Relationships in the film industry are generally transactional â€” we meet at cinema events a couple times a year, laugh here and there, sing a few songs, drop a dialogue or two, at best work together, and then part ways. Rarely does an emotional, visceral, filial chord strike. I was fortunate to have the latter meaningful connection with Appu sir (Puneet Rajkumar) for 13 years who I valued not just as a good friend but as an elder brother I never had, who genuinely cared for and guided me even and especially when I treaded paths he would think better of.
My connection to Appu sir dates back to my childhood years in the United States of America. I would perform the profound mythological dialogues from â€˜Bhakta Prahladaâ€™ between father Hiranyakashipu and his son as a 7-year-old on Kannada platforms across the country, garnering the nickname â€˜Prahladaâ€™ unaware who Appu sir was at that time, let alone that he had effortlessly essayed the role in 1985 as a child artiste. Little did I know that an American acquaintance of Appu sir had told him about my nickname after I entered the film industry â€” something Appu sir mentioned with an affectionate, comforting smile when I invited him for my marriage in 2020.
If I had to describe one specific moment that laid the groundwork for my substantive journey with him, it took place during â€˜Amrutamahotsavaâ€™ rehearsals in February of 2009 in the wake of my second film release Birugaali. Around 50 of us were sitting on the floor waiting for our turn to practice our respective dance routines when Appu sirâ€™s turn came up. He stood up, phone in hand and began looking quizzically at all of us sitting cross-legged. As I sat there wondering the reason for his delay, he came over to me â€” a newcomer not just to the industry but Karnataka as a whole â€” dropped his phone in my lap with complete ease, and turned towards the dance floor. It was at that point that I understood Appu sir trusted me; it was my responsibility to retain that trust â€” not just with his phone but in life in totality.
During that rehearsal week, I broached several topics with Appu sir, we developed an earnest kinship, and later on that year I readily agreed to act alongside him in Raam. It was on the shooting set in Rockline Studio that he effervescently suggested I join his gym in Sadashivnagar since my home was in an adjacent Bengaluru neighbourhood â€” I did so in early 2012.
At the end of that year, I led my first activist struggle â€” the fight for government benefits for Endosulfan pesticide victims across coastal Karnataka. My understanding of social movements was relegated to history books, so I went to Appu sirâ€™s home for the first time to ask his guidance. He watched the video of Endosulfan victims on his laptop and readily agreed to come anywhere in support of the humanitarian cause. I was emboldened. Six months later, we won that battle after the Karnataka state government released Rs 90 crore for the victimsâ€™ benefits. At that point, I began to observe Appu sirâ€™s social concern, knowing that he cared sincerely for the vulnerable.
Since then and for the past 9 years, Appu sir and I have worked out in the same gym, conversed while running on parallel treadmills, lifted weights alongside one another, and done yoga together. I was always struck by his sheer physical fitness, strength, flexibility â€” all the while with a broad smile and a joyous shout, â€˜Hey, Chetan, how are you, man? â€” watch any good movies this week?â€™
In early 2020, I went to Appu sir and Ashwini madamâ€™s home to invite them as special guests for my wedding celebration at a local orphanage. We spoke for a half hour about a wide range of topics from Bahujan philosopher Narayan Guruâ€™s contributions to the need for learning and social service in the current contexts. Appu sir mentioned how he had understood the importance of education after hosting Kannadaâ€™s â€˜Kotyadipathiâ€™ (â€˜Who Wants to be A Millionaireâ€™) and as a result, had taken up brand ambassadorships for Right to Education and Skill Development Board to help uplift our rural youngsters.
In terms of social service, he believed that after securing oneâ€™s fundamental and family requirements, it was all our responsibility to give back in our own capacities. Subsequently, during the first wave of the coronavirus, he contributed Rs. 50 lakh to our state government and then supported many working-class folks we both knew from gym, yoga, and cinema all without publicity in the second wave. He also never took money for the songs he sang, singing them for their musicality and lyrics, and convincing patrons to donate to his familyâ€™s charitable organisations.
On my wedding function on February 2, 2020, Appu sir (and Ashwini madam) arrived at the orphanage precisely at the 7.15pm time I had requested, waited patiently on stage as my parents spoke and Megha and I took our self-written vows, and articulated to the crowd about our mutual admiration for Kannada language. I will always treasure the memory of us all holding up our Indian Constitution book together in front of thousands of well-wishers on that special day.
In 2020, our interactions were plenty â€” both personal and professional. I valued his words when he told me to stay clear of any film industry â€˜conflictsâ€™ since I knew they came from a place of warmth and concern, and he attended a launch of my film Maarga after just a request via phone call.
Although my opposition to the privileging of a few at the expense of so many both in society and Kannada film industry â€” aka â€˜star cultureâ€™ â€” began to grow more vigilant via protests, speeches, and writings, it did not interfere with the relationship Appu sir and I shared even though he was a â€˜starâ€™ ever since birth and I never one. To paraphrase Shakespeareâ€™s Twelfth Night, Appu sir had stardom â€˜thrust upon himâ€™ but never possessed the tantrums, arrogance, or superciliousness that came with that package.
Just as a staunch advocate of democracy can acknowledge that there were good monarchs, an avid champion of equality can accept that in theory and in Appu sirâ€™s case in practice as well, there can be â€˜goodâ€™ stars. Appu sirâ€™s body of work as an actor as well as his choice of leads and content as a producer corroborate the aforementioned claim. In a society and film industry that prioritises profits at the expense of people, he made sure the films he was a part of could be enjoyed by the entire family together. Even though violence, cruelty, self-aggrandising, and hero-glorification films would have benefited his bank balance and â€˜massyâ€™ appeal more, he continued the glorious legacy of his father by playing the protagonist in wholesome entertainment projects and thus, enriching the artistic, inclusive aspects of cinema.
As a producer, he launched newcomers via content-based subjects so as to enhance the creative elements of Kannada films and ensure a higher percentage of commercially-successful ventures rather than an occasional blockbuster.
Although Appu sir was affable and affectionate to all in the film fraternity and outside, he admired those actors who refined the craft of performance. Once in the gym he spoke to me about his close camaraderie with the talented Aamir Khan in the Hindi film industry. I also read about how, in an award ceremony inundated with celebrities, he was keen on interacting with another Hindi actor of immense ability, Pankaj Tripathi. Lauding those of acting aplomb over those with superstardom reveals Appu sirâ€™s emphasis on the artistic dimensions of cinema rather than the financial ones that often take unjustified prominence. He was an oasis in a desert of â€˜money at any costsâ€™. Kannada film industry will truly realise the gravity of his loss in the years to come.
The two aspects of Appu sir I valued most were his willingness to learn, grow into a better human being with time and the care, love he showed so many of us even when he got nothing from us in return. Selfless goodness is an attribute that few possess. A fitting tribute to Appu sir would be to cultivate such noble principles within ourselves.
Like his parents before him, Appu sir donated his eyes. Respect to his family for honouring his wishes. As I was in the hospital to see him on October 29, 2021, a medical team removed his eyes in the 6-hour window after death. In the coming days, his cornea and eyeballs provided sight for four Karnataka youngsters. Following in Appu sirâ€™s footsteps, we must also keep giving in life and death by being organ donors. I promise to do so and hope to initiate a campaign for as many others as possible to follow suit.