City Sunday

Ambareesh: Loved by all, hated by few

It was the turn of the century. The then Chief Minister of Karnataka SM Krishna, a local Mandya boy, was addressing the crowd, in his typical measured tones using quality Kannada words that most people in the district, in that early internet era, had never heard of. People waited for a while as Krishna spoke of his vision for the state and how things needed to be pondered upon and history needed to be recalled before decisions were taken.
Then one Mandya local lad thought enough! He got up and said: “Ambrisannan budla! Nind saaku.” (Enough now. Let Ambareesh anna talk.) Krishna, unsurprised by this behaviour, stopped in his usual unflappable manner. Ambareesh, red-eyed as always, stood up on the stage and boomed out, without the benefit of a mike: “Shut the f**k up (in Kannada).” The crowd cheered, sat down and obediently listened to Krishna for another half hour before their Ambrisanna finally rose to speak.
The fan following that actor-politician Ambareesh (66) enjoyed was not just in his home district of Mandya but in most of Karnataka, at many levels, unfathomable. He started his film career as a villain, as a gangly 20-year-old, cast as a local Muslim boy Jaleel who was eyeing a village Brahmin belle Alamelu. The film, Naagarahaavu directed by the famed Puttanna Kanagal based on TR Subba Rao’s novels, shot the hero, Vishnuvardhan, to instant stardom, but hard on his heels was Ambareesh. For Jaleel’s dialogue: “Bulbul! Maatadakilva?” (Bulbul, won’t you talk?) became a rage due to his laconic, smiling-eyed delivery, and a new icon was created in the Kannada film industry.
There are many parallels between Ambareesh and his close friend, Rajinikanth. Both started as villains, both have been very proud of being dark-skinned, both broke the typical model of what a ‘hero’ should look like or how a ‘hero’ should behave. And both have been called ‘Karna’ after the famed Mahabharata character for their tendency to be generous to anyone who seeks help from them. Where they differed was in their entry into politics: Rajinikanth stayed away from active politics till recently but Ambareesh jumped right in, in 1997, 14 years after his film Chakravyuha, where he created the original persona of the Angry Young Man. Chakravyuha was remade as Inquilaab in Hindi and shot Amitabh Bachchan to stardom in that persona – an ordinary young man who enters politics, heads the government and shoots his entire cabinet dead in the climax with a machine gun.
But the star, despite standing from the ruling party Janata Dal in 1997, lost the bye-poll to the Ramanagaram seat that was vacated by HD Deve Gowda who had just become the Prime Minister of India. The Congress won the seat. Ambareesh, however, stayed with the Janata Dal and became an MP from his home district of Mandya, voted in by his roaring, adoring fans. (Ramanagaram is in the neighbouring district of the same name).
Later, Ambareesh fell out with the Gowdas (he belongs to their community the Vokkaligas, just like SM Krishna) and moved over to the Congress. But Ambareesh the politician was not Ambareesh the Rebel Star whom the masses loved. His own film image acted against him in politics, for being rebel came more easily to him than conforming to the confines of being a ruling leader that has to take often boring administrative decisions. Ambareesh undoubtedly tried and nobody said anything to the contrary, but he was, as any of his fans would admit, not cut out to be a politician.
It was Ambareesh the man that kept the fan frenzy endlessly. It did not matter that he lost elections. It did not matter that some of his films did not do very well. It did not matter that some of his most superlative performances were in flop films, while some of his hits were not because of his performance. Ambareesh the man shone through both the actor and the politician to be loved by the people without question.
The people of Mandya feel and maintain that they own him. In their typical style, they chide him, fight with him, insult him and love him. He, the quintessential Mandyada Gandu (the Mandya male), would respond in the exact same style and timbre. He never said anything politically correct to anyone. Yet no one would take offence, because all that he said would come tinged with deep but exasperated affection. He often hung out with opposition politicians, playing cards, drinking and swapping dirty stories well into the night. But no one saw it as anything amiss, for Ambareesh was genuine and real in all that he did.
The star was the president of the Artists Association in the Kannada film industry for years. Everyone went to him with their problems and he would, without fail, sit and sort it out with them, whether it was marital problems or film name rights.
No one had any doubts that what they got was what Ambareesh really was – a very friendly, very affectionate flawed human being who drew people – women and men – to him through effortless charm and complete honesty. His failing as a politician was his victory as a man and everyone, from the humble auto driver to the Chief Minister of the state, always got the same treatment from him and always saw him as one of their own. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).

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