Tamil Features

A Face to the Faceless: The B Vittalacharya Tribute

Vittalacharya’s eloquence was reserved for cinema. At work, his close associate KV Sreenivasan describes him as someone who rarely spoke about himself, someone who was notoriously guarded about his personal life.



Vittalacharya’s ghosts are famous. More famous than the man himself. Swaddled in white, with a mane of glorious red, they have entertained (and perhaps, frightened) a whole generation.

His ghosts were quite unusual, too. And were all the more industrious for it. They made a sport of chasing down villagers, and memorably used their legs as firewood when the need arose.

They also earned Vittalacharya a title.

He was popularly known as Maayajaala Mannan. Or quite simply, as the man who gave a face to horror.


In recent years, Vittalacharya has become an adjective in cinematic grammar. To describe something outlandish. A far-fetched story would be a typical example. A film that involves fantastical or supernatural elements would be dismissed as a ‘Vittalacharya movie’. But there’s no denying the fact that the filmmaker carved a niche for himself – over 20 odd years – with his admirable use of make-up and special effects, and his love for everything make-believe.

Awards and critical acclaim may have eluded him, but Vittalacharya was one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time.

He gave a face to everything. Everything except his own life. For despite all the fame and success, precious little is known about the man.

A few close associates of Vittalacharya are not surprised, though. KV Sreenivasan, veteran dubbing artiste and someone who knew the filmmaker personally, declares that this seeming ‘lack of information’ is all “Vittal’s doing”. Vittalacharya notoriously guarded his privacy. “He was the epitome of professionalism,” begins Sreenivasan when I meet him just before the filmmaker’s 95th birth anniversary. “He was courteous to people he worked with, made sure everyone was happy, and never failed to entertain. But we were aware that there was always an invisible net around him. He liked to keep his personal life separate from work, and never spoke about his wife and kids.”


Though he has worked on 15 of Vittalacharya’s films and enjoyed a close relationship with the director, KVS admits that he ‘knew only about half of what was going on in Vittal’s life’. “He was a genuine friend. But he rarely opened up about himself. Not even to trusted friends. The only place he gave his all and revealed his true self was in his films. It was only in the film medium that he found the freedom to express himself.”

If there was one place in which KVS and Vittalacharya found common ground, it was in their admiration of legendary actor NT Rama Rao. Vittalacharya directed 15 films with NTR in the lead, while KVS provided the voice. “NTR was a brilliant actor and breathed life to Vittal’s vision. When both of them came together, magic happened. They had a relationship founded on mutual admiration and respect.”


Wikipedia and Google talk about Vittalacharya’s early life as the seventh child in an orthodox Udipi family. Even as a young boy, he had harboured a fascination for all things abnormal. The mundane things in life did not excite him. It was one of the reasons he ran away from home at the young age of nine. “He used to narrate anecdotes from his past, and most of them seemed to indicate that his doctor father was not very tolerant of Vittal’s dreams,” recalls KVS.

After toiling for years in the town of Arsekere, he eventually managed to save up enough to start his own restaurant. “As the owner of the hotel, he used to come across several interesting characters. The hotel trade fascinated him…for a while.” Soon enough, the next big thing beckoned Vittalacharya. Inspired by the freedom movement spreading across the nation, the idealist in him was awakened.

And, he was promptly arrested.

“Nationalism was one thing we shared. I had met Gandhi earlier in my life, when I was around 12 years old. Vittal thought that I was blessed to have met such a great man so early. He confessed to being envious of my good fortune many times.”


Vittalacharya’s fascination with the ‘next big thing’ naturally led to another, and he soon became a ‘touring talkies’ owner. Then, a chance meeting with renowned director V Shantaram in early 1950s, convinced him to begin a career in movies. “Around 1951, Vittal started his production company and began directing. That’s another thing about him – he could never find it in himself to be answerable to someone else. Everything he did, it would be at his own cost.”


As a producer, Vittalacharya was a ‘perfect gentleman’, insists KVS. “He had a system for everything. He would handle matters of finance delicately with his employees. Everything would be strictly above board and done correctly. You would be paid on time, and

the reward would be handsome.”
From NT Rama Rao to KR Vijaya, the director worked with stalwarts of the time, and quickly established himself as a go-to-guy for a hit. “He had that magic in his hands. No matter how outlandish the script, Vittal would make sure that it would be understood by the masses. Of course, there was a section of people who wrote him off as a simple director. But he laughed it all away.”

The thing that he knew best about himself was that he was born to make films, declares KVS.


Vittalacharya was also notorious for being a perfectionist when it came to his movies. “He had a thing about punctuality. He’d expect people to be on sets at least an hour before shooting began. If someone played truant one too many times, he’d make sure that their role in the movie turns into an animal or something. At least, that’s what he told the artistes.”

His adherence to perfection often seeped into the dubbing side of things as well. “Everything had to be a perfect fit. The dubbing artiste’s voice had to match the actor’s voice. Even inflections should be more or less similar, or there would be trouble. But, if you did your work well and had no qualms about working as hard as him, then he would treat you like a king.”


Even though he found fame through his Telugu films and was a Kannadiga by birth, Vittalcharya embraced Tamil culture wholeheartedly, says KVS. “He migrated to Chennai around 1955 and stayed here till his demise. He had a house in Purasawalkam, near the famous Gangadeeswarar Koil. On shooting days, he used to travel from there by car to Vijaya Vaahini Studios. On other days, Vittal used to enjoy walking in those areas.”


Vittalacharya led a full and active life till his passing in the year 1999. The man maybe an enigma, his stories known only to his intimates, but the films he has made shed some light on the director, and continue to inspire filmmakers.

Says Deekay who rose to fame with the horror hit Yaamirukka Bayamey. “Vittalacharya’s brand of movies made the horror genre more palatable to the audience. His movies are an inspiration, and his success as a director is proof that one can find greatness if we let our creativity run wild.”