While film stars like MGR in Tamil Nadu and NTR in the then united Andhra Pradesh were making their name in politics, Rajkumar went into hiding to avoid taking part in the 1978 Lok Sabha bye-polls.

Dr Rajkumar and his son Puneeth Rajkumar
Voices Politics Tuesday, November 02, 2021 - 13:47

Grief-stricken fans of Kannada actor Puneeth Rajkumar are still coming to terms with their devastating loss. Days after the untimely death of the 46-year-old star, people across Karnataka and beyond are talking about his movies, sharing what he meant to them, and piecing together every small thing that happened in his life. Many are remembering him as the brand ambassador and campaigner for several initiatives of the Karnataka government. And the query keeps arising as to why the Power Star never demonstrated an inclination to join politics. Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president DK Shivakumar had even told the media that several efforts were made to convince Puneeth to join politics, but he always declined.

The reason behind this may lie in the lessons learned from his father, the Kannada movie icon Dr Rajkumar. The humble man always steered clear of politics. He was never swayed, even when political leaders hounded him to get his backing. In the 70s and 80s, when noted film actors like MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) in the then united Andhra Pradesh, and even Amitabh Bachchan were entering politics, Rajkumar stood his ground.

In fact, he went so far to avoid being pulled into politics before the 1978 Lok Sabha bye-polls in Karnataka, that he went into hiding. The Janata Party wanted to field him as a candidate against Congress supremo and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the Chikkamagaluru constituency. Noted filmmaker SK Bhagavan (part of the Dorai- Bhagavan duo) and a close associate of Rajkumar told TNM that the Janata Party went looking for him everywhere, including in the filmmaker's home. “The Janata Party members searched my house from top to bottom in Bengaluru. They did not spare the toilets and even looked behind the curtains and searched my theatre on the first floor,'' he said. 

But Rajkumar was in another state — he was hiding in a farmhouse near Ranipet, Tamil Nadu, which lies nearly 100 km from Chennai. “It was a vacant farmhouse, and the owner was told it was being rented by a person who wanted to write,” said Bhagavan. The owner of the farmhouse wondered what this person would do for food, since the farmhouse was located some distance from Ranipet town.

Bhagavan said that every day, someone from Ranipet would go by bus to the farmhouse with bread and food packets picked up on the way, and deliver it for Rajkumar. “Once the deadline for filing nominations was over, Rajkumar came out of hiding,” the filmmaker said.

The only time the Rajkumar family saw active participation in politics was when the veteran icon’s daughter-in-law Gita – the wife of his son Shiva Rajkumar – contested against former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa for the Shivamogga Lok Sabha seat in 2014. But Gita’s decision to join politics was seen as following in her father and former Chief Minister S Bangarappa’s footsteps.

Years later, Rajkumar is said to have explained to his son Raghavendra as to why he went into hiding in 1978. Sharing his father's words with a section of the media, Raghavendra said the actor had undergone knee surgery and was convalescing when he called him into the hospital room. “He told me that if the intention behind asking him to contest was so that he could make a positive contribution in politics, he would have considered contesting. But the purpose for seeking him was to use him as a weapon. However, when he was asked to join the Gokak movement, he was glad to participate. He said his participation was necessary and he could make a positive contribution,'' Raghavendra recalled his father as saying. 

Gokak movement

Without stepping into politics, the Kannada matinee idol was able to make a mark when he volunteered to lead the Gokak movement, which demanded primacy for the Kannada language in education and employment.

The Gokak movement got its impetus in 1982 after Rajkumar agreed to participate in it. The Congress government had initially declined to accept the report of an expert committee, headed by Jnanpith recipient VK Gokak, which recommended the primacy of Kannada language in schools. Opposing the government's decision, a linguistic agitation was launched by litterateurs, political parties and Kannada activists, but there was no support from the common person.

However, this changed with Rajkumar's entry into the movement. The entire Kannada film industry stood behind him and the public also lent their support, and the government was forced to accept the report.

Though two farmers died during the movement due to police firing in Nargund and Navalgund in 1980, the Gokak agitation is largely considered a success and it is said to be one of the reasons for the downfall of the Gundu Rao government in 1983.

After that, the bond between Rajkumar and Kannada nationalism strengthened. And at every Kannada Rajyotsava celebration or at any Kannada event, “Huttidare Kannada nadalli huttabeku; Mettidare Kannada manna mettabeku'' from Rajkumar’s film Aakasmika is always played.

Even if politics wasn’t their cup of tea, Rajkumar and his sons were very generous and went out of their way to be brand ambassadors for government programmes without taking any remuneration. They made sure to play their part in any important matter to do with the state.

According to Bhagavan, when Rajkumar was endorsing the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF), he declined to take a single penny for doing the ad. The organisation, however, felicitated him by presenting him with a cow. 

Puneeth carried on his father’s legacy by endorsing KMF's Nandini Milk in a power-packed ad, where amid a wrestling match he spots a person carrying a jar of milk. He sprints across, grabs the jar, and drinks the milk even as he is chased by others for it.

However, much like their father, Puneeth and his brothers made sure to steer clear of politics. In fact, Puneeth, when there was speculation, issued a clarification that he would not be campaigning for independent candidate, Sumalatha Ambareesh – the wife of Kannada star Ambareesh – in Mandya during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Former chairman of the Karnataka Legislative Council BL Shankar, who was with the Janata Party in the 70s, said politics would have never been Rajkumar's forte. “One has to be ruthless and selfish in politics. Rajkumar's nature was different, he was humble, an introvert and ensured he never attended caste-based functions,'' he added.

Poet and lyricist of the Kannada movie Mungaru Male, Jayanth Kaikini quoting from an interview of the actor, where Rajkumar said: “When Kannadigas have given me a throne and made me a king in their hearts, should I take up any other position?''  

Naheed Ataulla is a journalist who has covered Karnataka politics for over two decades, and is a former Political Editor of The Times of India. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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