Thursday, October 05, 2006

My Experiments with an Alternate Screening System

At 1.00 A.M this morning, I had one of the strangest screenings in my life. An audience of around 650 Tulu speaking hotel laborers watched my Tulu digital feature film, SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) at the Vishweshwaraiya Auditorium, Matunga run by the Karnataka Sangha, Mumbai. Karnataka Sangha is one of the premium Kannada organizations culturally active in Mumbai.

Mumbai, as many of you are aware, is the home for ‘Udupi Hotels’ – eateries that provide cheap and affordable food stuff to the city’s population. Most of the management staff as well as the labor force in these hotels are migrants from the Tulu speaking coastal belt of Karnataka. Over the years many of these hotels have graduated to being Beer Bars and are often kept open, till late in the night. The Karnataka Sangha, apart from being responsible for thought provoking programs relating to music, literature and theater, also caters to the entertainment needs of these migrant hotel workers, by letting out its premises to either professional Yakshagana (a popular traditional folk form) troupes or semi-professional Tulu drama troupes, both from Coastal Karnataka.

It works like this – the shows start from 12.00 AM, in the wee hours of the morning. The Beer Bars close around this time. The migrant hotel workers can catch the last train after his work shift to watch these shows. The shows themselves go on till 6.00 AM. The workers can then go back to their respective hotels, catch up with their sleep so that they have enough time to get ready for their afternoon shift. It was my dream to get though to this audience.

‘Chiguru Chandana’, an organization in Mumbai, had arranged to stage a ‘super hit comedy’ play called ‘Porludaaye!’ or The Smart Man!, performed by ‘Lakumi’; a semi-professional troupe from Mangalore. The duration of such plays is normally flexible – from three to four hours, depending on the improvisation capabilities of the actors.

But today, ‘Porludaaye!’ was restricted to three hours for, before the play, they had arranged the screening of ‘the award winning’ film SUDDHA. Over the last two months SUDDHA was in the news all over the local Kannada press, and the organizers probably thought it will bring in the crowd.

Asha Marnad, an actress who had acted in SUDDHA and who had since then become a semi-professional theater artist in Mangalore, was also acting in ‘Porludaaye!’. A local kannada newspaper ‘Karnataka Malla’ carried an advertisement of the play. It also had an invite for the film. It screamed, ‘Award Winning Film... only one show… Watch our artist Asha Marnad in SUDDHA’.

The ticket rates for such plays are anywhere between Rs. 75/- to Rs.150/-. Sometimes, when the halls are empty, the organizers incur losses. The enterprising men who arrange such shows minimize their risks by getting hold of sponsors, who partly pay for the expenses. In return, their banner is prominently displayed at the venue and then some times, the play is stopped half way through and, in the wee hours in the morning, the sponsor is felicitated!

‘Chiguru Chandana’ was not only showing the play ‘Porludaaye!’, but it was also screening SUDDHA. Besides, it was also having a variety entertainment program during the interval. All these for a rate of Rs. 100/-, the tickets basically meant for the play. The screening of SUDDHA and the variety entertainment program was supposed to be free. Buy one, take two free! The capacity of the auditorium was 750 and there were around 650 people, mostly men, watching the movie. A few came late, but hardly anyone left the hall during the screening.

SUDDHA was always being branded as a film for the ‘classes’ or as a slow ‘art film’ that does not have a mass base. The award of the Best Indian film at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian Films at New Delhi in 2006, seems to have confirmed this view among a certain section of Kannada / Tulu film lovers. I firmly believe that films like SUDDHA have not managed to reach a large audience because there is no distribution system that will take such a film to an audience that wants to see it.

I am finding it difficult to find a conventional film distributor who would exhibit the film in regular theaters. For one, SUDDHA is in the digital format and there are hardly any digital theaters in the Tulu speaking areas in the country. And then a few reputed distributors whom I have been meeting over the last six months have refused to take up the film, quoting that ‘is not a commercial’ proposition and it does not have any ‘commercial elements’ in it.

I need to prove this wrong. SUDDHA talks about the changing life in Coastal Karnataka – of those living there and those who have migrated. It talks of these issues in a style that is uncomplicated and easy to understand, therefore making it identifiable to each and everyone who is associated with that area. The Tulu speaking people is my primary audience. I just have to take the film to them.

With a view to make the film accessible to the general public in a large systematic way, I approached the Mangalore University to evolve a self financing screening system in the 80 odd colleges affiliated with it. There was no response. I then approached the “Tulu Academy’ asking them if they could take up the exhibition of the film in the 290 Tulu speaking Gram Panchayats of Coastal Karnataka. Even if fifty people see the film in each screening, we are talking of an audience of close to 15,000. But being a government body that it is, the proposal was not accepted.

Not to be undone, I have been personally approaching various individual colleges through emails and conventional posts and through word-of-mouth recommendations. Yesterday, I have completed the process of writing snail mails to the president of 290 gram panchayats of Coastal Karnataka, with a strong plea for the screening of the film. The idea is to create a permanent structure through which other films could be screened.

And there is a lot to be explained. Many times in my communication to prospective screening organizers, I find myself explaining the entire process of digital projection. I have been telling them things like the kind of persons who would hire out digital projectors, about luminance of these projectors, about sound systems, about DVD players etc… Unless I do that, they would not be convinced by this new medium.

Already, till date, seven screenings have been held in eight colleges in Coastal Karnataka. Those colleges that have L.C.D. screening facilities with them are the first ones to screen SUDDHA. A few more have agreed for a screening in their colleges. A few ‘Youth Clubs’ are coming forward.

But I should be having at least 100 screenings before I can say that a system has been put into place.

If you are looking to arrange a screening for your club / college / house / office
please click

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Arwel, Media and HIV-AIDS at Shimla

Recently, I had the fortune of attending an electronic media workshop held in Shimla. It was conducted by the Cardiff based Thomson Foundation as a part of the European Union–India Media Initiative on HIV-AIDS. The workshop director was the inspirational Arwel Ellis Owen, also from Cardiff, UK. Arwel is the chairman of the British Academy of Film and TV Arts in Whales and in his distinguished career spanning over many decades, he was also the program head of the BBC in Northern Ireland.

There were eight participants in this workshop – people ranging from TV news reporters and news editors, radio programmers, documentary filmmakers and graphic artists. During this workshop, we had a chance to reflect upon the kind of coverage the electronic media has been giving to the HIV-AIDS issue in India, which I must say is not encouraging.

Around less than one present of our population is estimated to be having HIV, amounting to a very sizable number of around 5.7 million people! The implications are huge. If nothing is done and if more and more people fall sick due to HIV progressing into AIDS, imagine the impact it would have on our health care systems, our productivity, our budget allocation, our planning, our gross national income, and the development of our country as a whole – not to speak of the deteriorating quality of life of the people affected by HIV-AIDS!

Already, in a country like Swaziland in Africa, where one in every four members of the adult population is HIV positive, the economy is on the down slide. There aren’t enough healthy people to work and increase productivity. Each job has two appointees, lest the other falls sick. Any country that has a HIV prevalence of more than 1% finds it hard to attract foreign investment.

We have to act now, lest we follow the same route. Once inside the human body, HIV attacks, subverts and kills human cells – cells that help fight diseases, virus and other foreign bodies. This process may take years and during such a period persons infected with HIV may look perfectly normal. Therefore on an apparent level, the time bomb might not be seen to be clicking. But some years down the line the effect will manifest itself - unless of course, we intervene.

One of the prominent tools of intervention is to provide information and knowledge. The media plays an important role here. Yet, the media coverage given to the HIV-AIDS issue is hardly 1% of the total news covered. A recent report suggests that around 60% of our Members of Parliament are ignorant on how HIV spreads! If this is true, then we as journalists, as writers, as filmmakers and as artists have simply not done our job!

The health anchor of a 24 hour news channel, that has a ‘progressive’ image, does not know the difference between HIV and AIDS. A government owned TV channel shows a half hour fiction program on HIV-AIDS with a hidden agenda to cause ‘fear’ about the epidemic in the minds of the people – equating AIDS with untimely and inevitable death! Another private channel repeatedly airs the story of a HIV positive woman where she expresses her desire to end her life and shows us the permission seeking application that she has written to our President, as a sensationalized breaking investigative story!

Reports about HIV-AIDS patients appearing in the media have exposed their medical status to everyone in their environment and thus made them vulnerable to rampant stigma and discrimination! Some of them have been boycotted by their own families, communities and villages. Others have been unjustly given the pink slip by their employers or they have been removed from their rented houses or have been refused treatment at hospitals!

‘AIDS patient stoned to death’ – might be an eye catching headline. It can catch the eyeballs. But is it an in-depth report asking the whys and the whens and the whats of the issue? Or is it just sensationalizing and therefore trivializing the matter, as ever other news is done today?

Tabloids are a rage and even television ‘tabloidism’ is catching up. A Hindi film actor’s sex life and preferences are shown repeatedly on TV, as if it is of great national importance. So much so that in another story, a husband-wife-lover trio makes an issue of and debate over their extra-marital life, live on TV!

A consistent and responsible reporting of events and all relevant issues concerning HIV-AIDS would do well for those who are affected by the virus. At present, if there is anything that is missing, then this is it.

The Media Workshop in Shimla has sensitized at least eight media people into this.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Making of a Digital Film - My Experience

Way back in 1991, after having graduated from the F.T.I.I., I shot a self-financed short film, in 16mm, called ‘The Hot Shot’. I had made the film the way I wanted to and with my own money. The film went to a couple of film festivals and nothing came out of it – except the fact that I had lost around 25,000/- in the making of the film.

For the next twelve years I immersed myself into TV work and had almost forgotten what filmmaking is all about – till one fine morning I woke up with a realization that I had not done anything worthwhile in all these years. I had forgotten the very context that I had set on my own life! It was time to shake oneself out of one’s guts.

It was in 2004 that I brought my digital video camera. Though the idea was to hire it out so that I repay back the loan that I had taken for its purchase, the other motivating factor was that I could make my own digital films.

Initially, I decided to make some shorts. There was still no market for the short fiction film in India – there still isn’t. But the heartening fact was that short films were being made–and their number was increasing. The low cost nature of this new age digital format was mainly responsible for it.

It was time to reinvent myself. I quickly came to terms with the digital-celluloid divide – debate that is still in rage. There are certain things possible on the celluloid, which is not possible in the digital and visa versa. The two of them simply cannot be judged against each other.

I made three short films within a span of two years – two fictions and a documentary. This time I made sure that I did not spend the kind of amount that I had done years back. I knew that there was no market for the short fiction film and worked accordingly. And I made those films more or less the way I wanted them to be.

My friend edited my first short fiction film in his home computer. By the time I was making my third short film, I had my own edit set up– a capture card worth 5,000/- on a Pentium III with a 126 MB ram! The films did go to some short film festivals – national and international. The short documentary even recovered its costs!

I was then on the look out for a story that could be made into a low cost digital feature film – stories that have few locations, few characters and the likes. Language was not the issue. I stumbled upon Narayana Nandalike’s Tulu play ‘Bojja’ – a play that depicted the changing life patters in modern day coastal Karnataka.

The associate director for my Kannada TV programs, Surendra Kumar, had earlier mentioned that we could shoot around his house in his native village Marnad, if I had any script in my mind. This was it! We were going to make a digital film and its name was going to be SUDDHA.

Of the many part-time film financers we met, one agreed to fund the film. But he backed off at the last moment – for I guess, he was not impressed by the returns that we had projected. Frankly, I was also not sure how would a Tulu digital film like SUDDHA recover it money.

I reworked the production logistics and even the script. We cut characters, cut mikes, avoided artificial lights and even cut the number of shooting days. The budget that was thus worked out was so pathetic that it could now be financed by just the three of us – me, Surendra and Mohan Marnad, who by now was on board.

But there were a few issues. There is a general tendency prevalent today that a digital film should be wacky, should have shaky camera, handheld tracks, jump cuts, a lot of blurs, and should have heavy video effects and the likes. The temptation was great. For one, such a style of filming had the probability of drastically reducing the number of shooting days. Over the world, there were occasions where digital feature films were shot in 24 hours, using this style. Fortunately, I did not succumb.

The second - I was limiting myself in all respects, mainly due to the budget factor. Right at the raw stock stage, I decided to go for the inexpensive Mini DV tape, rather than the DV Cam tapes. Also, the Mini DV tapes would run on the mini DV mode and not the DV Cam mode – thereby increasing the tape time by about twenty minutes. And then there were no artificial lights, no professional actors, no boom men, no light boys etc.

Would all these affect the quality of the film? Was it ‘compromise’ – with all the horrible meanings that are generally associated with it? A friend of mine was even quick enough to comment that my choice of making a film digitally itself was a ‘terrible’ compromise.

But a quick research into the Dogma movement redeemed me. The dogma guys set some self imposed and almost silly looking limitations on themselves – no lights, no sets etc. The idea was to see if they could make the films that they wanted to, adhering to these limitations.

My limitations were mostly budget imposed. Could I make my film under those limitations? The choice was between making the film and not making it. I choose to make it – and to my surprise, the limitations no longer remained so. The rawness of the amateur actors, the magical quality of the available lights and the variations in the voices recorded on location became an advantage.

The fact that I was using a low cost Mini DV tape too helped. The inexperience actors were taking an average of ten to twelve takes to give an okay shot. By these standards, had I shot on celluloid, the film would have never got made.

The digital era has made filmmaking accessible to everyone. Today, someone sitting in a remote village in Hattiangadi village in Kundapur can also think of making a digital film. All he has to do is write a script, get hold of a few local actors, and execute the script. A wide range of digital cameras – from single CCDs to HDVs are available to him. He can commit mistakes, come back, watch them and re-shoot entire portions with minimum costs. He can even think of editing the film in his own personal computer.

So, if you want, you can. More and more Film Festivals are looking at digital feature films. I see SUDDHA’s recognition at the recently held Osian Cinefan Festival of Asian Films, as a validation of digital feature filmmaking in India. Even in a country like Philippines, hordes of digital feature films are shot every year. Of these, I was told, around 10% of them are taken up by the mainstream industry for a theatrical release!

But would that happen in India? How do I exhibit a feature film like SUDDHA? My letters to a private TV station regarding a possible telecast of SUDDHA has evoked no response. I guess their priorities are the ‘mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’ serials.

Although there are a few theaters that project films digitally, they are used only to release big budget films, for a simultaneously all-India-release, with less celluloid prints. At present, the distributors are not too keen to look at digitally shot films for digital projection. But I guess it is a matter of time.

But till then, we have to find alternative modes of exhibition.

Is it possible for us to use the college network of our universities? If self-sustaining regular screenings of different digital films – fiction and non fiction - could be arranged in each of the colleges affiliated with the universities, the students of these colleges could have an alternative set of films that they could see. Some of the colleges and universities already have film clubs and are even making short digital films. The mass communication departments could do well to take a lead in this aspect, for by doing so, they would be providing a platform for the very students that graduate out of their institutions.

Also, is it possible for us to arrange screenings of digital films in the various Zilla / Gram Panchayats? Even if fifty people (a conservative number) come to watch a movie in each of the gram panchayats, in a district like Dakshina Kannada itself, around 10,000 people would have seen the film! Can a business model be worked out on these lines by an enterprising individual or corporate body?

Alternatively, with a little grant or subsidy from the government and with some support from the organizational structure that it has, this could well be a reality. If for example The Tulu Academy, under the Kannada and Culture department, takes up the exhibition of low cost Tulu films using the Zilla Panchayat network in Coastal Karnataka, a large number of people can get access to such films.

And if The Academy could work out a self sustaining system where it gets remuneration from the Gram Panchayats either through viewer’s donation or through local sponsors, and give a portion of the proceeds to the filmmakers for their next film, a truly low cost Tulu digital cinema can well be on its way. Imagine this scheme being replicated in all districts of Karnataka in their respective dialects!

The information department already has a grass root-level-digital-exhibition system in place where it educates the general public regarding the various government programs. Should this existing system be strengthened for the exhibition of digital films or should a new system be put into place, is a matter that can be debated.

But first, there should be a will.

Despite all odds, if Ninasam’s experiments at Heggodu and with Thirugata can work, why not this? Already, in Delhi, the SPIC MACAY is considering alternative digital exhibition modes in the 1700 colleges that it has under its wings. Closer home, an NGO called ‘Namma Bhoomi’ is toying with the idea of showing ‘Samskara’ in the various Gram Panchayats in Kundaapur, using digital projection.

The possibilities, as we see, are immense.

If you are looking to arrange a screening for your club / college / house / office
please click 

Friday, June 30, 2006

Kanaka Dasa, Jayamala and the cool dude with a long beard…

My home town Udupi, is one of the prominent pilgrim centers in Coastal Karnataka. Everyday thousands of tourists from all over India flock here to visit the Krishna Temple, whose idol – that of a standing Krishna holding a churning stick - was installed seven hundred years ago by the Brahmin saint and philosopher, Madvacharya – the doyen of Dwaitha or the Dualistic Philosophy. There are eight mutts or religious institutions here that manage this temple, taking turn once every two years. Needless to say, the atmosphere around these eight mutts fluctuates between the rigidly religious and the extreme orthodox.

Over the years, many saint poets belonging to the Bakthi tradition have taken their faith, through their simple poems, to the masses. Such activities wee centered aound the Krishna Temple and its asthetic idol. Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa were exemplary among such poets.

Kanaka Dasa belonged to the lower caste. He is revered today, his songs officially sung inside the Krishna Temple. But it is sheer irony that a few centuries back, during his own life time; he was not even allowed into the Temple. The authorities had then believed that the temple had to be purified if a lower caste entered its premises. But Kanaka Dasa’s faith in Krishna, apparently, was unshakable. Outside the temple, in front of its wall, he sang songs to the glory of the deity.

The legend goes that the great lord himself was so moved by Kanaka Dasa’s faith that a portion of the temple wall broke down, on its own. The idol then did a 180 degree turn, as if it was on a rotating machine used commonly in the making of advertisement films these days, so that it could be visible to Kanaka Dasa. From that day onwards, it is said; members of the lower caste are allowed into the temple.

I saw a news item on a TV channel yesterday that reminded me of Kanaka Dasa. It was about the Kannada film actress Jayamala’s confession. Twenty years back, when her then husband was sick, she had gone into the inner most shrine of the temple of Ayyappa in Shabarimalai hills in Kerala, and had touched the deity’s feet, seeking his blessings. Her then husband apparently got better after those prayers. Well, what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that Ayyappa is a bachelor god. For ages, the temple authorities had banned young women from entering the temple premises, lest the lord himself was offended! Jayamala was all of twenty seven years when she touched Ayyappa’s feet. She was a popular film actress, ‘enticing’ many a good looking heroes on the silver screen and a thousand of fans beyond it!

Some times we don’t tend to believe anyone, not even our gods! But I’ll keep mum on that front.

That apart, twenty years down the line, Jayamala felt that what she then did was a mistake. So, she called up the temple authorities and confessed. She wrote an apology letter to the good lord himself and faxed it to his 'abode' in Shabarimalai. But what she did not bargain was for a press leakage and the resultant controversy.

Did the priests inside the temple help Jayamala go into the inner shrine? Like Jayamala, over the years, were other women allowed into the inner shrine? We known for a fact that the Late Indira Gandhi, despite being the Prime Minister of our country, was barred from going inside. But now that it is official that a woman has touched the Ayyappa idol, will the purification of the temple take two years as it is rumored to? Will the temple authorities go to the court against Jayamala?

I have heard Jayamala stating on a news channel that she has authentically apologized to the good lord himself and that she need not apologies to any one else, least of all to the temple authorities. If needed she is ready to go to jail or face the consequences for the act she had done years back.

This for me is crucial.

It takes a great amount of courage and inner strength to own up and take responsibility to ones mistakes or what ones thinks as ones mistakes. The act of owning up gives you an opportunity to be complete with your past and therefore with yourself. It therefore allows you to move ahead, afresh.

Centuries back, post Kanaka Dasa, the temple authorities in Udupi showed great courage in letting its lower caste devotes into its premises. Every religion, in some of its rituals and practices, encourages such ‘owning up’ within its structure. It would be a pity if the temple authorities in Kerala, or for that matter anywhere else, did not acknowledge this.

Not allowing someone into the inner shrine of a temple because of their sexuality may seem to fall purely be under the jurisdiction of the respective temple authorities. On second thoughts, is it? Do we smell of some violation of a fundamental right here?

Having said all and done, I must admit that I simply can’t understand a few little things here. Forgive me for my ignorance, but I still can’t figure out for example - Why did Kanaka Dasa have to adamantly sing songs in front of a stone wall? Didn’t he have anything else to do? Or why did Jayamala have to touch the feet of the Ayyappa idol to pray for her then husband? Where had all the doctors gone? Or closer home, why should my wife Sushma insist that we go to the Krishna Temple every time we visit my parents at Udupi? Isn’t there a beach nearby to spend some quality time?

As the cool dude with a long beard once said – Its religion, man! It is really the opium of the masses, man!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Confessions of a die hard fan…

Like many others in this country, I too was appalled by the violence that shook the city of Bengaluru on the aftermath of the death of the Kannada actor, superstar and icon Dr. Rajkumar. Who and what caused this violence? Was it just an emotional reaction or did people with vested interests plan it all? These are questions whose answers are probably buried deep within the maze of files that dot Vidhana Saudha in Bengaluru. But the incident has triggered off certain memories that I had with the ‘legendary’ Dr. Rajkumar. I have never met Dr. Rajkumar in my life. Yet I was a die-hard fan of his.

Historians in my family say that, as a tiny tot, one of the first films that I saw was in a make shift theater in Kundaapur. The film was ‘Emme Thammanna’ or ‘Buffalo Thammanna'. And guess who was the hero? Right, it was our own Annavaru (Elder Brother) or Dr. Rajkumar. Through my own little research later on in my life, I have gathered that the film was about a simpleton called Thammanna whose job was to herd buffaloes in a remote village. It seems that I had taken a liking to this film and it’s songs. For a few days of in my life, I had the misfortune of even being nicknamed as ‘Emme Thammanna’. Years later, when in school, whenever I got ‘just-passed’ marks in a couple of subjects that I didn’t take a liking to, I was chided – ‘You can herd buffaloes and be an ‘Emme Thammanna’!’

But my tryst with Rajkumar took a serious turn only when I was a school going kid in Udupi. My cousins Ravi and Shantaram were the first ones to be impressed with his movies or shall I say, persona. Rajkumar was already a well-established hero in the Kannada film industry by then and had shifted to playing swashbuckling roles as a crime buster. His initial forays into movies were through mythological and historical characters. He then shifted to the social genre playing roles mainly of a simple and honest villager, who fought against feudal oppression. But we as kids were impressed by a string of ‘CID’ films that he had recently popularized. These films caught the fancies of an entire generation of kids like me.

I was never allowed to see these ‘CID’ films because the moral custodians of my family felt that these films had a lot of violence and were therefore not meant for kids. But nevertheless, we were all excited. News of Rajkumar’s films used to filter down to us from friends or friends of friends who had seen some of his movies. Stories used to be exchanged – as to how in this film Rajkumar did this and how in that film Rajkumar did that.

He was a super hero. He could do no wrong. He always sided with the downtrodden. He respected elders and loved kids. He could always win a verbal duel, bash up tough looking villains or tame sharp-tongued heroines – all with equal ease. He knew how to fight, how to use a gun and had a great sense of wit. He was smart, but could act dumb if he wanted to. Despite being a James Bond-like spy, the glass in his hand always had a fruit juice in it and not alcohol. Cigarettes were a big no-no. Traditional values imbibed in him, yet he could be as modern as anyone else. And above all, as they say in some movie titles cards, he loved Kannada and the Kannada land. He was a sort of person who would die-hard for anything that is remotely connected with Kannada – his songs said so.

So excited we were about our superhero that we used to pick fights against anyone who said anything against Rajkumar. And believe me, mischief-makers within our extended family used to toy with our emotions. They used to deliberately say – ‘Your Rajkumar is a very bad actor!’ or ‘Your Rajkumar gets bashed up badly in his latest film!’ It was sufficient for we cousins to pick up a fight with them and sometimes even get violent!

‘Gandhada Gudi’ or ‘The Sandalwood Abode’ was one of Rajkumar’s landmark movies. It had another star-actor of the Kannada film industry called Vishnuvardhan. The film’s climax needed Vishnuvardhan to shoot at Rajkumar with a gun. During the filming of this sequence, it was rumored that a bullet actually went off Vishnuvardhan’s gun, missing Rajkumar by a few inches. Rajkumar fans protested all over Karnataka and I believe Vishnuvardhan had to take security cover for some days. As far as me, for a long time I hated Vishnuvardhan for what he could have done to my favorite hero.

Both Ravi and Shantaram came out of their Rajkumar trip quite soon. Ravi, I don’t know what made him do so, but Shantaram – I came to know later – was disillusioned to learn that Rajkumar’s age was same as his fathers! Just how could a man of his father’s age sing and dance around with heroines who are half his age? Shantaram began concentrating on his studies – but I continued being a die-hard fan of ‘namma annavaru’ or ‘our elder brother’. Needless to say, Shantaram is in the United States working happily as a software engineer and I am here in Mumbai still struggling to make films that don’t look like Rajkumar’s films.

We were then transferred to Dharwad. The craze among kids of our age group was to see films on the first day and first show. By now, I was allowed to see Rajkumar movies, but not on the first day. It was too much of a risk, the security department of my family had decided. There were newspaper reports emitting from Bengaluru on how people had taken up to violence when they did not get tickets to watch their favorite Rajkumar movie on the first day-first show. They simply broke glasses and burnt government busses to vent out their frustrations.

But I did manage to see a first day-first show of a Rajkumar film. After all, I was in the eighth standard and was a big boy! The film in question was ‘Shankar-Guru’. It was a great sense of achievement to do so. There already was a certain amount of hype to the film – that Rajkumar was playing two roles that of Shankar and of Guru. One was a bad conman and the other was good police inspector. And they were twins separated at birth! Sometime, if I get the opportunity, I would like to revisit the film – if nothing else but to clear my doubt if Rajkumar played the role of the father too!

And then one day, while we were still in Dharwad, I came to know that Rajkumar was in town. Without informing my parents, along with my few friends, I rushed to ‘Hotel Dharwad’, the place where he was put up. A large expectant crowd had gathered at the gate. I too was desperate to get a glimpse of my idol. After a long wait, a man came out of his room to his balcony and waved his hands to the crowd. I would by lying if I said that I was not disappointed.

Here was my idol - in a plain dhothi and a simple almost crumpled white shirt, half bald and waving to us with a tired smile. Was he the swashbuckling superhero that I knew off? After a few seconds he went inside and closed his door. And I started walking back home.

Later, when we were in Udupi for holidays, it was rumored that Aarthi, a Kannada film actress was in town to attend a marriage. Old habits die-hard! I wanted to see her, despite my cousin Ravi’s advice. ‘She is dark!’ he had said. But I went ahead. There were many more glamour struck guys of my types at the hotel. All of us waited for her to come out and show her beautiful self. And then finally when she came out, it turned out that she was indeed dark. She had looked beautiful in her movies. What was wrong with her now?

Some of her fans asked her to sing a song, which she did reluctantly. That moment was one of the most decisive moments of my life. Her song was out of tune; it had neither scale nor pitch. She sang two lines, stopped and apologized for her bad singing. It was nowhere like it was in the movies. ‘We don’t sing them ourselves’, she had said. To my horror, people booed her. That day, probably for the first time in my life, I could manage to differentiate between the image and what was beyond the image.

The closest I got to be realistically associated with Rajkumar was when the late Chi. Udayashankar, a top Kannada script and dialogue writer during his time, asked me if I would like to work in the Rajkumar camp or Vishnuvardhan camp. I had just completed my film studies at the film institute in Poona and I had thought I’d settle down in Bengaluru. Udayshankar used to hire a room in ‘Hotel Jhanardhan’ – an establishment owned by my uncle - to write his scripts. I selected the Vishnuvardhan camp and I still don’t know why! That I left Bengaluru after working for just one schedule of twenty days in a Vishnuvardhan camp film is a different story all together.

For old times sake, I still sometimes see Rajkumar’s movies that are shown on Kannada Channels, aired in Mumbai. Those are the times, I wonder, how come this actor who always overdoes his roles and hams a lot, has managed to hold his audience captive for such a long period time? Is it because he had consciously built an image (and therefore an industry) around himself that people mistake for the real self? MGR, NTR, Jayalalita and a host of other actors have managed to piggybank on their respective images, thrived on regionalism and have ruled states.

Rajkumar, people say, was never inclined towards politics. But he did plunge himself into the ‘Gokak Agitation’ – an agitation that fought for the Kannada language. It maybe true that the agitation gained momentum after the superstar lent his support to it. Conversely maybe it is also true that the agitation too had helped Rajkumar to maintain and further the momentum of the image that he had so carefully developed during his time. Can it be said that the Gokak agitation propelled his image, his films and his career?

I am writing this within the anonymous comforts that the city of Mumbai provides to me. If I were in Bengaluru, die-hard Rajkumar fans would have probably lynched me for holding this opinion – like they lynched those policemen immediately after Rajkumar’s death. Even if I were to shout at the top of my voice, they probably wouldn't even consider the fact that I too was once a die-hard Rajkumar fan!