B.V. SHIVA SHANKAR
Taking a nostalgic look at couples that have sizzled on screen or off it, one yearns for a time when actor pairings lasted long and really workedMallappa, a repository of old Kannada films, is often heard saying: "In our times when people appreciated a newly-wedded pair, they would compare them to Rajkumar-Bharathi even as the pair was compared to Shiva-Parvathi or Rama- Sita." This is an eloquent testimony to the influence onscreen couples once had on their legion of film-buffs. There were days when the hero-heroine pair with their sizzling onscreen chemistry set hearts ablaze and audiences spun their own dreams into them. The actors who breathed life into these romantic characters made their audience laugh and cry with them. For the viewer it was not a mere enactment, but a reflection of their own life, blurring lines between the real and reel.When Prem Adib and Shobhana Samarth starred as Ram and Sita in Vijay Bhatt's classic "Ram Rajya" (1943), the pair's performance was so evocative that they became the eternal Ram and Sita in the audience's minds. Audiences did not perceive them as actors enacting the Ramayana characters, but as Ram and Sita reincarnated to act in the movie! They were literally worshipped wherever they went together to promote the film. People had put up their posters and pictures at home for worship. Arun Govil-Deepika Chikaliya became the small-screen gods when Ramanand Sagar's "Ramayan" aired on TV. When "Aradhana" hit the screens in the early 1970s and romance was thick in the air,a young pair from Baroda changed their names toRajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. "Bunty aur Bubbly" might have had many tender hearts feeling like Abhishek and Rani. The Kannada silver screen too has had its share of sensual pairs evoking much passion . Rajkumar paired with Bharathi, Leelavathi, and Jayanthi at different points in his career and epitomised the spirit of love. It also immortalised them, just as Raj Kapoor-Nargis, Dilip Kumar-Madhubala, Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rahman, were done in Hindi cinema. Vishnuvardhan-Arathi, Srinath-Manjula, Anathnag-Lakshmi were as popular as pairs in Kannada filmdom as a Dharmendra-Hema Malini or Amithabh Bachchan-Rekha or Rishi Kapoor-Neetu Kapoor were in Bollywood. But Kannada cinema seems to have lost its continuum of star pairs while Hindi continues to reign with "made for each other" filmy couples like Sharukh -Kajol, John -Bipasha, Aamir -Juhi , Govinda-Karishma, Salman -Aishwarya. These newer actor pairs though, are no match for the yesteryear legends. And unlike in Bollywood, the instances of onscreen chemistry turning out to be flaming off screen affairs have been fairly less in the Kannada film industry. A.S. Murthy, a film critic, attributes this state of Kannada cinema to the changed priorities of both filmgoers and filmmakers. ". But now middle class has changed, our values have changed, and cinema has come to represent things that are not true to life. That is also one reason why we don't have long standing pairs... ". Film is a director's medium,and Kannada cinema has seen such stalwart directors as Puttanna Kanagal, Dorai-Bhagavan, K.V. Jayaram, Siddalingaiah and others who consistently made films that gave lead couples the scope and space to turn into real flesh and blood characters on screen. But now, with the longevity of the director itself a very tricky question, long-standing couples have become a rare species.Kannada cinema-going audience's tryst with celluloid couples started with "Samsaara Nauka", the first social film in Kannada (1936). B. R. Panthulu and M. V. Rajamma were in the lead roles and how the heroine landed the part is now history. S.K. Padma was to be the heroine. But she was so shy that she dare not hold Panthulu's hands in a particular scene. Rajamma was braver and so landed the part! . She not only got the lead role but also Panthulu's hand; their onscreen chemistry culminating in marriage in real life. And they were, as such, the first couple of Kannada cinema. Even after their youthful days they continued to be the most sought after onscreen couple in the role of endearing parents, like in "School Master".In "Krishnadevaraya" their poignant portrayal of Krishnadevaraya's foster parents moved audiences genuinely. K.S. Aswath-Leelavathi was another pair regarded as the ideal father-mother on screen.Rajkumar, with the highest number of films in Kannada as hero to his credit, had an opportunity to act with a sizeable number of heroines. He was at ease with Leelavathi, seen as his on-screen better half, though the chemistry did spill over from the screen. "Kantheredu Nodu", "Ranadheera Kantheerava" were some of the films where the pair enthralled audiences with their natural sensuality. They repeated their sensational performance later in "Bhakta Kumabara", and "Sipayee Ramu".
Super chemistryAnother name that became synonymous with Rajkumar was Bharathi. The pair was the embodiment of the perfect couple with the characters they played in "Bangarada Manushya", "Mayor Muthanna", "Thayi Devaru" and others. Rajkumar as an actor stressed on respect for women through the characters he played. His onscreen behaviour with women — whether in the role of his mother or wife, was astonishingly natural and affectionate, says actress B. Saroja Devi, who has played his heroine in many blockbusters. She recalls: "In `Bhagyavantaru' Rajkumar played my husband. He sang the song sequence of `Ninna nanna manavu serithu... ' in his own mellifluous voice. He was so naturally involved in the character that I could not resist embracing him with admiration after the shot."He has acted with talented actors like Manjula, Kalpana, Arathi, Lakshmi, Madhavi, Saritha, Jayaprada, Geetha and others — most of them considered memorable. Rajkumar was also one of the few actors whose heroines later went on to play the character of his mother, while he was still playing hero! Pandari Bai, Advani Lakshmi Devi, M.V. Rajamma, Sowcar Janaki were his sweethearts in earlier films and later appeared in his mother's roles.Srinath, who had a romantic image, was a favourite hero with Manjula. "Besuge", a song written by Geethapriya made them an evergreen pair. Vishnuvardhan-Arathi proved to be a popular pair with films like "Hombisilu" and "Suvarna Sethuve". Ambarish-Ambika was the most sensuous pair that had cast a spell in Kannada filmdom with the "Chali chali... " number. But Ananth Nag-Lakshmi proved to be matchless with their screen presence and talent. "They were the real artistes rather than stars," says K. V. Jayaram, who cast them in most of his films. "They competed on the sets professionally even as they complemented each other."Is it simply the competence of the actors of a time or is it simply a matter of changed values of middle class, the answers aren't easy. But the truth is that many of these actors still come back to us only as pairs.