The iconic thespian Rajkumar is the soul-mate of the Kannada cosmos. He is the force that shaped the Kannada word and action. He is the magical power that nurtured Kannada morality and consciousness, including into his fold, even the unlettered. Brothers have to get married only after the sister does — unwritten values such as these were not taught to us by religious texts or by the constitution; we learnt them from Rajkumar's films.
The Unification of Karnataka and the release of “Bedara Kannappa” took place around the same time. Hence, 50 years of the State's existence has to be seen alongside Rajkumar's five decades in the Kannada film industry. And miraculously — the historical, mythological, social and spiritual — the variety of roles that he played came to stay as metaphors in the multi-cultural Kannada mind. From playing characters like Basavanna, Sarvajna, Kanakadasa, Purandaradasa, Pulikeshi, Krishnadevaraya, to films like “Naandi”, “Nandaadeepa”, “Uyyaale”, “Kasturi Nivasa”, “Eradu Kanasu”, and “Sarvamangala”, Rajkumar's huge canvas had a range of films and innumerable roles forming a vital part of Kannada's cultural imagination. The overall design that emerged from all his films was something no hero of any other language could claim – it was his pride of place.
When I set out to do a series on this iconic actor “Natasarvabhowmanige Namaskara”, I met a whole lot of people from the various phases of his life who had many interesting things to say that made up for Rajkumar and his personality. I will share a few incidents about the exalted actor which have filled my imagination. The random episodes do throw up a cohesive picture of this rare human being, if not a complete one.
In his theatre company days, the musician R. Paramasivan was his dear friend. Sharing memories of the good old days, Paramasivan sang a few songs that Rajkumar used to stunningly present on stage. While they were camping at Chitradurga, every morning Rajkumar and Paramasivan would climb to the top of the Fort and discuss their future. “What is our future story… with the pittance we earn do you think we will be able to lead our lives?” S.K. Karimkhan, who later went on to become a reputed folklorist, would also be present with them. “You both have bright futures. Why do you lose heart?” he would console them.
Nagarathnamma, Paramasivan's sister also pitches in with her affectionate memories. After the evening's play was over, all the actors would walk back home on the empty, dark streets. Children who were too exhausted to walk home rode piggy back on dear Mutturajanna . When he got the offer for his first film “Bedara Kannappa”, Nagarathnamma had fondly asked: “Mutturajanna, won't you buy me anything on this happy occasion?” With the little money he had, he bought a cloth piece to make a long skirt, and with ingenuous affection he had said, “don't tell anyone else dear”.
Despite his long years in the industry and his success as an actor, why did the Rajkumar-Puttanna Kanagal chemistry fail? KSL Swamy (Ravee), who was close to both, understood it thus: “Puttanna had an extraordinary ability to mould newcomers; he wasn't astute enough to get the best out of phenomenal talents like Rajkumar. For the film ‘Sati Shakti', Puttanna Kanagal was the assistant director. Rajkumar's acting in a particular scene was not appropriate. Puttanna was explaining and Raj was retaking… this went on for quite a while. At that point Raj requested, ‘Sir, why don't you demonstrate it for me…'. Immediately, Puttanna snapped, ‘If I were to act, why would I have called you?' Rajkumar was dumbstruck.” Later, when he was sitting all by himself, “Don't feel bad Rajanna,” Swamy had said, going up to him. “I'm not saddened by what Puttanna said, maybe I shouldn't have said, ‘why don't you demonstrate it for me…',” Rajkumar had offered in explanation.
According to critic P.G. Sreenivas, who lived in Madras and was witness to the growth of Kannada cinema, two choices that Rajkumar made were the chief reasons for his iconic status. That he would not act in films of any other language was one, and that he would not enter politics was the second. Linguist and scholar K.V. Narayan had once remarked that each community finds its own cultural leaders: Rajkumar was one such. He was a cultural icon chosen by the people. How do the present day leaders chosen by the strength of their power, money, caste and corruption view Rajkumar? How does the State see Rajkumar? According to actor Anant Nag, the operative is “fear” and “envy”. Hence, he says, that all newly elected ministers would unfailingly visit “Annavru” with their offering of fruits and flowers.
“Rajkumar never stayed away from politics because he had no understanding of it,” Vijayamma, a longstanding film critic and writer had said. “He knew politics well, and that was why he chose not to get into it.” In fact, it was on Rajkumar's behest that the Pampa Award for writers had been instituted, recalls Vijayamma. She also remembered how he was adamant that the “more deserving” Sivaji Ganesan must get the Phalke award and not him. By the time his friends could convince him, they were worn out.
Rajkumar had a strong liking to play the role of the villain. “There is that moment of transformation. The process and journey to that moment is invaluable,” he would explain. “Sleeping under the starry sky, it was an opportunity for me to introspect,” Rajkumar had said about the days that he spent with Veerappan; it was so starkly plain that it gave me goose bumps. I recall another answer distinctly. Just before releasing him, Veerappan had asked “What do you desire for?” and Rajkumar had said in reply, “I long to feel your moustache…” Rajkumar had very affectionately bid goodbye to Veerapan. “I am liberated, but what about him?” he had remarked.
That was Rajkumar.
(Translated by Deepa Ganesh)