi portray an interesting master-slave subtlety.
Considered one of the greatest Kannada movies of all time, the film, directed by Puttanna Kanagal and based on the novel by the same name is radical for its storyline, fine performances and music. Ambareesh plays Remanna, the childhood friend and secret admirer of leading lady Arathi who delivers a superlative performance. His is a supporting role but he lends the solemnity thereby making us empathise with him.