Growing up in Bangalore (especially during the early and mid eighties) meant that there were a few things one took for granted. Great weather even in summer, very long lunch breaks when all stores would be closed, peaceful avenues to walk in, high pollen levels and mild asthma, pleasant conversation starting with “coffee (kapi)/oota aitha”, and the omniscient presence of Rajkumar.
Rajkumar was truly more than a mortal. He was Karnataka’s greatest pride. Kannada cinema was doing quite well at box offices then, and compared well with cinema from neighboring Andhra or Tamil Nadu. But both those other regions had “two” superstars each, one a popular crowd pleaser, the other an actor in search of perfection. The Telugu masses flocked to N. T. Rama Rao’s movies, worshipping him as Rama or Krishna (depending on his last screen role), while reserving their admiration for Akkineni Nageshwar Rao’s acting skills. Tamil masses adored their savior, M. G. Ramachandran, while being mesmerized by Shivaji Ganesan’s histrionics. But only Kannada cinema had Rajkumar, the complete package, and crowd puller cum actor. When he was on screen, mothers and grandmothers would cry when he did, and men would wish they were as brave, honorable and valiant as he was on screen.
It was hard to resist this heady mix.
Especially when television was still at its infancy in India. Cable TV was a distant dream. Heck, even a second channel on Doordarshan didn’t exist. Entertainment was the Kannada movie on Saturday evenings, cartoons on Sunday morning, and the Hindi movie on Sunday evening. Which meant that one third of my early television entertainment was Kannada cinema (not really, since I watched way more Tamil and English movies on video, but I’ll stick to that claim here), and one third of all Kannada movies shown had Rajkumar as hero. Practically a sixth of all my early television entertainment was dominated by the man himself, and I would wait with baited breath for his confrontation scenes with Vajramuni, villain par excellence. Other actors in Kannada cinema (Vishnuvardhan, Anant Nag, Ambareesh) weren’t close to the throne. They weren’t even in sighting distance of the throne. That belonged to only one person. Rajkumar.
The man was also gifted with a reasonably good voice (no, it wasn’t spectacular), so Kannada record companies turned around their sagging fortunes by churning out devotional songs sung by Dr. R. That meant that every bus in the state, as well as an assortment of households, temples, meeting halls and any thing else played his songs every morning (and often during afternoons and evenings also). With such power, it was hardly a surprise that Rajkumar was omniscient. He wasn’t a person, he was a complete economy. There was little wonder then that I was seduced by his power. No one else in the state could hold a matchstick to Rajkumar.
And to top it all, he didn’t contest elections or try to influence them. He didn’t make demands or statements on TV or newspapers. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, leading a peaceful, normal life as best he could. In fact, it was almost unanimously agreed that his only real sin was to allow his sons to become actors. Shivarajkumar an actor?……maaaaaaybe. But those other two creatures?
And so life went on, and I continued to consume masala dosas, bise belle and khara bath, and grow in to my teens. An entire lifetime had passed, but I had still never actually seen the man. How could he possibly be everywhere, and yet I had never seen him? There had to be something wrong.
And then, one day, my quest came to an end. I was making my way back home from Malleshwaram. As the auto neared Natraj theater, suddenly traffic came to a standstill (ok, you laugh now, but it was a rarity in the early-mid nineties). The auto driver got all excited, and showed little interest in proceeding forward, as apparently did any one else. The crowd appeared restive, and a little too boisterous for my liking. It was the 100th day celebration of “Akasmika” (which means “by chance”). The hoardings and cutouts around the cinema appeared larger today, and were decorated with garlands. Loud-speakers blared hit songs from the movie. A few thousand people clogged the streets. There was a small pedestal visible at the entrance to the theater. On it were a couple of people. Then a third got on to it, a lean, balding gentleman who appeared to be in his sixties, but looked quite fit for that, appeared vaguely familiar to me.
And then my auto driver yelled “Annavaru bandru”, and got out of the auto, leaving me behind.
It was the man himself, standing on a pedestal, waving gently at the crowd.
I saw Rajkumar.