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Of Shared Legacies and New Sensibilities: Looking at Kannada Cinema

December 19, 2019 | By

Two brothers. Two films. Why just the two brothers? A whole Kannada film industry as well. One shared legacy.

S Vishwanath looks closely at the colossus that was Dr Rajkumar, analysing the legacy he left for the First Family of Kannada cinema and his fans.

 

Raajkumara Poster

Raajkumara Poster

It is up to us to live up to the legacy that was left for us, and to leave a legacy that is worthy of our children and of future generations.
~ Christine Gregoire, American politician & lawyer

Two brothers. Two films. Why just the two brothers? A whole Kannada film industry as well. One shared legacy. All piggyback riding on the glorious heritage of ‘Muthuraj’ and the magical halo of ‘Annavaru’. Yes, the iconic thespianbetter known by his mononymous screen name, Rajkumar, anointed thus by producer-director HLN Simha who cast him in the monumental Bedara Kannappa – could be inducted into the annals of history as one of the leading lights of Kannada cinema. The charismatic actor’s body of work is testimony to his enduring appeal and stature as an actor par excellence and a beacon for the rest of them, including his peers.

Today his portraits, film songs and visual clips embellish every aspiring Kannada film newbie’s foray into the big bad world of film making, with hopes that the reflected glory of the actor’s past would pitchfork their own films into the realm of box office success and draw crowds by the droves. Everyone seeks to enjoy the fruits of the legend’s immense popularity and super iconic statusa  legacy he nurtured based on the love of thousands of Kannadiga fans around the world. This has become the most lucrative asset for not only his family members, who have built their privileged lives and successful careers on it, but also those aspiring to strike it rich at the box office by merely invoking the yesteryear images and visuals as a premise or a pretext for their narratives.

Stamp on Dr Rajkumar

Stamp on Dr Rajkumar issued by Govt of India in 2009 (Pic: Wikipedia)

If the legend eschewed violence and bloodshed in films preferring family socials to larger than hero theatrics, it was to the credit of the self-made and self-assured thespian’s innate belief in himself. He did the kind of films he wanted to do and created the kind of image he wanted to create among his legion of fans and audiences.

But that was not the case with his own immediate family. His two sons, Shiva Rajkumar and Puneeth Rajkumar, gave into the dictates of the commercial demands and succumbed to the market dynamics where violence and thundering glorifying dialogues were the order of the day.

But as age caught on with the two star sons they seem to be on the mend. Was it the dictates of conscience over commerce that was bringing about change in the way the brothers will accept films henceforth? Or was it that they are simply trying to rewrite their future film careers and falling fortunes as age gets the better of their physique and onscreen pyrotechnics?

Well, Puneeth Rajkumar with Raajakumara and elder sibling Shiva Rajkumar with Bangara S/O Bangarada Manushya, left no stone unturned in invoking and perpetuating the fond memories of their illustrious father Dr Rajkumar.

Shiva Rajkumar in Son of Bangarada Manushya

Shiva Rajkumar in Bangara Son of Bangarada Manushya

Shiva Rajkumar’s Sandalwood (Kannada cinema) journey began with Anand traversing through Om, Nammoora Mandara Hoove,  AK 47, Chigurida Kanasu, Jogi, Thammasu, Shiva, Bhajarangi and Mufti all of which fetched him awards at the regional level, culminating in the recent multi-starrer mega budget The Villain.

Younger sibling Puneeth Rajkumar’s sojourn began as a child artiste fetching him a bushel of awards with Bettada Hoovu, the coveted National Film Award for Best Child Artist.  Appu, Abhi, Veera Kannadiga, Maurya, and Arasu came before Milana pitchforked him into the big league of public craze and a fan base that also got him a few awards. VaamsiRaj The Showman, Jackie, HuduguruAnna Bond, Power, Rana Vikrama, Doddmane Huduga, Raajkumara, Anjani Putra, formed his tableau of films, with Natasaarvabhowma in the pipeline.

Natasaarvabhowma, the screen moniker that his illustrious father Dr Rajkumar earned, has gone on the floors with Pavan Wadeyar on megaphone and Puneeth Rajkumar reprising the role with Dimple Queen Rachita Ram. The inclusion of Anupama Parameshwaran, yesteryear actors B Saroja Devi and Srinivasa Murthy bespeak of both Pavan’s as also Puneeth’s intentions behind the fare.

Shiva Rajkumar’s career graph has been a mixed medley of mushy family socials and action packed, high decibel crime thrillers to match the competitive dynamics of the peers in the business. On the other hand, Puneeth’s career, though insulated from such cut-throat competition, has him mostly as a romancing hero with much of his films suggestively titled to perpetuate the Raj legacy and remind the industry the pedigree from where he and his elder brother come. Both uphold the Kannada pride and language ensuring that local sentiments and self-respect would not be compromised at any cost.

That the sons have the rightful claim to their father’s legacy is another matter. But Sandalwood’s many directors too are invoking the magic of the legendary thespian, be it in the titling of their films, or the dialogues, or the evergreen songs that the simple, large hearted man was associated with. Dr Rajkumar’s nephew Vijay Raghavendra featured in the film Eradu Kanasu, a yesteryear Dr Rajkumar super-hit starrer.

It is not only that the sons of the late actor have taken to the legacy perpetuating exercise. It seems as if the entire Kannada industry is now falling back upon the time tested formula of invoking the legacy of yesteryear stars to shore up the financial fortunes of their films – from film titling, to popular songs, to dialogues, to photos, to dolls, that were all part of the paraphernalia.

They are taking to every trick in the trade to ensure audiences return to the theatres not only to relive the memory of films they have watched, admired, stars they adulated, as also reminiscence of bygone golden days of Kannada cinema, when socially and thematically tasteful relevant engagement and entertainment was the order of the day.

Take for example Raj B Shetty with his Ondu Motteya Kathe. Every troublesome and heartbreaking situation this bald headed bachelor gets into, witnesses either a Dr Rajkumar photo or song, consoling him back to the reality of the situation and his desperate bid to find a girl who would wed him – his baldness, temper and all.

Other than Dr Rajkumar, who is the central pivot of this resurgent idolisation exercise, especially by newcomers, be it late Shankar Nag or late Vishnuvardhan or even Ambarish (when he was alive) and directors such as Puttanna Kanagal are being revoked to give the present generation a taste of the past, as also enable those who were part of that time to go down memory lane.

It seems as if the entire Kannada film industry is seeking to bring back the shared legacy of the heydays of the ’60s and ’70s to resurrect the industry that seems to have hit its nadir. Re-releases of few of Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, and Shankar Nag’s films, some refurbished in colour and digitalised as well are part of this effort.

The reasons are not far to seek. With virtually every second film celebrating violence and indulging in one-upmanship among stars with thundering dialogues, vainglorious posturing, rank risqué comedies, each trying to outsmart the other, a sense of negativity has pervaded the film industry. As a result, audiences seem to have lost their interest in movie-going, except when like a flash in the pan films of newcomers hit the screen with their different content.

Puneeth Rajkumar and Priya Anand in Raajkumara

Puneeth Rajkumar and Priya Anand in Raajkumara

Be that as it may, but for now, Kannada cinema’s two brothers – Hat-trick Hero Shiva Rajkumar and Power Star Puneeth Rajkumar have cleverly set their abhimanigalu’s expectations aflutter with their recent films that have become the juicy talk of the town, as also with Gandhinagar mandarins. The films in question being Puneeth’s Raajakumara and Shiva Rajkumar’s Bangara S/O Bangarada Manushya.

As one posits, the one common thread that runs through the screenplay sinews of these two films is the invocation of their late, revered and iconic actor-father Dr Rajkumar.

That there have been other films also made by aspiring film makers seeking to cash in on the aura and magic of Dr Rajkumar, is beside this dissertation’s purview and intended examination.

Though many may argue that the directors behind these two films have been shrewd enough to cleverly convince the two brothers into accepting their films such that the commercial dynamics of the enterprises was ensured, this does not, however, dilute the larger thematic concerns of this seminal exploration which it seeks to explore.

At the outset one must sadly confess that both the films have an abjectly flawed script. In trying to provide a context to the protagonist’s later journeys, the directors, attempting to pander suit to their respective fan base, have not bothered to ponder seriously over the script which is the key to a film’s success despite a convincing content and context to the drama that unfolds.

Surprisingly, and coincidentally as well, both the films, as a preface to their two-hour-plus screen time, have their heroes settled overseas before they fly back home – namma desha, namma mane, namma naadu, namma jana, namma baashe, namma Kannada where eventually the main drama of the films takes place.

After all, was it not the Poet Laureate of Karnataka, Rashtra Kavi Kuvempu (K V Puttappa) who penned the song: Elladaru iru enthadaru iru endendigu nee kannadavaagiru, kannadave sathya kannadave nithya. Sure enough, the two sons return to their Thaayi Naadu where begin their duties to give back to society.

If Puneeth’s Raajakumar sets off in distant Australia, where Puneeth preaches about Kannada pride and language at a college campus and unfurling of the Indian flag, Shiva Rajkumar’s Bangara prefaces at a fashion paradise in Milan, where his pride is punctured by a persistent and perky Naina who falls for him, harangues him about his insolent and indifferent attitude, even as the monochrome photograph at her homestead triggers memories of his pastoral past back in Karnataka.

Puneeth Rajkumar and Priya Anand in Raajkumara

Puneeth Rajkumar and Priya Anand in Raajkumara

While the tragic death of his beloved brings Puneeth back home, it is the mysterious photograph and the diary his uncle gifts him that brings an otherwise proud and vainglorious Shiva Rajkumar back to his homeland. Yes both have taken recourse to emotive social dramas as the connecting content of their films.

From then on both the protagonists go on to repair and repay to society, stricken with a social conscience, in their own ways.

Puneeth comes back to his orphanage which has now been conveniently converted into an old age home – suggestively titled Kasturi Nivasa, a film in which his father had acted and reaped rich success and was a super-duper hit film.

Shiva Rajkumar, on the other hand, returns to his village and the mansion gifted by the revered Bangarada Manushya to his village folk.

Needless to reiterate Bangarada Manushya was incidentally another euphonious film in which his father Dr Rajkumar played the pivotal role and which turned out a landmark film in Kannada cinema history with a city-bred Rajkumar as Rajeeva championing the cause of the less privileged and shackled farmers.

Here too son Shiva Rajkumar takes to the till and plough to find common cause with the people in fighting the usurious feudal lord that has the farmers’ lot under his mercy and evil mechanisations.

Shiva Rajkumar and Vidya Pradeep in Son of Bangarada Manushya

Shiva Rajkumar and Vidya Pradeep in Bangara Son of Bangarada Manushya

Mind you, both the films are peopled with yesteryear actors who have had the privilege of working with the late thespian, as also carved a niche for themselves during their heydays. Besides bearing the titles of films in which the late actor had played monumental roles, thereby perpetuating the memories of the illustrious and cinema idol as also the bygone elysian days of Kannada cinema.

While these are perfunctory gestures to play at the cinema viewing public’s sentiments as they reminiscence about those golden days of Kannada cinema, the stranglehold that the cherished actor Dr Rajkumar had on the audiences’ consciousness, the actual subtext of the two films is what the two brothers perform in each film.  That provides the context for this critical exploration of the two films.

Apart from the mandatory action sequences and statutory comedy tracks that both the films employ to have the audience glued to the larger drama as also the hidden agenda of the films, it is the social doings of these two brothers in their respective films which bespeaks of possible trajectory the two may take in their future cinema careers.

If in Raajakumara, a philanthropic Puneeth fights to ensure that the old age home does not fall into the hands of evil men by transferring large amounts from his account to clear its debts, in Bangara, you have Shiva Rajkumar similarly transferring money from distant Milan to Mandya in order to provide succor for the distressed farmers and free them from their debt with the local chieftain.

In the process, if Raajakumara by ensuring the aged and infirm are not driven away from the old age home, subtly tries to drive home the message that all his father’s faithful fellows have not been forgotten, it is also Kannada filmdom’s first family’s way of acknowledging their contribution and how the first family will also be responsible custodians of the Gandhinagar’s fortunes and fellow beings.

Likewise, in Bangara, you have the film virtually re-enacting the four decade old Bangarada Manushya’s core concerns and the protagonist’s fight for the deprived lot of the farmers. As Shiva Rajkumar goes about his task, the footage of the former film intersperses with the current one.

Shiva Rajkumar and Vidya Pradeep in Son of Bangarada Manushya

Shiva Rajkumar and Vidya Pradeep in Bangara Son of Bangarada Manushya

Of course, in keeping with the times the way the cause for farmers’ rights is fought with the establishment is through prime time television, modern day’s digital and social media as also farmers taking their fight to the doorsteps of the political establishment, converging at capital Bengaluru’s Freedom Park.

While Raajakumar may not be that overtly symptomatic of how Puneeth may chisel his cinematic journey, one can safely read into Bangara that Shiva Rajkumar is, if not in the immediate future, but in the long run, bound to take on projects that will perpetuate their father’s memory and ensure the rich legacy he has left behind is secured and protected from being fractured by the assignments they would take henceforth.

For, both Puneeth and Shiva Rajkumar, having so far played to their respective fan base and expectations, eschewing their father’s saner, violence-free, benevolent social image by allowing bloody violence in their films, through playing super heroes, it seems they are finally realising that it is time to bring a sense of sanity and purpose and meaning in what roles they don so that their family legacy remains intact.

So much so, they are talked and discussed for their social and value-based meaningful family oriented films rather than the films that they have so far built their careers upon.

Furthermore, both the brothers, finding themselves at an inflexion point in their careers, as also with age fast catching up on them, there is a conscious and concerted subtle shift in their careers that they seem to be seeking out with the attendant image makeover even as they singularly and strenuously strive to safeguard the Bangarada Manushya legacy of their revered father Dr Rajkumar.

Whether Raajkumara and Bangara are just off-the-cuff one-off films to test audiences’ taste and how they would receive their stars’ future projects or that the two brothers in sync are beginning a new innings of the two equally admired and adulated star sons, only time will tell.

The two lodestars of Kannada cinema’s first family, like their dad, who with his repertoire of films gave the best to cinema backed by his rich theatrical experience, have also not been wanting in capturing the collective conscience of their fan base and are by no means any less than their illustrious dad.

For now though, both Puneeth and Shiva Rajkumar, with their Raajkumar and Bangara S/O Bangarada Manushya had made their intentions loud and clear as to whether film makers take the cue and come up with projects that may pitchfork the two brothers in tandem on to the State’s political centrestage is to be seen.

As of now they are the toast of a film industry starved of meaningful entertaining films and icons that audiences can readily identify with. And now with their cherished mother Parvathamma Rajkumar too having gone, the mantle of the first family’s duties and ownership has fallen on their strong shoulders and the way they guide the fortunes of Kannada cinema in the coming millennium.

Furthermore, besides the star sons, the entire Kannada film industry, in a much larger context too, is making the most of this shared legacy and seeking to reframe the sensibilities and expectations of their audiences who are shunning films to bring them back to celebrate cinema that truly epitomises family values, social objectives, and shared bonding by bringing back entire families to the theatres or multiplexes.

The glaring example being that of Raj B Shetty’s Ondu Motteya Kathe wherein songs of Dr Rajkumar waft across in almost all situations the hero finds himself in.

Will this new syntax to film making becoming the new norm among film makers? Will Kannada cinema regain its former glory as a medium of unsullied mass socio-family entertainer?

Sadly that may seem not be the case. Yes, Dr Rajkumar’s grandson and actor Raghavendra Rajkumar’s son, Vinay Rajkumar is set to follow in the thespian’s footsteps with his debut movie Siddhartha-Give Me a Break. Note the title.

For dad Raghavendra, unlike his two brothers, could not taste the same success at the silver screen despite the rich pedigree he came from. His co-star is Apoorva, Mumbai-based artist as the female lead. As a child artist, Vinay shared screen space with his grandfather in Odahuttidavaru and Aakasmika and Naavibbaru Namagibbaru and Anuragada Alegalu with dad.

The film is being helmed by ace filmmaker Prakash. On the rich legacy of grandfather Dr Rajkumar bearing upon him, the lad had this to say, “My aim is to work hard and prove myself as an actor.”

What’s more Kannada cinema will soon see the young woman of the family step out of the cocooned shadow of her illustrious father. Yes, Dhanya Ramkumar is set to debut in films.

This third generation from Sandalwood’s First Family will see this young girl, a first from the family, as a leading lady in Kannada cinema, and paired with Suraj Gowda in a romantic comedy to be directed by debutant Suman who has worked as assistant director in Siliconn City and Kamal Hasan’s Uttama Villain. The young man has a reputation to keep up to, having been an understudy of the equally versatile Ulagayanagan-the screen moniker of Kamal Hasan.

What’s more, even her brother Dheeren Rajkumar will don grease paint, making his debut with Daari Tappida Maga which takes its title from the yesteryear super-duper hit movie of his grandfather, Dr Rajkumar.

However, as regards the two elder kin, their subsequent films that have followed Raajkumara and Bangara s/o Bangarada Manushya, have been a total disappointment, in that, both have gone back to the tried and tested timeworn formulaic flicks one thought they had bid adieu to.

For, Anjani Putra and Natasaarvabhowma (which takes the screen moniker of the illustrious father Dr Rajkumar) that followed Raajakumara for Puneeth, and host of films like Mass Leader, Mufti, Tagaru, The Villain, Kavacha and Rustum, thus far, for Shiva Rajkumar, all have been predictable fare for both the brothers. They played to the gallery of their respective fan base, with their proverbial grandstanding and violent mass entertainers, rich in high decibel dialogues and equally gut-wrenching violence and bloodletting.

It seems for either of them Raajkumara and Bangara s/o Bangarada Manushya was just a one-off affair, a flash in the pan experiment, which they perforce keep away from even at the cost of age fast catching up with them and time telling subtly that they eschew adventurism of the kind they have dutifully fallen back into.

Well, so much for the lineage and legacy that their dad has left behind! Instead of character roles becoming their age, like the illustrious Big B, they are still flowing with the current. How long is just a matter of time.

Till then one has but to wait and watch from the sidelines as factory line fare continues to numb the sensibilities and cinematic experience of the audience who are left with no choice but to either grace them with sangfroid stoicism or bite the bullet and shun such ad nauseam adventurism till better sense and aesthetics dawns on the custodians of Kannada cinema.

More to read

Mahanati: The Story of an Iconic Actress

The Golden Thread of Bengali Cinema: A Journey Through 100 Years

Naal: An Eloquent Reconnection With the Nurturer

Nathicharami: A Journey of Self-exploration

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S Vishwanath is a Senior Film Critic and journalist with over 30 years in the field and is a regular jury in several film festivals in India and abroad. A Post Graduate in English Literature & MS in Communication with Film Studies as Special Subject, he is associated with the Bengaluru International Film Festival as Deputy Artistic Director curating the World Cinema Section since its eight edition. He is also the curator for the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival and Rolling Frames Short, Animation & Documentary Film Festival. An active film society member, he extensively writes on the film sector covering various aspects of the film industry both at National and State level and covers South Indian films reviewing and critiquing — Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, as also Hindi (Bollywood) and English language cinema.
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