Frontline Volume 17 - Issue 24, Nov. 25 - Dec. 08, 2000
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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COVER STORY

The eternal Kannada icon

ANUPAMA KATAKAM
in Bangalore

ALIGHTING from the helicopter that brought him back from 108 days in captivity, Rajkumar knelt down with his hands folded and paid respect to the Karnataka soil. He did not let his fans down. This is what he is loved for. This is what makes him a super s tar. He never fails to show the people of Karnataka that he is every bit a Kannadiga and proud of his State.

The helicopter, in fact, had first landed at the HAL airport, but on learning that thousands of fans were waiting at Jakkur airport at the other end of the city, Rajkumar, apparently insisted on being taken there. His followers were overjoyed. They had b een waiting several hours for the return of their beloved "Annavaru" (elder brother).

V. SREENIVASA MURTHY
Rajkumar paying respects to his native soil, on landing at the HAL airport.

On his way to Vidhan Soudha, the State Assembly, to address the press, Rajkumar's convoy passed through roads filled with people waving the yellow and red (unofficial) flag of Karnataka. At Vidhan Soudha, the police had to control a huge crowd from mobbi ng the film star. Even the normally aloof press corps clapped when he entered the hall. Rajkumar then went home to find several hundred fans and admirers gathered outside his house. In spite of his family's reservations, he insisted on making an appearan ce and spoke to those gathered from the balcony of his home. He was emotional and teary eyed when he saw the adulation. Being back in his home state among people who loved him was the central theme of his speech. And, at the conclusion of his thanks he d id not forget to add "Jai Karnataka Mate."

Seventy-two year-old Rajkumar is Karnataka's biggest film star. But more significantly he has become a symbol of Karnataka's people and, perhaps not intentionally, also a spokesman for Kannada consciousness. He may not know it and he may not want it, say s an observer, but events have taken over and now Rajkumar is synonymous with the pro-Kannada movement. He is an icon in Karnataka and very few people dispute that.

RAJKUMAR traces his origins to Doddagajanur, in Tamil Nadu, the village from where he was kidnapped by Veerappan on July 31, 2000. Rajkumar was born as P. Muthuraj on April 24, 1928 to Lakshmamma and Singanallur Puttaswamiah. His father was a well-known stage actor with the Gubbi Veerana troupe and Rajkumar toured the countryside with his parents and the drama company. As a result, academics took a back seat. Acting, however, became second nature to him. After the age of eight or nine, he abandoned his education to pursue a life in the theatre.

In 1954, Rajkumar made his film debut in the lead role of H.L.N Simha's production, based on G.V Iyer's play Bedara Kannappa. He played the part of a Shiva devotee who overcame the severest of tests to prove his devotion. This role established him as a human-cum-mythological hero. He continued to act in this genre of films for several years, as a historical, divine or mythological, or all three rolled into one, character. Rajkumar's image, mainly moulded by veteran director G.V. Iyer, became the focus for a quest for Karnataka's cultural glory. The bulk of his historical dramas (Ranadheera Kantheerava, Immadi Pulikeshi) and mythological films "were geared to a populist, regional-chauvinist version of Karnataka's history focussing on Dravi dian feudalism's resistance to the North Indian agrarian systems".

Most of his films were of epic proportions. The costumes were elaborate and Rajkumar played each role with aplomb. The films presented a populist version of Karnataka's history, focussing primarily on the southern kingdoms from the Pallava period to the Vijayanagara empire and later to the intrigue and mystery of the Mysore royalty. Rajkumar later expanded his expression from mythologicals to the contemporary with Bangarada Manushya.

In all the films, his persona takes upon himself all the burdens. Iyer once commented that Rajkumar's talent lies in his versatility and his skills are illustrated by the way he modulates his performances from the historical to the mythological (Sri K annika Parameswari Kathe), from contemporary melodrama (Karulina Kare) to James Bond thrillers (Goadalli CID 999 and his Dorairaj-Bhagwan films.) A key pointer to his rise as a Kannada icon is that he never acted in any other language f ilm.

Forty-two years after his film debut, Rajkumar was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1996 for his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema. He was the first actor from Karnataka and the fifth from South India to receive the highest recognition in th e film industry. In a career spanning 45 years, he has acted in approximately 204 films. He was given the Padma Bhushan in 1983 and he is a 12-time recipient of the State award for best actor. He has won 14 national awards and 16 State awards. In additio n, he is an accomplished singer.

Unlike his contemporaries M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao, Rajkumar never entered politics, nor is he connected to any political party either. He is however, linked to the Akhila Karnataka Dr. Rajkumar Abhimanigala Sangha - a quasi political organisa tion. The sangha members are proponents of the pro-Kannada movement. The organisation was involved in the Cauvery riots of October 1990, in which Tamils were targeted. Although Rajkumar personally did not take sides and has distanced himself from these i ssues, his fans have been actively involved in Kannada nationalist campaigns.

Rajkumar in Bangarada Manushya.

Perhaps his only brush with politics was in 1982-83, when he toured Karnataka addressing public meetings to protest against the non-implementation of the V.K. Gokak Committee Report. The report recommended imparting education in the State in Kannada.

According to Madhava Prasad, Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, stars like Rajkumar need their followers, but after a point the activities of the fan associations are beyond their control. Prasad says that Rajkumar's person ality is gentle and the actor is modest about his achievements. "He is quite humble for a star." The bottom line appears to be that he has no political aspirations yet he plays an important role in the State.

When he was released from captivity, he told his followers: "My abduction is a great lesson for the country. Especially for the two southern States, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Despite my hardships and ordeal, I must say that it is a blessing in disguise b ecause it underlines the urgent need for the much required unity between Tamils and Kannadigas." Coming from him such a statement can go a long way. His influence and power among the people of Karnataka cannot be dismissed that easily.

This was made quite clear when he was abducted three months ago. Fans went on the rampage. They shattered windows in buildings, burnt a bus, targeted Tamil Nadu registered cars and two wheelers. They literally shut down Bangalore city for a few days. The weeks that followed saw vehicles and buildings pasted with Rajkumar posters and yellow and red flags. Fans performed "urule sevas", some even threatened to go into the jungle and rescue him. Veerappan had a prize catch in Rajkumar. Even the existence of the State government would have been threatened if anything had happened to the thespian.


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