ANANT NAG, unarguably one of Kannada cinema’s greatest actors, has also been one of its most recognised faces. The “handsome-as-hell” actor has acted in more than 100 films in Kannada, Marathi, Konkani, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam in a career spanning over four decades. Anant Nag, 64, has also essayed roles in the television adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, which was directed by his late brother Shankar Nag.

I GREW up in a small village called Shirali, the nearest town being Bhatkal, in north coastal Karnataka. My parents were from North and South Kanara [districts]. Though we did watch some films, I never ever dreamed that one day I would join the film industry. I remember the bullock-cart ride one night with my mother to Bhatkal to see Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje [1955]. Another time, I remember going to see Bagyawan (1953). For a variety of reasons, I was sent off to Bombay [Mumbai] where I was exposed to a number of English films, like Helen of Troy, Ivanhoe.., thanks to the fact that my uncle was an accountant at Westex Company—they made film projectors—and their office was in the building that housed Metro Theatre. I was so fascinated and impressed by the acting in these films, which was so different from what I had seen in Indian films. In school, I used to participate in plays and skits but never thought of myself as an actor.

In college, along with friends, I started seeing Hindi films. Most of them were full of songs, dances, fights… very stereotypic. It was a contrast to the English films I had seen, and I started thinking about the kind of films we were making. I was slowly drawn into the theatre movement of Bombay and I was selected to act in Konkani plays, then Kannada, then Marathi with Amol Palekar, and then Hindi plays with Satyadev Dubey. This lasted until I was around 22.

Meanwhile, in 1970-71, I was offered a role in Sankalpa, which was my first Kannada film. Then I went back to Bombay, and Satyadev Dubey took me to Shyam Benegal, who was making Ankur, and he cast me as Surya, one of the protagonists in the film. That is how I got into films. These were different kind of films—art films, parallel cinema—and they suited my kind of temperament. We were from theatre, serious acting, serious plays, off-beat films.

Worried about my future, my father said he didn’t send me to Bombay for this [theatre]. “You take up a job and then do what you want.” So I managed to get what was then known as a vacation job in Union Bank. Banks those days would encourage sports and the arts, and in that quota I secured this job, and once the tenure of the vacation job was over, the bank asked me if I would like to continue, and I stayed on. Interestingly, I was studying in the science stream but was advised to switch to banking and finance since I was madly in love with theatre, which wouldn’t pay anyway, so at least a good knowledge of commerce would help me with my job. I used to go college in the morning, work from 10 to 5, and then go for my plays, rehearsals, shows in the evening. This continued until I got my break. One day I decided to take the plunge and there was no turning back. That’s how I entered films. I wanted to be an actor with a bang, but started out as an actor from a bank.

I began with art films with directors M.S. Satyu and Shyam Benegal and thought I should only do art films. But I soon realised that art films didn’t pay much and they were too few and far between. My work in art films and my physique helped me find opportunities in commercial cinema. It was a compromise, but a necessity. In my career I have had average success. If you take my contemporaries or even younger actors, they are mass heroes. But there is no doubt that I prefer being called a great actor rather than a mass hero.

I got good opportunities because at that time there were good writers and great directors, who wanted to show some degree of artistry and provide a message in the films. So those writers wrote a role without imagining an actor in it. Then they said, “Who can we cast here? Can Anant justify the character?” Writers/directors wanted an actor to fit into these roles that had powerful dramas, good scenes. They were not written around any actor.

Unlike today where most scripts are written to suit the established image of a popular actor. So while the actor’s strengths are there, his weaknesses are avoided. So it becomes a weak film script, and this is how writers, directors and even actors are losing out.

Having seen and been in a number of films, both commercial film and art films, I am aware of what has and is being made in mainstream Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Punjabi, Gujrathi …the entire gamut. Coming from art cinema, I don’t want to be dismissive or disrespectful of the commercial films made by the previous generations.

After all, this technology is foreign to us and art films don’t find favour with the masses. Song and dance is so much a part of our lives and milieu that it has to be an integral part of any film.

It is not that we can’t make films like they make in the West, but our masses have a different expectation from films. They want an Indian thali, a plate filled with many dishes, in the films. We have made different genres of cinema—artistic, political, atheistic, experimental. Everything has been tried out.

Films were bolder in the past. The political films we made then were more powerful. For example Satyu’s Bara (1980) or Shankar Nag’s Accident (1984) were more powerful than anything made these days with big stars. Directors today talk a lot about their films, give them political titles and call them political films. I would say that directors want to strike but are afraid to wound. We were more forthright in our critique of the political system earlier. Today, directors only touch the theme and take off tangentially.

In the past, mainstream film-makers were worried about what films they were making, what values they should show, what message they should convey. It was never just entertainment. It was information, education, enlightenment. Today, it is sheer entertainment. Thematically, today it is only a hotchpotch and film-makers are not ready to take on something new.

While technical finesse and techniques are so advanced, thematically they are talking about aliens and dinosaurs. But these films are also doing well. So does it mean our intelligent, educated audience prefers fantasy? I am aghast. People are enjoying it. Their expectations are being met by Bollywood, Hollywood or the various other “woods”. Breaking new ground is not happening at all.

There is also a lot of lobbying for awards, with some film-makers trying to recover part of their costs on the strength of these awards. They are not keen on making films that make people think. I think maybe over the years film-makers are turning their back on the audience; sort of, “I will only do films that I like”. Mani Kaul used to say, “I make films for my pleasure.” They close their eyes and imagine everything. But when you open your eyes the film is over!

I am sad that the film world has not done enough to take care of everyone in the film industry. Only the top 5 per cent do well; the rest have to fend for themselves. It is called the film industry, but it is not recognised as an industry even on paper.

It could have been better. But after 40 years I feel I have managed to survive. Not because of the competition, but because of the fact that I came from theatre and art films. I never thought that I would be accepted.

As told to Ravi Sharma