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!