Rajkumar and Kannada modernity go hand in hand

When Princely Mysore was at its nadir, it was the unlettered star’s career that kept the state’s memory alive while upholding its traditions and values

Stars in world cinema are often associated with specific genres but those in India have other associations largely because of the relative lack of generic differentiation in Indian cinema. The popular Hindi language cinema, which played the role of an unofficial national cinema after 1947, used star personae to address social concerns which come to the fore in each historical era; the same star’s persona often transforms in different eras to suit a new socio-political purpose. Dilip Kumar played the urbane man beset by uncertainties when Independent India was confronted with an array of political choices. The same actor became known for playing the ebullient rustic later in films like Naya Daur (1957) and Gunga Jumna (1961) when India had settled into a stable political system in which rural issues had become important. Since Hindi cinema addressed the national identity and there were several concurrent issues which needed addressing, different stars played their parts to weave a coherent fabric of interdependent narratives.

In contrast to mainstream Hindi films, India also has a regional language popular cinema that can be seen as addressing local identities within the country. Unlike Hindi cinema, each regional language popular cinema has tended to be dominated by a single male star. The regional language popular cinemas, by and large, serve much smaller territories and this suggests that there is a concentrating of address-worthy issues at any moment into one or two major ones, and a single star has been the vehicle. The fact that their ‘constituencies’ are concentrated in smaller territories has also enabled regional film stars to succeed in politics – something that the Hindi film which is more widely dispersed – does not allow. If regional film stars have sometimes appeared in more than one language cinema, their biggest successes have been confined to one territory demarcated by language.

Rajkumar, the star who dominated Kannada language cinema for several decades, appeared only in the Kannada film. Kannada cinema is nominally consumed across the entire territory where Kannada is the lingua franca (i.e. the Indian state of Karnataka in South India) but in actual practice, it addresses only a part of that territory, the part once constituted by the Princely State of Mysore, under indirect British rule. Rajkumar, in fact, can be interpreted as a living icon of former Princely Mysore.

The 1954 movie Bedara Kannappa was a launch pad to Rajkumar’s career and ran in theatres for 100 days

Rajkumar and Mysore
Rajkumar was discovered by a movie producer and played minor characters on the screen until he was 25 when he played his first lead role in HLN Simha’s Bedara Kannappa (1954). Bedara Kannappa was the first of a series of mythological films made between 1954 and 1956 with a strikingly common motif with two other films being Mahakavi Kalidasa (1955) and Bhakta Vijaya (1956). These films are all about a princely personage grown so arrogant that he is cursed with deprivation of some sort. In Bedara Kannappa, the ‘prince’ is a celestial being cursed by a god who is reborn as a tribal while in the other two, he is a human who has to take up life at a humbler level. The princely arrogance of the protagonist is unmistakable in all the films. The protagonist is joined each time by his wife who shares his privation without complaining and the man gains a following because of his goodness/devoutness although he remains a common man. The common motif identified in the three films, the motif of the prince facing deprivation should be considered in the light of Mysore being a former princely state and the representational habits cultivated under monarchy persisting.

Rajkumar arrived on the scene just when Kannada cinema was contending with a larger Kannada territory which it needed to address. The rest of his career can be fruitfully interpreted as former Princely Mysore finding an icon for itself which could be held up to the other Kannada-speaking areas as well

‘King’ and ‘Country’ are synonymous to subjects in a monarchy and this suggests the prince’s/ princess’s predicament in the three films has parallels with the predicament of former Princely Mysore State in the period 1954-56. That the prince and his wife share the suffering suggests that this is a predicament shared by the king and his subjects rather than the privation forced upon an individual. The fact that it was a ‘curse’ with no remedy suggests that the people of former Princely Mysore (the constituency addressed by the film) gradually came to realise that they had no option but to submit. The only solace was perhaps that there was a ‘higher’ benevolent monarch/ authority ensuring that the dispensation would not be without recourse. By showing that in the process of dealing with the curse, the prince also gains a larger community, the films appeal to the attractions of an integrated Kannada community.

Rajkumar arrived on the scene just when Kannada cinema was contending with a larger Kannada territory which it needed to address. The rest of his career can be fruitfully interpreted as former Princely Mysore finding an icon for itself which could be held up to the other Kannada-speaking areas as well. Rajkumar also becomes instrumental in addressing all the key issues in the 1960s to engage the Kannada-speaking state – Greater Mysore as an equal constituent of the Indian nation, the extension of Mysore to include the other territories and Mysore’s claim upon modernity.

The 1958 movie Bhukailasa is one of the last few mythological films from the genre that dominated Rajkumar’s early career

A Kannada identity
The earliest Kannada films were all mythological films as are those cited above which means that it was the genre that Rajkumar entered. Mythological films do not dominate Kannada cinema after 1956 as much as earlier because of the appearance of the family melodrama (the ‘social’) and the historical film, but two of Rajkumar’s mythological films of the period –Bhukailasa (1958) and Mahishasura Mardhini (1959) show a change in attitudes. In both films, the king responds to a divine visitation (during his penance) as though the god was an expected visitor and this is different from the rapturous way the protagonist receives the gods in Bedara Kannappa. The relationship between the king and the god gradually becoming one between equals is consistent with the state becoming part of the nation with full democratic rights. The motif of interrogation of the gods (through Narada, a celestial intermediary) in Mahishasura Mardhini in which the gods conduct themselves wrongly perhaps finds correspondence in the courtroom scene in Hindi cinema of the 1950s in which the judge is interrogated (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959) for a wrongdoing.

Kannada cinema, beginning in the late 1950s, is also actively engaged in constructing a pan-Kannada nation by appealing to the past – especially empires like the one in Vijayanagar and to heroic kings and queens. Ranadheera Kanteerava (1960) is a story of palace intrigue under the Wadeyars and the film begins with a young king who loves pleasure being accosted by his mother, the dowager queen, and his uncle, Kanteerava (Rajkumar). The film is preoccupied with defining a Kannada identity and – apart from the opening song eulogising Kannada – proceeds about it in two ways. On the one hand are Kanteerava’s friendly dealings with various chieftains or emissaries who speak different kinds of Kannada. Kanteerava is also allowed to have two wives and the second is a ‘romance’, signifying the knitting of Kannada areas outside the traditional marriage networks. On the other hand are Kanteerava’s deeds against the Tamils. The chief of these acts is his defeating a Tamil wrestler in Tiruchi. Characters who speak Tamil and Malayalam are placed by the film in the position of Kanteerava’s adversaries.

The genre to establish the first explicit link between Mysore and the Indian nation was evidently the domestic melodrama because it invokes the same notion in the late 1950s that Hindi cinema was also invoking – ‘modernity’. There were domestic melodramas earlier but there was also an element of magic as in Gunasagari (1953) but magic is eliminated after 1956 with films like Rayara Sose (1957) and School Master (1958) embracing the modern. In Rayara Sose, the doctor played by Rajkumar helps in ushering in social justice into a family when the father-in-law demands dowry from the wife. ‘Modernity’ in Hindi cinema means eschewing superstition, and nation-building, but these are not issues in Kannada cinema in which modernity in the form of industrialisation had been ushered in as early as the 1920s largely through the efforts of Sir M Visweswaraya.

As the 1960s progress, the Kannada social strives harder in this direction with relevant themes. Bangalore is increasingly seen as a modern space. A reason was the former chief minister S Nijalingappa ascending to the post of President of the undivided Congress at the Centre. The ‘reformist’ films in the period – with Rajkumar as the star – include Bangarada Hoovu (1967) in which a good man helps in curing a girl of leprosy and marries her

On-screen reform
From the 1960s onwards the ‘social’ undergoes changes and its movement until the end of the decade may be understood as trying to bridge the gap between (Greater) Mysore and India by becoming modern in the Nehruvian sense. After introducing different kinds of spoken Kannada after 1956, the Kannada film increasingly uses a uniform Mysore Kannada, which becomes the standard. Where the Kannada social appears to change most significantly after 1960 is in the way hierarchy is treated and in the denotation of caste. Where, in the earlier films, people were segregated into caste/occupational groups (servants, courtesans, priests, farmers etc.) with little commerce between them, there are fewer signs of it. It is, however, apparent that hierarchy persists in a subdued way and these are usually in figure of the comic servant who romances through separate sub-plots. This implies a hierarchical segregation of plot components. As a way of playing down hierarchy without interrogating it, Kannada film narratives of the 1960s deal exclusively with one class – e.g. a Brahmin class straddling both the village and the city as in Nandadeepa (1963) or a rural landowning Vokkaliga class as in Chandavaliya Thota (1964) both of which star Rajkumar. It is as though the Kannada social was trying to democratise itself (in appearance) to become more Indian.

The 1968 movie Jedara Bale, saw Rajkumar in the role of a CID police agent, who is code-named ‘999’

As the 1960s progress, the Kannada social strives harder in this direction with relevant themes. Bangalore, with which Kannada cinema has had an ambivalent relationship because of the city’s association with the British and with Central government investment after 1947, is increasingly seen as a modern space. A reason was the former chief minister S Nijalingappa ascending to the post of President of the undivided Congress at the Centre. The ‘reformist’ films in the period – with Rajkumar as the star – include Bangarada Hoovu (1967) in which a good man helps in curing a girl of leprosy and marries her, and Hannele Chiguridaga (1968) in which widowed people marry. The climax of this ‘modern’ trajectory is reached when Rajkumar plays a spy (CID 999) modelled after James Bond in Jedara Bale (1968), a film complete with nightclubs, girls and gadgets.

Mrs Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969; S Nijalingappa, who had been on the rise for several years, abruptly lost his importance to the Indian nation – at least in the eyes of those in the Kannada state of Mysore. The films coming immediately afterwards are also preoccupied with modernity but in a different way. Instead of making common cause with the Nehruvian variety, it is to assert that modernity knocked at Princely Mysore much earlier than it did at Nehru’s India. The key films of this period – representing Rajkumar’s most iconic roles – are Dorairaj/ Bhagwan’s Kasturi Nivasa (1971) and Siddalingaiah’s Bangarada Manushya (1972). The protagonists of these films have all the qualities traditionally idolised in the Brahmin caste in the puranas (but rarely found in those actually denoted as Brahmins who are shown to be hypocritical), which is sophistication and generosity without any hint of selfishness in their acts. They are modern but their Mysorean modernity is contrasted with a more rapacious kind associated with Bangalore – with its British/ Central government associations. In Bangarada Manushya, the protagonist (a progressive farmer) is explicitly compared to Sir M Visweswaraya.

Alongside this kind of ‘social’, as if to complement it, is a historical film extolling a Kannada king who submitted to no outside authority – Rajkumar as Sri Krishnadevaraya (1970). This is in contrast to Kittur Channamma in which the Indian nation is the heroine’s object of loyalty.

Receding from memory
By the mid-1970s Princely Mysore is already fading from memory and the renaming of Greater Mysore as Karnataka in 1973 was perhaps the last straw. Kannada cinema tries to hold on to the memory of former Mysore in various ways. A phenomenon of importance is that so many Kannada films of the 1960s and 1970s are based on works of literature, which was not so in the 1950s and before. Popular films found the dramatic novels by writers from Mysore like Triveni, AN Krishna Rao, MK Indira, TR Subba Rao and Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar most suitable. Although ‘Mysore’ became defunct as a political entity in 1956, it existed in the place in which it might have existed – in the collective memory of the people of the region, given shape and manifested in the region’s literature. If Mysore had not become defunct as a political entity (i.e. it had been ‘living’ like the Nation), adapting literature might have been redundant. ‘Mysore’ was not only a space but also an ethos that faded as the last generation of Mysoreans passed on. In the mid-to-late 1970s, we already find popular cinema less dependent upon literature.

Another way in which Rajkumar’s films cope with this approaching demise is to introduce the figure of the sacred mother – in a way reminiscent of Hindi cinema in which the mother allegorises the nation in films like Awaara (1951), Mother India (1956) and Deewar (1975). But where the mother in Hindi cinema needs to act and make sacrifices to deserve the adulation, the mother in Rajkumar’s films of the 1970s is loved for her position. This is consistent with what she represents – former Mysore – being defunct as a political entity, only being remembered for what she was – while the nation-as-mother is a functioning entity.

Rajkumar’s films from the later 1970s are not of much cultural importance today because they are largely vehicles for his histrionic abilities. The star’s presence is dependent on its invocation of Mysore – an entity which was losing its significance, not least because Mrs Gandhi’s doings at the Centre had found a proponent in Greater Mysore/Karnataka Chief Minister D Devaraj Urs; Mysore’s cultural identity – as standing apart from that of the Indian nation – was weakened by this. Rajkumar’s career continued well after the 1970s but it is a career kept alive by a hysterical fan following and, it may be argued, not of much significance culturally to Karnataka. Overall, one could say that the star came into prominence when Mysore was at the point of becoming defunct politically and his career represents an attempt not only to keep Mysore’s memory alive among the people of the region but also to hold up its traditions to a Kannada-speaking public outside former Mysore.

(MK Raghavendra is a film historian critic and writer who has authored several books including Beyond Bollywood : The Cinemas of South India)

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