As the news of Rajkumar’s death spread, the defenses of the dotcom land crashed. There was no logic at hand to explain the mob fury that burnt down vehicles, stoned buildings and even killed policemen on duty. Rajkumar’s fans have always offered him a frenzied adulation, but nobody thought that they would miss the solemnity and quiet dignity of death. Strangely, when I had met him a couple of years ago, he had seemed indifferent to his fame and fans. He had said he did not know or understand Rajkumar who was the darling of the masses. He believed he was only Muthuraj, his father’s son, and the rest was all unreal, a concoction of the people to meet their own needs.
During the meeting, he had appeared lost in eternity. The way he spoke looked as if he was completely detached from the present. Nostalgia seemed to be his only driving force. As he rested on his pillow of memories, his eyes grew moist and he constantly wiped it from the tip of his white dhoti. There was a tempered meditative resonance in his voice. I had wondered if this man, at the centre of five-crore Kannadigas’ hysterical extolment, was very lonely inside. Or else, why would he escape from his glorious present?
In May 2004, I had met Rajkumar for more than four hours for a profile and photo-shoot. That was my first and only meeting. Now, two years down the line, when he is making his final journey through the streets of Bangalore, I am trying to desperately recall our meeting and the snatches of conversation we had, but strangely I remember very little. Perhaps there was no conversation at all. The only thing that has remained etched in my mind is the man’s loneliness. We got up thrice to leave, but he gestured to us (my photographer colleague and me) to sit down for some more time. After more cups of juice and tea and well past his lunch time, after having unsuccessfully pestered us to eat with him, he walked out of his Sadashivanagar bungalow to see us off. As I was getting into my car, he had asked me to watch my head. This warning had touched me, as I thought it was some linking up of destiny. My father had just then recovered from a near fatal clot in the brain.
In retrospect, I think my Bengali-speaking colleague had a better time that day. They did not understand a word of each others’ language, but Saibal Das got Rajkumar to do all that he wanted for his camera. Rajkumar even performed a special pooja to the Ganesha installed at his bungalow gate. As Saibal kept clicking ceaselessly, Rajkumar grew anxious; he thought he was failing to generate the right expressions and therefore the photographer was exhausting his film rolls. And at that privileged moment, I told the veteran actor not to worry about his expressions. "Photographers go mad the moment they see celebrities," I had quipped. He had laughed and remained calm during the rest of the shoot.
But if Saibal had not been so persistent, we would not have probably captured the immortal frame in which Rajkumar is standing in front of his father’s dramatic portrait. The picture on the wall showed his father in the mythological role of Kamsa sporting a thick, scary, rolled up handle-bar moustache. As I guided Rajkumar to that picture, he stood with his hands folded in front of it. Saibal looked at me with displeasure. Not knowing what to do, I told Rajkumar that ‘folded-hands’ was not working. He gave a smile, unlocked his hands and started rolling the imaginary moustache on his clean shaven face. That was the picture and the final one. "So, until I rolled my moustache, this man did not stop shooting, ask him if he is scared and needs some water," he had said, laughing.
Something else that stands out from that day’s experience is Rajkumar making a brief clinical examination of his two selves. I did not think of it much then, but now when he is dead, it echoes loud in my mind. I had asked him what he thought of fame: "Which fame, the fame that Rajkumar achieved? I don’t know much about it. Rajkumar the actor, the language activist and cultural icon is different from this mortal, unlettered Muthuraj. Rajkumar is a creation of the public, they created him for their own needs, but this Muthuraj does not understand all that. He will go to the grave as his father’s son, a simple village guy who took to acting to feed his wife and children."
For the rest, let me revisit what I wrote for Outlook then. There are some fresh new paragraphs, as afterthoughts of course:
Rajkumar, the Kannada superstar and cultural icon had just completed 75 years (April 24) and it was also the golden jubilee year of his film career (on May 7, 1954, his first film Bedara Kannapa was released), but there was complete silence across Karnataka. There was hardly any celebration for this personal and professional landmark of a man who was largely responsible for creating, through his films, the feel and extent of the Kannada land in post-Independent India.
"Even before the states were linguistically reorganized, the default border of Karnataka was the last point where Rajkumar's films were being distributed," observed linguist and acting vice-chancellor of Kannada University Prof. K V Narayana. Rajkumar's own birthday message had also reflected certain tiredness: "I have no energy to act anymore. In my current state I can only act the role of a handicapped person." His tiredness, as if, was symptomatic of all local cultures.
In an era of globalization, had local cultures moved on, leaving behind icons like Rajkumar who once imparted identity and meaning to their existence? I had wondered. Was Rajkumar, like one of those former maharajas without a kingdom, confined to his palace with just a few loyal retainers? Were there others who had taken his throne with the boundaries blurring, having become seamless and virtual? Or had the ground rules of public adulation and 'iconhood' undergone a sea change?
A lot of these hazy cultural currents seemed to be determining the dynamics of the game and this was perhaps precisely what had apparently made Rajkumar the last of the Kannada cultural icons. Essentially, the current heroes in the cultural field, unlike Rajkumar, seem to have a pan-Indian and a pan-world reach. It is quite easy to assume as to where the real competition comes from. Be it from corporate heroes such as Narayanamurthy or cricketers like Kumble and Dravid. "In the recent past, people who have succeeded in the pursuit of mammon have jolted the positions of heroes firmly rooted in the soil," Prof. Narayana had pointed out.
It was amazing then as to how a Google-search for Rajkumar was dominated by the Veerappan kidnap episode, as if he never existed before the unsavoury episode. Like the times modern, the Internet too ignores history. In fact, by the time the incident happened in August 2000, Rajkumar had acted in 205 Kannada films, amounting to nearly 25 per cent of films produced by the Kannada film industry in its entire history.
However, many people in the industry saw the Veerapan kidnap episode as the turning point for the hero's "fall from the pedestal". The incident exposed the mortality of a star, said a film producer. "How could people accept their hero pleading for release from an enigmatic villain, many of whom he had tackled single-handedly on the screen?" the producer had asked.
But there were disagreements to this argument: "The Veerapan incident was probably the last straw, but the decline had started as early as the mid-70s, when different groups like the Dalits, farmers, Backward Classes had started asserting their identities and the idea of a single hero unifying the entire culture or the idea of centralized leadership had begun to wane. That is also partially the reason as to why we do not see any tall leader post-Devaraj Urs, in the political arena of Karnataka," argued a cultural historian.
An icon or a hero has to reinvent himself constantly to survive generational changes and probably there was no such scope in the case of Rajkumar. A dozen children with middle class backgrounds, in the age group of 18-25, confessed that they were not exactly familiar with Kannada movies. It appeared that the baton had simply not been passed on, not just in the Rajkumar case, but in the context of the Kannada language itself. The stagnating readership of Kannada newspapers and sales of Kannada books could be viewed as strong indicators of this change. "Kannada’s present crisis is like my knee-pain, it keeps reminding you that you are reaching the end," Rajkumar had said.
The situation was entirely different a couple of decades ago: "When Kannada print journalism was witnessing a boom in the 70s and 80s, the first cover of any newly-launched magazine invariably carried the picture of Rajkumar. This ensured a certain commercial and cultural acceptance," pointed out a veteran film journalist.
With the IT revolution the Kannada middle class, that supported Rajkumar's position within the culture, appeared terribly distracted. The generation that swore by Rajkumar had grown old and it is an intelligent guess that most of them are taking care of their grandchildren in the West Coast of the US, occasionally playing the songs sung by Rajkumar on their hi-fi system.
The middle class amnesia appears to have taken a toll of all that is local. One of their new heroes, Narayanamurthy, at one point even recommended active pursuance of the English language at the cost of the Kannada tongue to just be ahead in business. Contrast this with the solemn vow that Rajkumar took at the beginning of his career that he would never act in any language movie other than the Kannada ones, this when he could have easily been a multilingual star in the South.
Besides the middle class, Rajkumar had a huge fan following even among other classes and there was also an active fan club to represent it. When a movement was launched in the early 80s to demand widespread use of Kannada in all walks of life, Rajkumar led the movement from the front and around that time his fan club was tempted to test his popularity at the polls, but Rajkumar preferred saintly self-banishment from public life and at a later point even clarified that he had nothing to do with the fan club. This was in complete contrast to what happened in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
The 'apoliticalness' of Rajkumar endeared him to the middle class. Writer and film personality M Bhaktavatsala put it across succinctly: "Rajkumar was never comfortable playing God like N T Rama Rao who was literally worshipped as Lord Krishna, nor was he a political animal like MGR, he was always a great devotee. It was his roles like Bakta Kumbara, Bedara Kannappa, Bakta Ambareesha, Santa Tukaram that brought him closer to the people."
Rajkumar himself seemed to confirm it: "I have always been a viewer, in the sense that I have never kept the focus on myself. I see god in my admirers," he had said.
There were also other things that built the Raj Kumar mystique: His simple lifestyle, glowing humility, his devotional songs, the big dose of liberal humanism in his films, practice of yoga, abstention from alcohol and tobacco and a genuine thirst for anonymity. His off-screen image matched his on-screen one. There is not a single frame in his movies in which he is seen consuming alcohol or smoking a cigarette. Also, the best model of standardized Kannada tongue could be found in Rajkumar's speech.
But then what do we do about the disconnect between a leader and his people? The man had skirted the issue and was at his unpretentious best: "I have done nothing for Kannada or Karnataka, all that I have done is to feed my family and myself, I just feel blessed that people put me on a pedestal" he declared. He referred to his knee-pain and said: "It has been there and when I cannot banish it, I have made the pain part of my body."
Probably that is what he had done with the cultural situation too, he had come to accept the inevitable. Rajkumar was the last in a line of icons that once defined Kannada pride at its most visionary and liberal. These included literary giants like D.R. Bendre, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, Shivarama Karanth, A.N. Krishna Rau and K.V. Puttappa, and Sir M. Vishvesvaraya, the visionary engineer and Diwan of the erstwhile Mysore state.
One of the greatest powers we can ordinarily hope to have is to influence the way we are remembered. That abortive Google search did not bode well: if this gentle hero of Kannada culture were remembered only for an unfortunate encounter with a brigand, it would truly be a travesty of fate.
With his passing on, perhaps it is only fitting that we are reminded of his lasting legacy, even as there is no logic at hand to explain the mob fury that burnt down vehicles, stoned buildings and even killed policemen on duty. Rajkumar’s fans have always offered him a frenzied adulation, but one had hoped that they would honour the solemnity and quiet dignity of death.