RKV Studio is usually well-populated during press meets. However, during the audio launch of Sankarabharanam – which was digitally restored in September – the crowd was sparse. But poor attendance did little to dampen the spirits of octogenarian K Viswanath, the director of the iconic film. It was his brain-child, after all, and he was sufficiently excited for everyone in the audience.
Also, the album, rendered by SP Balasubrahmanyam in Tamil, was to be unveiled 34 years after the film’s release, so the director’s excitement was quite understandable.
Leaning on his fine cane, Viswanath walked in, adjusting his charmingly vintage glasses. His signature royal blue sweater vest was in place, too, and he very vividly reminded me of those affable Wodehousian uncles. The ones who come with an impeccable sense of humour.
It was quite biting, too.
“You want to interview me?”
Viswanath paused, staring, when I struck up a conversation.
“I think you are too young,” he sniffed, “have you watched my films?”
I held up my invisible worn-out cassette of Sankarabharanam.
The several afternoons I’d watched Salangai Oli with the father …who is an ardent fan of the man himself…
Viswanath still seemed a little beady.
Suddenly, I knew. This scene, I told him feverishly. It used to make me weep every time.
Viswanath beamed. Autographing my CD, he laughed heartily.
“No offense, but how old are you, really?”
It was in the late 1970s, while filming the Telugu film Siri Siri Muvva in Ooty, that Viswanath conceived Sankarabharanam. As his car negotiated a particularly perilous hairpin bend, he shared the idea with his art director. Of making a musical drama.
Returning to Madras, Viswanath then visited his uncle (chithappa, SPB’s father) every morning, post his badminton sessions. Over tumblers of steaming filter coffee, he narrated the tale to his chithappa, who encouraged him to make the movie at once. Viswanath wanted SPB to render all the songs in the album. “I told my chithappa, ‘Mani is very busy. Avan engayo irukaan. He sings about five or six songs every day. But if he agrees to sing for Sankarabharanam, he must ensure that he sings first for my film daily. Fresh ah irukkanum voice… paduvana?’ SPB’s father told me, ‘avana poi aranjidu. Moonjila adichu sollu. Sankarabharanam-la padradhu dhaan yogam.'”
Singing for Sankarabharanam was challenging for SPB, for he had no training in classical music. The trust that Viswanath placed in him, although daunting, had urged him to give his best, making the album – composed by KV Mahadevan and ably supported by Pugazhendhi – a classic.
The cast for Sankarabharanam was also chosen meticulously. JV Somayajulu, the lead actor, was a collector then. He managed to slip out for a while every day to shoot for Sankarabharanam; because Viswanath reckoned only he could bring the character to life. After the release, Viswanath visited several theatres along with Somayajulu. “The audience would have tears rolling down their cheeks, and they would seek Somayajulu’s blessings. When they used to find him in formal wear; a white shirt and trousers, they would be startled. They couldn’t see their beloved Sankara Sastri smoke, and look usual.”
More anecdotes followed.
When SPB, Viswanath and Somayajulu watched Sankarabharanam in Delhi, a Punjabi, who was quite moved, carried Somayajulu on his shoulders and took him to the projector room. The man had beseeched Somayajulu in Hindi to just touch his projector. “He sobbed fervently, asking him to bless the machine.”
From the then President of India Neelam Sanjiva Reddy to celebrities from all walks of life, everyone adored Sankarabharanam. Lata Mangeshkar, who heard about the film, phoned Sivaji Ganesan to arrange a screening for her. The movie was distributed by actor Major Sundarrajan in Tamil Nadu. “Lata ji came down to Chennai just to watch the film,” Viswanath said.
Also, when actor Shakti Kapoor and Asrani travelled by train from Chennai to Vijayawada, they struck a conversation with another passenger in their bogie. “He didn’t know who Shakti Kapoor and Asrani were. He casually spoke to them, enquiring their name and profession. Asrani had then asked him, ‘Don’t you watch films at all?’ The passenger’s answer had amazed him. He had replied, ‘I have watched only Sankarabharanam.’ There are many more heart-warming anecdotes like these,” Viswanath declared, closing his eyes.
Viswanath doesn’t believe in remaking the film. “There can be only one Sankarabharanam. It’s a legacy that I have left for youngsters.”
Despite being an informed listener of Carnatic music, he doesn’t have an ear for raagas. “When KV Mahadevan used to compose, I would ask him to explain the raagas to me. He would tease me, ‘idhu cinema raagam pa,’ and brush it aside. God has not given me musical knowledge, and that’s precisely why I made a musical.”
Soon, I was gently reminded that Viswanath’s car was waiting. I proceeded to pack up when he suddenly called me back for a final anecdote. “MGR presided a felicitation ceremony at Music Academy. I still vividly remember his address. He said, ‘I would only prostrate to two people. One is my mother, and the other is the director of Sankarabharanam.'”