Friday Review

Rebel with a cause

In the flow of things I’m not for popularity or publicity, says Ambareesh. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash  

His largesse is legendary. Nobody in need, who visits Ambareesh returns empty handed -- swear his friends. His bungalow is always bustling with fans and friends as the aroma of fresh ‘biriyani’ wafts by. They love it when he berates them in mock fury sprinkled generously with expletives. Vishnuvardhan, it seems warned her about the hazards of marrying his best friend, but the ever-smiling Sumalatha is a perfect foil to the firebrand.

Producers pursue him since his presence in a film still draws loyal fans. Presently, he divides his time between playing patriarch to the film industry and his role as a minister. He’s just assured a photographer friend that the medical expenses for his heart surgery will be taken care of. I catch him in a rare, relaxed and expansive mood as he answers with trademark candour.

A producer recently offered you a role. You didn’t ask for the script. You only wanted to know if you have to sport a moustache or not. Has this been your attitude right from the beginning?

Not really. It’s just a comfort factor. I recently played the role of Kempegowda. I had to sport a massive moustache for three months. It’s difficult to maintain. A wig is okay but an artificial mush, I think affects your performance because it’s uncomfortable. I must have asked in jest. (laughs).

As a person in public life don’t you think you have to be careful about the characters you portray?

I’m not for popularity or publicity. I just like to do good when I get the opportunity. I agree with you though. Some people are opportunistic and some selfish. I recently visited a place where slum dwellers have been displaced but given better accommodation elsewhere. It’s an advantage as well as a disadvantage because they’ve established their livelihood over a few decades. Even a stray dog will cringe but these people want to stay back in the slum. They’re used to that lifestyle. The Government has very good programmes, but implementation is a problem. We need support from the public too. I’ve played every imaginable character on-screen so I know their social responsibilities. I’ve understood society. If I can implement 60 percent of what I’ve imbibed, I can call myself a successful politician. I think film directors who cast me are also aware of my role in public life.

Somewhere I think you identify with people who don’t want to be displaced. You were disappointed when your sister sold your ancestral home.

Very true. I’m the only uneducated person in my family. I’ve told my brothers too that if they want to sell their property, I’ll buy. My grandmother secretly gave me a bracelet that the Mysore Maharaja presented to my grandfather, T. Chowdiah. My grandma urged me to return it because my three aunts were pestering her for it. I told her they were not bothered about its sentimental value but its worth. I told her to get it valued so that I could pay for it. I thought it made sense. The workmanship was brilliant and I wanted to keep it as a souvenir but my aunts sold it, and gave me one thirds which was my mother’s share. My elder brother is virtually the owner of Chowdiah’s house which has historical significance but everyone wanted a share in that too. I offered to pay them off. Luckily, the house is intact and my brother lives there. I’ve been hurt by my family but that’s a different story. My own sister-in-law sued me accusing me of coercing her husband, my eldest brother who’s no more. She’s like my mother. There was a huge contrast between my personal life and as an actor. I really didn’t bother. I always wanted to do good for my family. My brothers never approach me for favours. One brother, a doctor who serves the poor just requests his patients to vote for me.

Ironically, the family had least hopes about you.

I was considered good for nothing. Two brothers are engineers and one is a doctor. All my brothers-in-law are doctors. Anand Kumar who stays in my grandfather’s house is a civil engineer but worked as a scooter mechanic. He didn’t want to work under anyone. One brother-in-law who hails from a tiny village completed his MBBS and went on to do MD with distinction. He’s very dark skinned and my sister is fair and beautiful. My sister was reluctant to marry him. My father, a large-hearted soul asked her to choose between colour and life. They’re happy today. Once, a lady came with an ailing child in the dead of the night. My brother-in-law asked them to come in the morning. I got angry and forced him to see the child. He was so brilliant he took one look and said the child had brain meningitis. I still remember that disease. He treated the child immediately and it survived. They’re family friends today.

How did films happen?

I looked like Shatrughan Sinha. They were casting for Nagarahavu. My friends Sangram Singh and Rajendra Singh Babu approached the producers and took me for a test. It’s quite interesting. I was reluctant because I’m very impulsive and short tempered. I tried to dodge them on the day of the screen test by changing my hangout. They somehow found me in the afternoon. I went to Premier studio where the casting was all over including Vishnu. I confessed I didn’t know anything about acting. Imagine Putanna’s foresight. I was asked to strut about and look in a certain fashion. I had to mouth one line. I said the line and tossed a cigarette to my mouth. I was selected. There was a certain scene in ‘Shubamangala’ in which Putanna predicted the audiences would applaud. It happened.

This is similar to how Rajni was spotted by K. Balachander.

After Shatrughan, I performed the cigarette trick and then Rajni. I remember Karunanidhi’s son-in-law Selvam, after watching a scene on the editing table telling me that there was this dark youngster who would overtake everyone. I told him everyone will have his own slice of success. Look where that man is today.

You never strained yourself physically for roles. You didn’t perform stunts nor did you learn dancing.

I never tried. I told Babu that he had to use a crane to shoot the song, ‘Ille Swarga Ille Naraka’ in ‘Nagara Hole’. Babu had a crane on the sets everyday whether he used it or not. I was busy playing games or cards in the club. Production managers would keep calling the tennis club because the unit would be waiting. I would sweat like crazy. I think my physical exertion on the tennis court helped even though I drank and smoked a lot. I would eat a lot, sometimes 45 doseys, with butter.

(The second part of this interview will appear next week.)

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 4:25:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/rebel-with-a-cause/article6506820.ece

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