TRIBUTE B.R. Panthulu cut across various languages and succeeded in transforming the film industry across south India, as producer, director and actor. A homage to the filmmaker on his 100th birth anniversary MURALIDHARA KHAJANE

H ad he lived, B.R. Panthulu, who carved a niche for himself in the history of south Indian language films, would have completed his 100th year. He was one of the Kannada film makers who induced the pride of showmanship in others and made healthy attempts to beat great showmen of the south — A.V. Meyappa Chettiyar and S.S. Vasan — at their own game. He may not have succeeded fully, but he has left behind him some of south India's most memorable films, not only in Kannada, but also in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi.

Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy is all set to pay rich tribute to the celluloid maestro by organising shows of his films and conducting a photo-exhibition. Actor B. Saroja Devi, who was the lead in Panthulu's landmark film “Kitturu Chennamma” will inaugurate the centenary year on July 26.

* * *

Born in Budaguru, near Bangarpete taluk of Kolar district on July 26, 1911, Budaguru Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu (B.R. Panthulu) started his career as a teacher (his experience as a teacher helped in directing “School Master”, that landmark film in the history of Indian cinema). Those were the hey days of professional theatre in Karnataka. Like many, who were attracted by the glitter and glamour of professional theatre, Panthulu also joined Chandrakala Nataka Mandali of Peer Saab and acted in plays including “Samsara Nouka”, “Sadarame” and “Guleba Kavali”. He also worked for some time with Gubbi Theatre and acted in “Sri Krishna Garudi”. Panthulu finally formed his own professional theatre troupe, Kalaseva Nataka Mandali, and staged plays of his own choice.

Panthulu joined films when Devi Films-Madras commissioned doyen of Kannada film industry H.L.N. Simha to adopt Chandrakala Nataka Mandali's stage hit “Samsara Nouka”. He partnered with music maestro T.R. Mahalingam in a stage company that later became Sukumar Productions and made “Macharekhai” with P. Pullaiah in 1956. He started Padmini Pictures with writer publisher P. Neelakantan and produced “Kalyana Panniyum Brahmachari”. Later he became the sole proprietor of the company.

His first directorial venture was “Rathnagiri Rahasya” — a hit during that time. He continued Chandrakala's anti-mythological emphasis and concentrated on socially- relevant issues. He made some spectacular period films with Shivaji Ganeshan such as “Veerapandiya Kattabomman”. Thespian Shivaji Ganehan got wide international recognition for this film; his electrifying performance is almost synonymous with this film. The film received rave reviews and was adjudged the best film at the Cairo International Film Festival and the actor received the best actor award from Col. Nasser, the then president of Egypt.

He also made “Kappal Ottiya Tamilan” and “Karnan”, where the Kurukshetra battle scenes of Karna were shot at Jaipur with troupes of the 61 Cavalry Regiment, using 80 elephants, 400 horses and three cameras!

He also made some Tamil films with M.G. Ramachandran in the lead. B.R. Panthulu's best-known films are lower budget socials claiming realist values inspired by B.N. Reddy. His “Modal Tedi” was remade into “School Master” in Kannada and Puttanna Kanagal then remade the film in Malayalam. Kanagal, who was his assistant, later developed this genre into a brand of psychological melodrama.

Panthulu made a significant contribution to Kannada films. He introduced the ‘Meena Kumari of Kannada films' — Kalpana, to viewers. He produced “Shivasharane Nembiyakka” (1955) and other films under his Padmini Pictures banner. “Kitturu Chennamma' and “Sri Krishnadevaraya” are his landmark films. His films bagged both state and national recognition. “School Master” and “Kitturu Chennamma” have bagged the Certificate of Merit from President of India. According to Kannada film historians, when the State government adjudged him the best actor for his Timmarasa role in “Sri Krishnadevaraya”, he humbly rejected the award saying the award must go to Rajkumar for his electrifying performance as Krishnadevaraya. Such was the honesty of Panthulu.

* * *

From his humble beginning on the stage, Panthulu painstakingly built himself up to what he was often fondly called — a mini Cecil B. DeMille (one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood's history).

Panthulu was also an actor par excellence. He acted in many memorable roles. His creation Padmini Pictures distinguished itself for its thorough professionalism.

There isn't any famous artiste in south India, who has not acted in his films in his time. In fact the banner of Padmini Pictures itself became a star. It is significant that noted artists M.V. Rajamma played the female lead in most of his films. T.G. Lingappa scored music for most of his films. Till “Belli Moda”, Puttanna Kanagal was his assistant director. Many of his films, unfortunately suffered losses at the box office.

He died when he was 63 (October 8, 1974), when “Kaleju Ranga”, directed by Puttanna Kanagal was in production. Panthulu, who remained humble, and rather aloof all his life, has left for posterity not only some outstanding films, but also some exemplary values.

Among the resplendent talents discovered and nursed by him were director Puttanna Kanagal and Kalpana. Both of them soared to great heights in their careers and Panthulu regarded their ascent with fatherly pride.