Monday, August 9, 2010

Shankar Nag- A Maverick, A Genius

As they say, those whom the Gods love, they die young.

It is 20 years since Shankar Nag or Shankar Anna as he is lovingly called by the Karnataka people, died at a young age of 35 in a road accident near Davanegere. A brilliant actor, director and a technician, he was a visionary in every sense. To people not from South or Karnataka, Shankar Nag was familiar with the TV series Malgudi Days, which he directed. The younger of the Nag brothers, his elder brother Anant Nag, was a leading actor in Kannada cinema, and also familiar to Hindi audiences in mostly offbeat movies like Ankur, Nishant, Kalyug, Bhumika to name a few. Shankar Nag initially was a theater artist, and in fact he started his career with the Marathi theater in Mumbai. Hailing from the Uttara Kanara region, he was fluent in Kannada, Konkani and Marathi. It was during his theater days, that he met his future wife Arundhati, who later went on to become a well known actress in her own right.

Putting together a tribute to Shankar is not an easy task. Because he is a multi facted genius. I myself had seen very few movies of his Ondanondu Kaaldalli, Accident being the ones i vividly remember. Accident was a movie that really made me a fan of Shankar. I recall catching this movie some time back in the late 80’s on Doordarshan, and was just swayed by it’s sheer brilliance. Though the movie is shot in 1985, the shot taking, the detailing, the characterization was something way ahead of it’s times. Accident deals with the story of a rich spolit youngster, who happens to be the son of an influential politician, played by Anant Nag. During one night, in a stage of drunken revelry he drives his car over some poor villagers, sleeping on the pavement, and kills most of them. Shankar Nag, plays a honest crusading journalist, who investigates the accident, and tries his best to expose the lad. Unfortunately the politican uses his influence and clout, and gets his son out of trouble. It is the climax of Accident that really shows Shankar’s genius as a director. One of the survivors of the accident, now spots this brat, and he chases him. The guy tries to escape and in the event he himself is killed by an oncomming truck. Totally harrowing. Accident, is a movie, that is totally hard hitting and pretty much topical. Considering the number of high profile cases we had in recent times of drunk driving, and the accused trying to subvert the law, this movie still remains relevant to day. In fact the opening scene of Accident also shows Shankar’s shot taking skill, when we see a black screen raising up like a curtain, and the camera walks through and cuts on to a sunny street, as the car comes out of the garage. Clearly this was a man much ahead of his times be it in acting or directing. Have not seen some of his other directorial ventures like Minchina Ota, Geeta and Ondu Muttina Kathe, but Accident itself was one of the best movies i have ever seen so far.

But if Shankar Nag could wow the critics, he was equally at home in the masala cinema. He was one of the very few actors who struck a perfect balance between commercial and artistic cinema. A person who was loved by the auto drivers as well as the more serious critics. To date, in Bangalore, auto drivers would not accept any money from Arundathi Nag. Shankar’s role in the masala flick Auto Raja, made him the darling of the auto drivers in Bangalore. It is quite a common sight, to see Shankar Nag’s potrait on auto rickshaws in Bangalore. Shankar Nag was not the conventional Kannada hero , he had that rough looks, voice, a distinct swagger and of course his dark piercing swagger. The ordinary junta loved his dialogues, his swagger in numerous masala flicks like Auto Raja, CBI Shankar, Geetha to name a few. Even in Apoorva Sangama, where he co starred with Dr. Rajkumar, he made an impact, not a mean fact, considering Annavru’s legendary charisma. He was one of the very few actors who could straddle both the commercial and artistic, without appearing to compromise. But then that was Shankar Nag. He was not a man who cared for labels nor some one who craved for recognition.He was a person totally passionate about whatever he did, and whatever he believed in. He was as comfortable in a total masala flick, as he was in a more serious venture.

Shankar Nag’s style could be seen in his introduction in his debut movie Ondanondu Kaaladalli, which literally means Once Upon a Time. This 1978 movie was a Kannada adaptation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and was directed by Girish Karnad. One of the finest movies ever made, the movie has some fascinating stunt scenes, involving Kalaripayattu. With wide tracking photography, great shots of the Malnad forests and excellent detailing, the movie is really an epic masterpiece. Shankar plays a mercenary, Gandugali in this movie. In his intro scene, he is shown to be sleeping, with a total casual attitude in the forests, when he is woken up by some soldiers around. The way he casually talks, his lazy demeanour, his cool attitude,is almost Clint Eastwood style. This was the movie that catapulted Shankar to stardom. The movie basically deals with two mercenaries, at loggerheads with each other, who discover they have been double crossed by their masters, and how they get back. The other mercenary is played by Sunder Krishna Urs, who later became famous for his baddie roles. I request people who are in Bangalore, to get a DVD or VCD of this movie, and watch it, if you don’t understand Kannada, try getting one with sub titles. It is a classic all the way.

Shankar Nag’s foray into TV, would be memorable with the classic Malgudi Days on Doordarshan, which would be familiar to many viewers. Can any one of us forget Swami? I still remember, on listening to the brilliant opening musical score by L.Vaidyanathan and the “Ta Na Na Ta Na Ta Na Na” sound, i would just drop everything and rush to the TV. Such was the attraction it held. For the next 30 minutes or so, would just lose myself in the story of Swami. In these days of Saas Bahu serials, how much does one miss the endearing simplicity and brilliance of Malgudi Days. The town of Malgudi shown in the series is actually a place called Agumbe which lies in Shimoga District, close to the Western Ghats, one of the most beautiful and enchanting places.

Apart from TV and movies, Shankar’s greatest contribution would be to the cause of Kannada theater. Even during the peak of his stardom, he never forget his theater roots, and always took an active part in it. He co founded Sanket, an amateur theater group with his wife. Famous Kannada plays like Anju Mallige, Barrister, Sandhya Chaya, were bought to stage by his group. His last stage production was Girish Karnad’s famous play Naga Mandala, which he co directed along with Surendra Nath. The Ranga Shankara in Bangalore, is a testimony and a tribute to his vision. His dream was to have a theater space, where various groups can have a forum and an outlet for their works. For him the theatre was a studio and a gallery. Along with Girish Karnad, Anant Nag, B.V.Karanth he would forever be recognized as one of the giants of Kannada theater.

An admirer of Ramakrishna Hegde, he was not much into active politics unlike his brother. However he had a great vision for Bangalore. Way back in 1990, before his untimely death, he proposed a Metro for Bangalore city, based on what he had seen in London. He started the first ever electronic recording studio, in Karnataka, Sanket Electronics. Apart from that he was actively involved in projects like the Country Club at his farm near Bangalore, a ropeway to Nandi Hills and a low cost prefab housing scheme. An actor, a director, a theater personality, a visionary, Shankar Anna’s untimely death in 1990, was a great loss to Kannada movie industry. After his death, the Kannada movie industry really slid into an abyss of mediocricty, and only of late it is comming back with some great movies. Every time a young actor makes his debut, there are efforts to claim him as the next Shankar Nag. It has been a futile exercise, because such versatile, talented geniuses are rare to find. A man who was adored by the front benchers as well as the critics, Shankar Anna, you may have passed away 19 years back, but you would live forever in movie goer’s hearts, and in the hearts of every one who has seen Malgudi Days.

-by Ratnakar Sadasyula (Bhubaneshwar, India)

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