Pride of Kannada

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

Rajkumar was a superstar with no feet of clay; he was the most admired Kannadiga in living memory.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

EVEN if an obituary writer were to disregard the Roman injunction of saying nothing but good about the dead, he would find it high nigh impossible to pen a line criticising Kannada film icon Rajkumar who died in Bangalore on April 12 at the age of 77.

Rajkumar was a superstar with no apparent feet of clay. Unassuming, humble and simple, the versatile actor who played a whole gamut of roles in films - from social dramas to historical, mythological and even desi `James Bond' thrillers, was revered by legions of fans spread across two generations. He was unarguably Karnataka's most admired, loved and respected son. The mass following that he commanded could make political regimes quiver, but to his credit he rarely, if ever, flexed his political muscle. His achievements are all the more remarkable when one considers that he dropped out of school at the age of eight, and was not Machiavellian.

"Annavaru" (respected elder brother) to all his fans, Rajkumar strode the celluloid world for four and a half decades. He acted in 200-odd films. The making of Rajkumar as the cultural icon more or less coincided with the formation of Karnataka (Mysore at that time) in 1956 as the State of the Kannadigas. Rajkumar began his acting career in 1954 in Bedara Kannappa.

While mythological films (in which he even played Ravana and Mahishasura) established his versatility, he essayed memorable roles in devotional films (Navakoti Narayana, Santha Tukaram, Bhaktha Kanakadasa, Mantralaya Mahathme and Mahathme Kabir) and films on folk heroes (Veera Kesari, Katari Veera and Bettada Huli). These roles went a long way in moulding his cult status. Social dramas, particularly those set in rural surroundings, gave his screen image a touch of the contemporary, again endearing him to the masses, especially women. In Anna Thangi he played a village youth, in Mayor Muthanna an honest country bumpkin who went on to become the Mayor of Bangalore, in Muriyada Mane a handicapped youth, in Bangarada Manushya, a progressive grape farmer, and in Manina Maga an upright farmer trying to hold the family together. His other outstanding roles are that of the small-time entrepreneur manufacturing match sticks in Kasturi Nivaasa; the charming revolutionary in Mayura; the low-caste nadaswaram player in Sanadi Appanna; and the role in the experimental Uyyale, which insinuates an extramarital affair between the hero and his friend's wife.

Parallels have been drawn between Rajkumar and his contemporaries in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Sivaji Ganeshan and - N. T. Rama Rao (NTR) and A. Nageshwara Rao respectively. While each of them excelled in their chosen genres, Rajkumar displayed his versatility by gliding effortlessly through all genres of Kannada cinema.

Rajkumar's medium was films. But no single medium could ever have done full justice to the message that he sought to deliver on his vision for the Kannada language. Long before he wiped off the grease paint and stopped standing under arch lights, he had moved far away from being just a box-office film star. He had become the face of Kannada nationalism. He symbolises more than any politician, social worker or litterateur the honour of the State and became the glue that brought together the various regions, many of which had different historical legacies and cultural identities. The thespian represented the very essence of the Kannada psyche: espousing and epitomising a certain pride in the Kannada language and articulating the aspirations of fellow Kannadigas.

Yet recognition in the form of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award (1995) and Padma Bhushan (1987), could not sway him to change his off-screen personality: he remained humble to the last. In the early years of his career, Rajkumar was prepared to act even in heroine-oriented films. But in his later films, he began to portray assiduously the good guy, and post-1970s he dominated almost every frame. He made sure that the roles he accepted did not require him to smoke or drink, and he extended the decision to real life.

Although Rajkumar rejected numerous offers to don the political mantle, he was able to influence the State's political fortunes without ever being officially in politics. Every Chief Minister since 1991, barring the present one, made it a custom to call on the actor soon after assuming office. Given his love for and dedication to Kannada, it became `advisable' for the political class to seek his views before taking any decision concerning Kannada.

His apolitical outlook, however, did not prevent him from protecting and espousing the cause of Kannada and Karnataka. In 1982, when the agitation spearheaded by Kannada writers became unsuccessful in convincing the government of Chief Minister R. Gundu Rao to implement the recommendations of the Dr.V.K. Gokak Committee (giving primacy to Kannada in State schools), Rajkumar readily entered the fray, publicly announcing that he would give up his all for the sake of Kannada and would fight for it, no matter what form the fight took. Travelling the length and breadth of the State, he was able to enlist mass support for the movement and was able to convince the government to accept the Gokak recommendations.

In 1978, he refused to become the Janata Party's candidate in a parliamentary byelection against former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is even alleged that the State's Congress Chief Minister D. Devaraj Urs, had wanted Rajkumar to contest since he desired the defeat of Indira Gandhi. But the actor just disappeared from the scene until the election was over.

If the Gokak agitation catapulted him from the status of a star to that of a Kannada icon, the Cauvery riots in December 1991 saw his name becoming sullied by language chauvinists who claimed to be his fans. Pained by the attack on property belonging to Tamils, he disassociated himself from the Rajkumar Fans Association. The association decided to call itself the Kannada Fans Association. In no time, it reverted to its old nomenclature, realising that without the actor's name it could go nowhere.

While he was extremely reluctant to interfere in politics, many a language chauvinist and even some close family members did not hesitate to drop his name in order to inspire respect and fear among foes and competitors. A number of controversial issues such as the need to increase the use of Kannada in government and other official communication, affirmative action for Kannadigas in private industry, and more barriers against the screening of non-Kannada films in Karnataka, were from time to time raised in his name.

Rajkumar, originally Singanalluru Puttaswamayya Muthuraj, was born in Gajanur, an obscure hamlet near Talavadi near the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, in 1929 to impoverished parents belonging to the toddy tapper community. Along with his younger siblings S.P. Varadaraj and S.P. Sharadamma, he joined the famous Gubbi Theatre Company of Gubbi Veeranna at a very young age. His father Singanalluru Puttaswamayya was already a theatre artist performing in the touring company, and by the early 1950s Muthuraj had established himself as one of Mysore's leading theatre artists.

It was an afternoon in 1953 that changed his life forever. Strolling near the Nanjangud town bus stand, he happened to meet the famous film director H. L. N. Simha, who was on the lookout for a well-built, pleasant-faced youth to play the role in AVM Productions' Kannada film Bedara Kannappa. Simha cast him in the role and named him Rajkumar.

Rajkumar was also one of the few actors who did not need a playback singer. He sang his own songs. Besides his brilliant histrionics, sense of rhythm, melodious voice, and dedication, the young Muthuraj was also blessed with good looks and a lithe body, which he maintained by following a strict regimen of yoga.

His fitness came to his rescue when in June 2000 he was kidnapped by sandalwood smuggler-turned-poacher Veerappan from his house in Gajanur. He was made to trek through the forests for 108 days. Though his health was never the same again after his release, his personal physician observed that he was able to survive the ordeal of the forests only because of his "clean habits and [physical] fitness".

Rajkumar - unlike his contemporaries Kalayan Kumar and Udaya Kumar - acted only in Kannada films (excepting Kalahasti Mahatma, the Telugu version of Bedara Kannappa). He refused numerous offers from film-makers from other South Indian languages. His fans saw his firm decision as his steadfast dedication to Kannada and "Karnataka Mate" (Mother Karnataka) and they paid him back handsomely by swearing allegiance to him. Rajkumar never let them down; he made it a point to address them always as "my gods".

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