The final (English) interview of Dr Raj Kumar

Two years ago, Sugata Srinivasaraju, the Bangalore correspondent of Outlook magazine met Dr Raj Kumar on the eve of his 75th birthday. This is what Dr Raj told him. "Raj Kumar is a creation of the public: they created him for their own needs. 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."

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DR RAJ KUMAR: the definitive appraisal

He appeared lost in eternity. The way he spoke, it looked like 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 wondered if this man, at the centre of five-crore Kannadigas' frenzied adulation, was very lonely inside. Or else, why would he escape from his glorious present? In May 2004, I met Raj Kumar for more than four hours for a profile for Outlook magazine and a photo-shoot. That was my first and only meeting.

Now, two years down the line, after he has made 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 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.

When I was getting into my car, he asked me to watch my head. This warning 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 Raj Kumar to do all that he wanted for his camera.

Raj Kumar even performed a special pooja to the Ganesha installed at his bungalow gate. As Saibal kept clicking ceaselessly Raj Kumar 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 quipped. Dr Raj 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 Raj Kumar 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 Raj Kumar 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 Raj Kumar 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?" the actor said laughing.

Something else that stands out from that day's experience is Raj Kumar making a brief clinical examination of his two selves. Yes, his two selves.

I did not think of it much then, but now when he is dead it echoes loud in my mind. I asked him what he thought of fame.

"Which fame? The fame that Raj Kumar achieved? I don't know much about it. Raj Kumar the actor, the language activist, cultural icon is different from this mortal, unlettered Muthuraj,” he said.

“Raj Kumar 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."

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When Raj Kumar turned 75 two years ago, it was also the golden jubilee year of his film career (his first film Bedara Kannappa was released on May 7), 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 Raj Kumar's films were being distributed," observed linguist Prof. K V Narayana.

Raj Kumar's own birthday message, which he delivered during that interview, also reflected a certain tiredness: "I have no energy to act any more. In my current state I can only act the role of a handicapped person."

His tiredness was symptomatic of all local cultures. In an era of globalization local cultures had moved on, leaving behind icons like Raj Kumar who once imparted identity and meaning to their existence. Raj Kumar, by then, was like one of those former maharajas without a kingdom, confined to their palace with just a few retainers. Were there others who had taken his throne when the boundaries had 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 seem to be determining the dynamics of the game and this is what apparently made Raj Kumar the last of the Kannada cultural icons.

Essentially, the current heroes in the cultural field, unlike Raj Kumar, seem to have a pan-Indian and a pan-world reach. It is quite easy to assume as to where the real competition is coming from. It is from corporate heroes like N.R. Narayanamurthy and cricketers like Anil Kumble and Rahul 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," said Prof. Narayana.

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It is amazing as to how a Google-search for Raj Kumar is 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, Raj Kumar had acted in 205 Kannada films, that amounts 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 asked.

But there are 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 Raj Kumar. Young people with middle class backgrounds, in the age group of 18-25, confessed that they were not exactly familiar with Kannada movies.

The baton had simply not been passed on, not just in the Raj Kumar case, but in the context of the Kannada language itself.

The stagnating readership of Kannada newspapers and sales of Kannada books are strong indicators of this change that has come about. "Kannada's present crisis is like my knee-pain, it keeps reminding you that you are reaching the end," Raj Kumar 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 Raj Kumar. This ensured a certain commercial and cultural acceptance," points out a veteran film journalist.

With the IT revolution the Kannada middle class, that supported Raj Kumar's position within the culture, appears terribly distracted. The generation that swore by Raj Kumar has 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 Raj Kumar 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 Raj Kumar 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, Raj Kumar 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, Raj Kumar led the movement from the front and around that time his fan club was tempted to test his popularity at the polls, but Raj Kumar 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, again, 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: "Raj Kumar 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 Bhakta Kumbara, Bedara Kannappa, Bakta Ambareesha, Santa Tukaram that brought him closer to the people."

Raj Kumar himself confirmed 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 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 can be found in Raj Kumar's speech.

But then what do we do about the disconnect between a leader and his people? The man 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 declares.

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 did with the cultural situation too; he came to accept it as inevitable.

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Raj Kumar is 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 does 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.

(Sugata Srinivasaraju is the Bangalore correspondent of Outlook magazine. Portions of the original profile have been incorporated for purposes of this article.)