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December 20, 1999


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The return of Rajakumar

M D Riti in Bangalore

Dr Rajakumar with his wife Parvathamma and co-star, Jayapradha
Dr Rajakumar with his wife Parvathamma and co-star, Jayapradha
Click for bigger pic!
For his fans, it was a long wait. Almost six years of not seeing their favourite superstar on the screen. And wondering whether they ever would again. Only his promise that he had not retired kept them going. And the occasional musical evenings that he entertained them with, all dedicated to some noble cause.

Then, finally, Rajakumar, 71, started work on his comeback film, Shabdavedi, in summer this year. The film is, as usual, produced by his wife, Parvathamma. For his fans, the chase was on again.

They tracked him all over Bangalore and its suburbs for six months, enjoying every minute of the pursuit and every glimpse of their idol in make-up and costume. So did, as we attempted to interview the icon and, in the process, followed Rajakumar through his shooting schedules all over the city.

There were restrictions, of course. No one could take photographs while the shooting was in progress. We could only get shots of the stars on the sets, but not actual stills of the film.

So we followed Rajakumar from his studio sets, where he completed scenes with his heroine, Jayapradha, in his make-believe home, to crowded outdoor locations in the city like the busy K R Circle. We pursued him to Abhiman Studio on the city's outskirts, and to a mega fight sequence that was shot at the Big Banyan Tree just outside Bangalore. The latter even featured stunt fighters hired from Bombay . Appropriately enough, given the religious and God-fearing man that Rajakumar is, we watched him conclude his last schedule at the popular Rama Mandira in Rajajinagar.

We chatted with Kannada cinema's popular star Shivaraj over cups of tea at his huge house right beside his father's, and heard all about how his father could enthuse even the juniormost of technicians into throwing their hearts into their job. We exercised beside his youngest son, Puneet, and got updates about the movie between stomach crunches.

In a sense, the progress of the movie ran parallel with Puneet's engagement and marriage: his engagement to longstanding sweetheart Ashwini was announced at the launch of Shabdavedi's audio cassette and he got married soon after the unit completed a strenuous round of outdoor shooting in Kashmir at the end of November.

Accompanying the unit on its Kashmir stint was Kampiah, Mysore's police commissioner, better known to the world as the man who tracked Rajiv Gandhi's assassin, Sivarasan, to his hideout just outside Bangalore nine years ago. Kempiah, who is one of Rajakumar's few close friends, also reportedly helped ensure that the star's uniforms in the movie were authentic.

Their flights to and from Delhi ran into some controversy when the airline said they could not accommodate all of them on the same flight due to lack of adequate advance notice. Rajakumar, two of his three sons and director Narayan all went in the flight of their choice, while Parvathamma and the others followed a little later. These glitches annoyed the large assembly of fans whom the airport staff had reportedly allowed in without entrance tickets; they promptly went on a rampage inside the airport.

Dr Rajakumar with his grandchildren
Dr Rajakumar with his grandchildren
Click for bigger pic!
In the confusion, the Bangalore airport staff apparently tore up some of the unit's return tickets by mistake. So when these people presented their tickets at the Delhi airport, they were refused permission to board the flight. Rajakumar's family did not magnify the issue, they simply bought extra tickets and returned home. But the entire episode angered his numerous fans' associations, who carried out protest morchas in Bangalore.

Eventually, we learnt more about Shabdavedi only through the eyes of Rajakumar's family and his fans, as he is a very reticent man who shuns the media and prefers to speak as little as possible in public. "It was fascinating to see how he still has the power to electrify the whole set," says Shivaraj. "He just had to come on to the sets in costume and everyone would become charged with excitement and enthusiasm. Personally speaking, although I have watched him on location before, this time around was very special. I could fully appreciate the real power of performance mainly because, now, I am a much more seasoned actor myself. He throws himself so completely into his role. His complete understanding of the story comes through clearly in his acting."

Puneet, who, of all of Rajakumar's children, has acted the most with his father as a child star, is equally awed, if less eloquent. "I first went on the sets with my father when I was an infant, in the movie Sanaadi Appanna," he says. "But, of course, I was too small then, and in the subsequent films I have done with him, to fully understand or appreciate his acting. I only really saw its sheer power now, and am just dumbstruck."

What kept him away from doing movies for so long? "His knee was bothering him continuously," explains Puneet. "He would have liked to act in a film a year, but his knee pain kept him off the sets."

And so it was that after his last movie Wodahuttidavaru (Siblings), in which he co-starred with Ambareesh, Rajakumar, the one-man institution, stayed away from acting. (Ambareesh himself has now virtually retired from films and is serving his second term as MP from Mandya.)

Perhaps he might have been content to rest on his considerable laurels and luxuriate in the successful screen careers of his two older sons, Shivaraj and Raghavendra. Or await the debut of Puneet alias Appu, which is slated to happen next year. "He kept saying, 'When the children are all acting so much, why should I also act?'" says his wife, business manager and producer Parvathamma.

But his fans would not let him be. On their annual pilgrimage to his huge house in Sadashivanagar, Bangalore, every year, they kept asking him when he would delight them with his next film. Whenever they saw his sons around town, they never failed to ask them when "Anna" was going to do his next film. Finally, they wore Rajakumar down.

"Our own five children and two sons-in-law (one of whom, Ramakumar, is a popular film star himself) began badgering my husband to act again," says Parvathamma. "They said they could no longer keep putting his fans off with vague promises. Raghavendra, in particular, made this a crusade, insisting that my husband should announce his return on his 71st birthday."

And Rajakumar agreed. He signed not one, but two movies, one after the other.

Dr Rajakumar with his actor-son, Shivaraj
Dr Rajakumar with his actor-son, Shivaraj
Click for bigger pic!
Bhaktha Ambareesha, a mythological close to this religious-minded septuagenarian hero's heart, was actually to have been the first. Shabdavedi, a mainstream commercial movie, the script of which was completely ready, was to come later. However, the family realised that Ambareesha required a lot more preparation, and that they could quickly complete Shabdavedi even as they worked on pre-production for the former. Besides, Ambareesha was to feature Rajakumar in a triple role, and they would have to identify three heroines for it.

And so it was that Shabdavedi mounted the sets at Kanteerava Studio in Bangalore on July 1 this year. "I am still not sure whether this is real or a dream," said Rajakumar, looking around bemusedly on that occasion at the huge crowds of his fans who had gathered from all over the state. "I simply could not say no to my fans any longer, and that's why I am here. It is all God's wish."

Is he happy with his comeback vehicle and its storyline? "It's not my satisfaction that's important," he replied promptly. "It's the satisfaction of my fans, who are responsible for my making this comeback, that is important. They refused to allow me to retire, you see."

The five songs of the movie, composed by popular music director Hamsalekha, had already been recorded by this time. Rajakumar, of course, sang them himself, as he usually does for all his movies. "We worked closely together for quite a few days for this, and it was a wonderful experience," recalls Hamsalekha.

On the same day, Shivaraj's Indradhanush (Rainbow) was launched elsewhere in the same studio. Rumour has it that, on his next birthday, Rajakumar will announce his decision to act in Shivaraj's first film as director. Shivaraj himself has long since indicated his decision to turn director next year. Rajakumar family watchers wonder whether this is also to make way for younger brother Puneet. But at the moment, Shivaraj's star is certainly on the ascent, with his new film Hagalu Vesha (Masquerade) based on litterateur Baragur Ramachandrappa's novel about the freedom movement, slated to hit the theatres soon.

"We had already decided that Narayan would direct which ever movie my husband decided to do next," says Parvathamma. "Had we gone ahead with Shabdavedi five years ago, as we had originally planned, then Bhanupriya would have been the heroine. We did approach her even now, but heard that she was married and now lived abroad. Our next choice was Jayaprada. If she had turned us down, we were going to try Urvashi."

But Jayaprada, with whom Rajakumar delivered two hit films, Huliya Haalina Maevu (The Lamb Reared On Tiger's Milk) and Kaviratna Kalidasa, two decades ago, accepted with alacrity. She plays the role of Rajakumar's frightened but supportive wife in the movie. "I am delighted to act with Dr Rajakumar again," said a beaming Jayaprada, when we caught up with her during the last schedule of the film this month in Bangalore. "I do have a very good role in the film. But the main attraction was the opportunity to act with this great actor yet again."

Dr Rajakumar with director S Narayan
Dr Rajakumar with director
S Narayan
Click for bigger pic!
"I never thought that I would see the dawn of the millennium directing a movie featuring the great Rajakumar," says an awed Narayan. "Actually, he had promised me long ago that if he ever made a comeback, it would be with a movie directed by me. I never dared dream that this could actually happen. We had agreed on doing this film together five years ago. The script had been finalised fully some time back, so it made my job much simpler. But the man who carries the film on his capable shoulders and makes my job so easy is, of course, Dr Rajakumar.

"I was very nervous, at first, about directing such a legend. How could I tell this great man, who has such a vast store of experience, how to act? But it took just a week of shooting with him to make me shed my inhibitions. Dr Rajakumar himself kept reminding me gently that he had chosen me to be his director and that he expected me to do my job. He gave me complete freedom to direct him as I liked. And soon, I was totally at ease with him."

They had intended to start shooting in May. But Rajakumar called for a second reading of the dialogues, to make sure they met his standards. Over the past decade or so, Rajakumar has only made films with a positive message, largely because he realises the sheer power that he wields over his huge fan following. Besides, he also recognises the almost saintly status he has acquired in Karnataka, that makes it possible for his fans to only accept him in the role of do-gooder.

Of course, nobody is willing to disclose Shabdavedi's budget. There is little doubt that it will more than earn its money back; even Rajakumar's old movies do excellent business when released today. In fact, Parvathamma has now decided that she will not release his old movies anywhere when there is a new movie being released, as a gesture of goodwill towards other producers and directors.

Catching glimpses of Rajakumar shooting all over the city, one could not help recalling one's own first experience of watching him act in a movie... It was almost three decades ago, in the small mining town of Kolar Gold Fields, in a movie called Swayamvara, in which the legend played the role of a mine worker. Even as I remembered watching him walk down a quiet country road, the mine shaft visible in the background, I also had a very tactile memory of a warm hand on my then small head, and a soft, familiar voice saying, "Channagi wodi mundakke baa, mari (Study well and come up, my child)." It is not difficult, then, to see just why Rajakumar has become the icon that he is in Karnataka today.

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