“Nim jothe yaak maatadbeku naanu?" he asked me. "Nan kathe yaak helbeku?" (Why should I talk to you? Why should I tell you my side of the story?)
He was 25, not yet a superstar as he had still not done the film Appu. We were in the middle of the Rajkumar kidnapping and the whole state was tense with fear of violence and repercussions. There was deep depression over Annavru being in the hands of a forest smuggler and general unhappiness over the enforced inaction, as nobody including CM SMK could do anything out of fear that Veerappan would harm the Kannada icon.
We journos had practically taken up residence in the Rajkumar household or on the pavement outside their gate, for the entire 108 days of the kidnapping. The family, despite being the most affected, tolerated all and sundry, every probing question, with huge grace. Indeed I became a fan of Parvathamma during that time.
Puneet, at 25, was the youngest in the household and still rebellious. He was not composed like the rest of the family in handling intrusion into private grief and generally avoided talking to us, leaving that task to his mother and two elder brothers.
But hey, we are the media and we smell out stories. Some stories were circulated about Puneet's granite mining links that sort of circled back to Veerappan's kidnapping of his father. It was a bit far-fetched and my boss, Naheed Ataulla was like -- we really don't need to respond to these rumours and I don't see why it should be a story.
I was curious though to find out what the story actually was and also thought this was a good lead to get Puneet finally talking on the situation. Yep, the media can be vultures right, but we did try to do it with some dignity and yes, people did have the option to say no.
I said: "Puneet avare, niv maatabekagilla. But niv maatadudre jaanakke nimma point of view nu gottagatte. Ildidre yen rumours ideyo, ave ulkoladu. Adakmele nimg bittiddu." (You don't have to talk, but if you do, people will get to know your point of view. Else only these rumours will remain).
He didn't want to talk but somehow I think he felt compelled to. He wanted to make it clear that his father's kidnapping had nothing to do with his business links. He was deeply hurt by the idea but was holding himself together by a thread.
He said he had invested in a granite mine through someone else, but after his family told him to back off, he just got out. He did not want to comment on whether it was illegal or not and repeatedly asked me not to sensationalize it or put it on page one.
I told him the display was not in my control, but he could trust me to report exactly what he said and not colour it. I stuck to that with the result. It was a rather "dry" story and my editor put it on page 6, even though this was the only interaction Puneet had with any of the media at that time. Story wise, yes, Naheed was right, it wasn't anything great, but hey, it had that touch of humanizing Puneet, which I thought was necessary -- since the rumours were one-sided and the public ought to know the other side too.
A few days later, Rajkumar came back. After that there was either a Cauvery or Kannada related incident (I don't remember) and Rajkumar, sons and the entire film industry were protesting at Gandhi statue on MG Road. I was being jostled all over by the crowd near the small podium they were on. Puneet saw me being jostled from the stage and completely furious, reached his hand out and lifted me up like a sack of potatoes on the podium.
"Ilen maadtidira nivu? Inta gaddlad madye niv irbeka?" he asked, genuinely angry. (What are you doing here, do you need to be inside a mob like this?)
I shrugged and said: "Report maadbeku bandidini" (I have to report, so I'm here).
He invited me to his wedding. I went. When I did a film industry story and needed a quote he'd give me. We had mutual respect and professional friendship. I didn't go around calling him "Appu" and am still one of the few that think of him as "Puneet".
I don't know what to say now. Feels very strange to think that the young boy who went around singing "Kaanadante maayavadano namma Shiva", who graduated to singing "Jothe jothe yali, preethi jothe yali" and the kickass "Bandanoora banderella bandu nodi bangada" from Rishi is not there. I can't believe it, except for the fact that my comrade in arms from the Rajkumar pavement, Aravind Gowda, sent me a message at 3 am my time in the US that Puneet had had a heart attack. I am numb and don't know when that will go.