Kannada matinee idol Rajkumar was clearly a victim of the forces of his times

A megastar is clearly a product of the times and in him are situated the dreams, desires, aspirations and even the will of the people. In a sense, the great hero symbolises the varied expectations of the people forcing him to play different roles both as an actor and a human being. The double bind is set forever. Different groups of people look up to the star for fulfilment of their own emotional needs, thereby making it obligatory for the hero to portray all kind of roles — ranging from a lover boy, a saint, a king, a noble politician to an effective secret service agent. The hero is the universal paradigm capable of being everything. This is an attempt to historicise the gradual emergence of Rajkumar in the context of Kannada films and Karnataka's cultural life.

Star phenomenon

A crucial qualification needs to be made while dealing with the star phenomenon. As far as the superstars of the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films are concerned, all the superstars, with the lone exception of MGR, be it Sivaji Ganesan, N.T. Rama Rao, Nageshwara Rao or Rajkumar have exhibited pronounced histrionic talents capturing the imagination of their respective communities. It is only MGR who, as a superstar, brought in an ideological element into the being of a hero. It cannot be said about the others that they were as shaped by a strong ideological consciousness as MGR was by the DMK movement. The epithet Vaadyar (teacher) given to MGR supports this. Rajkumar represents the consolidation of various cultural and political upheavals in the erstwhile Mysore State and the present day Karnataka. Rajkumar who begins his film career without a strong ideological consciousness gets drawn into crucial political and cultural debates because of historical exigencies and cannot escape becoming an icon. Because of these compulsions, the path of the actor branches out in several directions compelling him to play roles not quite matching his basic temperament. It also explains the loss of direction and the disappearance of an organic perspective as far as the Kannada Film Industry is concerned, which, trying to capitalise on the superstar's public image, gives up fundamental political and cultural questions. Interestingly enough, the story of Muthuraj becoming Dr. Rajkumar is also, in a broad sense, the history of mainstream Kannada films. The fading away of Udayakumar and Kalyan Kumar, the unleashing of a Kannada consciousness and the absence of a megastar to match the towering presence of MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, NTR and Nageshwara Rao and the pleasing image of Rajkumar produced the ideal situation for the emergence of the film star as an icon. It will have to be conceded that the need for an icon was a great cultural necessity and was not an accident of history. Rajkumar emerged as a product of the times, symbolising the aspirations of the people. That ethos was captured in Rajkumar's 100th film Bhagyada Bagilu where the superstar declared his omnipresence with the song "Naane Rajakumara... Kannada thaayiya premada kuvara" (I am Rajkumar, the lovable son of mother Kannada). Another historical event that boosted Rajkumar's image as a cultural icon was the Gokak movement. Rajkumar was at the head of the movement, the actual culmination of his position as a superstar and a cultural icon. The spirit of the times was at work yet again in the life of the hero of the masses. But there is an element of sadness, one could even call it a tragedy of the times, that is connected with Rajkumar the actor. It also explains the crisis that the Kannada Film Industry faces today. Rajkumar's acting career can be roughly divided into three phases, which mark three important stages of the Kannada film world too. As an actor, Rajkumar is a product of a particular tradition of acting which believed in exaggerated gestures and dialogue delivery. The style of acting comes from the theatre which thrived on rhetoric and flourish. Rajkumar revelled in such roles where exaggeration was natural and innocent too. Portraying Ranadheera Kanteerava, Sri Krishnadevaraya or even the anti-hero rakshasa Hiranya Kashipu was done within a specific, stylised structure where modern canons of acting did not operate sharply. On the other hand, one did notice a variation, where the high mimetic mode softened quite a bit, when Rajkumar played the roles of Santa Tukaram, Raghavendra Swamy, Sathya Harishchandra... where "bhakti" became central. The element of bhakti was part of the cultural ethos of Rajkumar and the portrayal of saints and ardent devotees of the Lord again operated within the parameters of the indigenous cultural system. It is in such roles that one can behold elements of innocence and authenticity in Rajkumar. The second phase is not much talked about, and, tragically enough, is almost totally forgotten. It marks the mergence of a different conception of acting, idea of music and a new concept of direction. The mid sixties, with the advent of director N. Lakshminarayan, is perhaps the first pointer to the birth of the new wave of Kannada cinema in the Seventies. Lakshminarayan made Naandi and Uyyale, K.S.L. Swamy made Gandhinagara and at the same time came Sarvamangala featuring Rajkumar in roles where histrionic talent was of no consequence. To an extent Rajkumar revealed that he could handle roles that were mellow and soft. He had to undergo a transformation and he did succeed in effecting a change in his style of acting. It is a sad comment on Kannada culture that the most vocal supporters, fans and biographers of Rajkumar do not recognise this as his most important phase. With the "low mimetic" mode of N. Lakshminarayan not really taking off and the rousing success of "loud" films and acting tying up with Rajkumar's iconic status the industry was ready to push the megastar into areas opened up by Hollywood and the Bombay film industry. The fans, of course, lapped up whatever was served. Moreover, the industry found a wonderful opportunity to enhance its reputation using Rajkumar in all possible ways. Rajkumar blazed forth as the lover boy and even made forays into the world of detectives and secret service agents. Singing and dancing, he became the ageless romantic and in the bond-type movies he became the super detective saving the land from enemies. Even a casual viewing of films such as Shankar Guru, Premada Kaanike, Choori Chikkanna and such other films shows how uncomfortable and unconvincing Rajkumar was while portraying such characters. Clearly they were modelled after the Hollywood heroes and the dream boys from the Bombay film world. It needed a sophistication of a particular modern ethos to do such roles which Rajkumar did not have and certainly did not train hard to cultivate.

Market forces

In any case they were roles designed by money spinning sources with no conviction or credibility. It was sheer opportunism and enterprise that gave birth to such films, making Rajkumar the superhero and the unrecognised victim at the same time. Surely enough, the modern spirit had made inroads into the indigenous structures dominating the attitudes of filmmakers and the taste of the general public. It is unfortunate, that this went unrecognised by those in possession of the fate of the industry, who continued to exploit the status of the star and managed to push him into areas beyond his indigenous constitution and native consciousness. The corporatised world thrives on apolitical stances and positions and dehistoricised contexts and events and cares nothing for deep historical configurations. It is in confronting this global phenomenon that we can hope to recover our little spaces and cultures and save our indigenous modes from utter annihilation. The story of Rajkumar can still be rewritten, even after his death, opening a new horizon for the world of Kannada cinema. Courtesy: Deep Focus