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|April 04, 1997||
Who, in contemporary filmdom, has Rajkumar's appeal?
Kannada matinee idol Dr Rajkumar, on learning that the Dadasaheb Phalke award is his, must have flashed a wry smile - after all, who else could it go to anyway? Who else, in contemporary filmdom, has an iota of the Kannada icon's appeal?
Dr Rajkumar had demonstrated that appeal just before his 65th birthday that his last released film, Aakasmika, opened to unprecedented gates.
This, despite a small budget, a total absence of hype and hysteria and almost no pre-launch publicity of the kind that accompanies the launch of even the biggest of Bollywood's flops.
Come to think of it, Rajkumar is almost old enough to be the father of most of Bollywood's heroes - the ones who, time after time, star in multi-million extravaganzas that open to lukewarm gates.
And it was a paternal lesson that he administered with his latest triumph - that there is no substitute for class.
Aakashmika, translated into English, equals 'By Chance' - and yet there was nothing chancy about the success of Rajkumar's first film in over a year and a half, the previous offering having been the mid-1994 Jeevana Chaitra.
Given how infrequent a Rajkumar release is, he really doesn't need to manufacture excitement - the very fact of his appearance on the marquee is enough of an event to generate its own momentum. The more so when, as with this film, the release is delayed by months while the fever builds up.
"The delay was due to the prevailing situation in the wake of the Ayodhya incidents," said the matinee idol by way of explanation.
In any event, people were queueing up for tickets some days before the latest opus, helmed by award-winning director T S Nagabharana, was due for release. And on day one of the film's outing, cinema houses put out proud signs informing the public that no tickets were to be had, for love or for money, for the next seven days.
The notice was enough to send fans on a rampage of poster-tearing, of glass destroying. And yet, amidst their mindless fury at being denied the chance to see a Rajkumar film on the day of its release, the berserk fans ensured that not one picture of the adored star was harmed.
The matinee idol's popularity can be guaged from the fact that one group cycled all the way from Rajkumar's native village Singanallur to Mysore to catch the film on the day of its release, while other groups of fans performed poojas for its success. Meanwhile, Mysore was criss-crossed with processions, complete with brass bands, of Rajkumar fans celebrating the fact that their hero had made it to the marquee yet again.
In Hassan, Rajkumar cutouts were ritualistically bathed in milk and honey - a ritual that even Hassan's most famous native, a certain H D Deve Gowda, did not qualify for when he became federal prime minister.
As always, the first glimpse of Rajkumar in this film is of his feet - a building up of suspense, or mark of respect, is debatable. As always, villains and vamps trying to tangle with the matinee idol are roundly booed. And as always, even those film critics with pretensions to intelligence knew better than to write the merest hint of criticism of an actor who has transcended the genre and who is, in Karnataka, up there with the gods of the Hindu pantheon in terms of the reverence his name evokes. In fact, a critic who had, on an earlier occasion, dared to wax sarcastic about Rajkumar's less than Grecian nose found himself kidnapped.
In over 200 films in a 40-year career, Rajkumar has played every shade of role. And, in the process, proved that he does not need big budgets and bigger star casts to turn a profit. His previous outing, Jeevana Chaitra, was budgeted at Rs 2.5 million - and its profits worked out to around the Rs 30 million mark.
And given that he produces most of his own films, the lion's share of the moolah flows into Rajkumar's own pockets.
Given his immense clout with the masses, it was perhaps inevitable that political parties would woo him with enviable persistence. And given the nature of the man himself, it is perhaps as inevitable that he would steadfastly steer clear of the 'political cesspool' - his own words - though he never does shy away from speaking out on issues that move him.
Thus, Rajkumar has to his credit a successful campaign for the primacy for Kannada language in the state, another against the release of the dubbed version of Sanjay Khan's teleserial The Sword of Tipu Sultanon Bangalore Doordarshan.
Rajkumar has three sons - Dr Raghavendra Rajkumar, Shiva Rajkumar and Puneeth Rajkumar. All three are in their own ways involved in the Karnataka film industry. And wife Parvathamma is probably the most important film producer in the state.
Interestingly, though Rajkumar's daughter is married to the son of former chief minister Sarekoppa Bangarappa, that fact did not stop the matinee star from choosing, as the subject of Jeevana Chaitra, the battle between the hero and an illicit liquor lobby.
The film greatly embarrassed the then government headed by Bangarappa himself - a government, more, that owed its existence and most of its support to the cash-rich liquor lobby. Bangarappa attempted to gain political mileage out of the disaster by nominating his relative by marriage for the Karnataka Ratna award.
And now it is the Dadasaheb Phalke award - which will take its place alongside the Karnataka Ratna, the framed doctorate from Mysore University and, of course, the Padma Bhushan on Rajkumar's mantelpiece.
With advancing years, most celluloid stars evince a diminishing of popularity. Inevitable, perhaps, given that their fans too grow old, and the newer generations find younger stars to indentify with. But not so Rajkumar, who has retained not only the fans of his youth, but added to the bandwagon their sons and even grandsons, in a tribute to his ageless appeal.
It is ironic, perhaps, that the same village - Singanallur - should have given Karnataka its most famous, and its most notorious, citizen. For Rajkumar, born Muthuraj, shares a birthplace with a certain Koose Muniswamy Gounder - more notorious as the sandalwood smuggler and brigand Veerappan.
But that, perhaps, is one of life's little ironies - for there could be nothing as disparate as the cop-killing, elephant-slaughtering Veerappan and Rajkumar, the matinee idol, an accomplished singer of both film tunes and bhajans and, by all accounts, an aesthete who has, in his advancing years, developed a marked penchant for religion. Incidentally, most of his devotional songs are in honour of Raghavendra Swami - who ranks among his followers the likes of Tamil film icon Rajnikanth, and classical singing doyen Bhimsen Joshi.
Amidst all this, there is and has always been a more human side to the star. Thus, Rajkumar has, through the medium of his fans, been accused of undermining the careers of some rivals - vide Vishnuvardhan, who threatened to quit Karnataka if his films kept getting sabotaged, and relented only when Rajkumar waved the flag of peace.
But such things are not written about - for in Karnataka, there is not one person who, dazzled by the halo surrounding the celluloid icon, has the inclination to move his gaze downwards, to feet that may, or may not, be of clay.
And then again, who in Karnataka cares?
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