Singanalluru Puttaswamayya Muthuraju, better known as Rajkumar, a legend of Kannada cinema, was born on 24 April 1929 to a Kannada-speaking family. He died on 12 April 2006. ‘Annavaru’—or ‘respected elder brother’, as he was called fondly by millions of fans—acted in some 200 films in a career spanning five decades.
His birthplace was Gajanur in Tamil Nadu, then a part of Madras Presidency. His father, Singanalluru Puttaswamayya, a performing artiste, used to act in street plays. Rajkumar went to school till he was eight years old. Along with two of his younger brothers, he joined the Gubbi Veerana troupe as a child. He acted in some films in small roles as a minor.
The story goes that one day in 1953, the film director H.L.N. Simha, who was on the lookout for a youngster for his next film, saw him near a bus stand, renamed him Rajkumar, and cast him in the role of a Lord Shiva devotee in the 1954 film Bedara Kannappa (1954).
The film, a landmark in the state’s film history, gave a new direction to Kannada cinema.
A cultural icon is born
Rajkumar went on to star in dozens of mythological, devotional and historical films.
As Ravi Sharma wrote in the Frontline magazine after Rajkumar’s death: “While mythological films (in which he even played Ravana and Mahishasura) established his versatility, he essayed memorable roles in devotional films (Navakoti Narayana, Santha Tukaram, Bhaktha Kanakadasa, Mantralaya Mahathme and Mahathme Kabir) and films on folk heroes (Veera Kesari, Katari Veera and Bettada Huli). These roles went a long way in moulding his cult status. Social dramas, particularly those set in rural surroundings, gave his screen image a touch of the contemporary, again endearing him to the masses, especially women.”
Some of his popular roles include that of a young villager in Anna Thangi; a village simpleton who becomes the mayor in Mayor Muthanna; an honest agriculturist in Manina Maga; and a revolutionary in Mayura. He even played an Indian spy in a role inspired by James Bond.
The cult of Rajkumar
Around 15 years into his career, there emerged a group of Kannada filmmakers who were searching for actors whose performance was less theatrical.
Rajkumar did not shy away from the challenge. “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,” N. Manu Chakravarthy wrote in The Hindu in April 2006. “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.’
Rajkumar acted opposite dozens of south Indian heroines, including Jayanti, Pandaribai, Leelavathi, Bharati, Kalpana and Aarathi. He was also a singer, and lent his voice for many film songs.
Though he never joined active politics, he campaigned for taking pride in using Kannada language and supported issues that were of importance to Karnataka. The strongly regional roles he played in his films together with his promotion of Kannada language and culture made him extremely popular among common Kannadigas.
The final years
On 30 July 2000, Rajkumar was abducted by the forest brigand Veerappan from the actor’s home in Gajanur in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district, causing a huge uproar in Karnataka and elsewhere.
Nakkeeran Gopal, a magazine editor, who met the actor in captivity several times on behalf of the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, later told rediff.com: “What impressed me most was the way he [Rajkumar] lived there. Whatever food was given to him by Veerappan's gang, he would eat as if it were very tasty . . . I never heard him complain about the food. It is amazing for a person used to excellent food at home. He could adjust to life in the jungle so well without any tension or complaint only because of yoga and meditation.”
Rajkumar ended up spending 108 days in captivity, and was released on 15 November 2000.
He received a number of awards in his career. These included the Padma Bhushan, the Karnataka Ratna, and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. When he died on 12 April 2006 after a cardiac arrest, there was unrest in many parts of Karnataka. For many loyal fans, it seemed impossible to come to terms with his death.
Rajkumar continues to be remembered as one of the greatest cultural icons of Karnataka. Putting his popularity in perspective, The Guardian wrote after his death: “[A]dmirers installed statues of him in their household shrines, left him tributes of milk and honey — as they would with Hindu gods — cycled for miles for the openings of his Kannada-language films, and rioted when sold-out signs appeared outside cinemas. For many fans, the storyline did not matter. To some his movies were about ritual; to others a religious event.”
Also on this day:
1917 — Vinoo Mankad, legendary Indian cricketer, was born
1924 — F.N. Souza, Indian artist, was born
1928 — Akbar Padamsee, Indian artist, was born
2011 — Sachin Bhowmick, Indian screenwriter and director, was born