Two bright stars burst onto the Kannada film world with the 1972 classic Nagarahavu. One of them was the lanky, dark, cigarette-flipping Ambareesh -- a man who was flamboyant, irreverent and spoke his mind. The other was Vishnuvardhan. Both became close friends, even though they were probably poles apart as individuals.
In Sandalwood's pantheon of all-time greats, they took their place after Rajkumar, the industry's biggest star. Rajkumar died in 2006 and Vishnuvardhan passed away three years later. With Ambareesh's death on Saturday, the era of the triad truly comes to an end.
Among his peers, Ambareesh stood out in one respect -- he was the rare successful film star in Kannada to have joined politics.
Thousands of Ambareesh's fans gathered in Bangalore and Mandya on Sunday, where his family hails from, to bid farewell to the actor-politician. Along with them were few top actors of South Indian cinema. To the Kannada film fraternity, Ambareesh (66) was a big brother -- if there was a problem, they would seek his help; the way they did few weeks ago, when a #MeToo allegation shook Sandalwood.
The seventies, arguably, were the high point of Kannada cinema. "Samskara had inaugurated the Kannada new wave. Many experimental films were made after that," says journalist S R Ramakrishna of English daily Deccan Herald. Nagarahavu, the film that launched Ambareesh, wasn't really an arthouse film. But it was directed by Puttanna Kanagal, who used all the tropes of commercial cinema, but had a good sense of literature, music and lyrics. “He would take poetry from the big poets and use them in his songs," he says. Both Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan, many feel, got their best roles under the ace director.
"Both actors had unique strengths; they were able to pull off a wide variety of roles. But on the other hand, you could also say that both were somewhat trapped in their own image, perhaps because they were not able to get more experimental directors," says Ramakrishna.
There's a quaint tradition among Kannada film fans of conferring an epithet on each of their best actors. Ambareesh was the 'rebel star' who often played angry, anti-establishment roles. Of course, there were several commercial successes that followed in that vein – for instance, 1981 film Antha. But there were several off-beat ones too. "What he did in Ranganayaki was very restrained, really a very mature portrayal," says Ramakrishna. Ambareesh acted in over 200 Kannada films as the lead, a record that he still holds.
In the mid-nineties, Ambareesh turned to politics, but he lost his first election -- an assembly bypoll in 1997. However, he went on to win the Mandya Lok Sabha seat thrice -- in 1998, 1999 and in 2004. He also faced a couple of election defeats subsequently. In 2013, he won the Mandya assembly seat to become a state minister for three years.
Ambareesh had no dearth of sobriquets. With the macho-sounding Mandyadha Gandu (the Man from Mandya), his fans from the fertile Cauvery heartland that he hailed from, were asserting their claim over him. Off screen, their idol could be blunt and hurl rustic curses at them. That, however, only endeared him to them further. As his colleagues from the film fraternity put it, Ambareesh was warm, earthy and gregarious.