A murder and a murky past: The Darshan casefiles

Darshan, who has a history of domestic abuse and violent behaviour, and his partner Pavithra have been arrested in the murder of Renukaswamy — allegedly over inappropriate messages sent on social media.
A murder and a murky past: The Darshan casefiles
A murder and a murky past: The Darshan casefiles

A high profile Kannada actor with a history of violence is now in the middle of a murder investigation in Karnataka. Darshan Thoogudeepa, an actor who has been one of the top stars of the Sandalwood industry for the last two decades, is one of the main accused in the killing of Renukaswamy, a pharmacist from Chitradurga. So is his partner Pavithra Gowda, who has been accused of asking Darshan to abduct and torture the 33-year-old pharmacist for allegedly sending her inappropriate messages on social media. 

Darshan, who has been married to Vijayalakshmi since 2000, has been in a relationship with Pavithra for over ten years. Vijayalakshmi has, in the past, accused Darshan of domestic violence. In January, Pavithra faced a barrage of hate online from people who opposed her relationship with Darshan after Vijayalakshmi took exception to Pavithra posting about it online. According to the police, Renukaswamy was among those who sent inappropriate messages to Pavithra, but TNM has not been able to ascertain whether these messages were part of the targeted campaign against Pavithra or were removed from them.  

Angered by these messages, Darshan at Pavithra’s behest, allegedly got Renukaswamy abducted and brought to a shed in Bengaluru, where he was repeatedly assaulted, leading to his death.

The case brings to light the dangers of valourising vigilante justice and toxic masculinity in response to real or perceived crimes. Darshan is behind bars, as is Pavithra. Meanwhile, Darshan's fan base is under fire for supporting the actor even in the face of murder charges.

An unidentified body

On the morning of June 9, a security guard of an apartment in Sumanahalli reported a body found amidst bags of trash in front of the complex abutting a stormwater drain. The body, which bore deep injuries, was identified as that of 33-year-old Renukaswamy, a native of Chitradurga, a district 200 km from Bengaluru. 

Even as the investigation had just begun, four people walked into Kamakshipalya police station in the late evening on June 10 and confessed to killing Renukaswamy in a fit of rage over a financial dispute. The police officials, however, were suspicious of the confession and started looking into call records and questioned the four men again. By 8.30 am the next day, an entire state was shocked as TV channels started flashing the news that actor Darshan was taken into custody in Mysuru. Before long, his partner and actor Pavithra Gowda was also detained by the police.

Over the next few days, gruesome details emerged. According to the police, Renukaswamy was traced through social media, abducted and brought to Bengaluru, locked up and beaten brutally and tortured, and when he died of his injuries, his body was disposed of in a heap of trash, and people paid to falsely confess to the crime. So far, seventeen people, including the two actors have been arrested. These include individuals who allegedly tracked the victim down to Chitradurga, brought him to Bengaluru, participated in the violent acts that led to his death, disposed of his body, and were paid to take the fall for his murder. 


Series of events

An initial assessment by the police of Renukaswamy’s body showed that he had wounds on the face, head, and ears. This led to a case of murder being filed under sections 302 (murder) and 201 (hiding evidence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). 

The first breakthrough came on the night of June 10, around 7 pm, when four persons, namely – Raghavendra, Karthik, Nikhil Nayak and Keshavamurthy, turned up before the Kamakshipalya police and claimed they had killed Renukaswamy. The murder, they said, was executed at a vehicle shed in Pattanagere village near Rajarajeshwari Nagar, a suburb of south Bengaluru, 10 km away from the stormwater drain where the body was found. The murder was over a financial dispute, they said. 

But this seemed to be far-fetched. A pharmacy worker from Chitradurga involved in a financial deal with people in Bengaluru and travelling the distance to settle it did not sound plausible to the police. They checked the call records of the victim and the accused. A sustained interrogation led to one of the accused, finally dropping Darshan’s name. Darshan was arrested on June 11, three days after Renukaswamy’s murder.

Darshan, who often plays a rowdy in his movies, has been accused of many crimes in the past — assaulting his wife Vijayalakshmi, unleashing his dogs to attack a lawyer, assaulting a waiter, and illegally housing migratory birds in his farmhouse. But conspiring and executing a murder is new to the list. The question arose — why target Renukaswamy, a 33-year-old pharmacist from Chitradurga? 

The shed where the assault took place
The shed where the assault took placeKorah Abraham

The motive for the murder

According to many news channels, Renukaswamy, who got married last year and was expecting a child in a few months, was a fan of Darshan. He wanted to ‘save’ Darshan’s marriage and ended up antagonising the actor by sending lewd messages and pictures to Darshan’s long-time partner, Pavithra Gowda. However, this is a half-truth. Renukaswamy’s family says that he was not a Darshan fan.

The prime accused in the case – Pavithra Gowda – is a small-time actor and fashion designer. Pavithra acted in movies like Chatrigalu Saar Chatrigalu, Preeti Kitaabu, and Agamya, but her career never quite took off. Many we spoke to in the Kannada film industry say they were aware of Darshan and Pavithra’s relationship and his estrangement from his wife, Vijayalakshmi. 

“Pavithra is from Bengaluru and is a single mother. The industry knew that they were in a relationship but it became public after a spat between the two women in 2023,” says a producer we spoke to.

The spat between Vijayalakshmi and Pavithra began when a Kannada serial actor, Megha Shetty, posted a video from Pavithra’s birthday party in 2023, where Darshan was seen feeding her cake. Vijayalakshmi admonished Megha for the video and questioned Pavithra openly. On January 24, 2024, Pavithra made her relationship with Darshan public. She posted an Insta reel of her pictures with Darshan with the caption, “One decade down; forever to go. It’s been 10 years of our relationship.” 

Darshan and Pavithra Gowda
Darshan and Pavithra Gowda

Angered by this, Vijayalakshmi lashed out at Pavithra, leading to an online spat between the duo. Scores of Darshan fans, who like to safeguard the image of a ‘family man’, began to troll and abuse Pavithra online, accusing her of causing a rift between their ‘hero’ and his wife. Renukaswamy, a pharmacy worker in Chitradurga, stood out. He allegedly sent lewd and obscene messages/pictures to Pavithra. 

But Renukaswamy’s uncle Shadakshari told TNM that, unlike the media version, Renukaswamy was not a fan of Darshan. “He would have watched a few movies like everyone else. He wasn’t the kind to go gaga over an actor, not even the kind that watches a movie on the first day.”

Police sources said there was enough evidence to show that Renukaswamy was sending obscene messages to women on social media, and one of them happened to be Pavithra. She allegedly was so irked by the messages that she complained to Darshan, who not only tracked him down but allegedly orchestrated his abduction and assault, which led to Renukaswamy’s death.

The police’s case is that Pavithra, angered by Renukaswamy’s messages, influenced Darshan to “teach him a lesson.”

How was the crime carried out?

According to the police, Pavithra told Darshan about the messages she had been receiving on Instagram. Darshan asked his aide Pawan (A3) to track the sender.  Pawan then opened a fake account on Instagram under Pavithra’s name and began chatting with Renukaswamy. Through these conversations, Pawan learned that Renukaswamy lived in Chitradurga and gathered other personal details.

Darshan then contacted Raghavendra alias Raghu (A4), who led his fan club in Chitradurga. Raghu, along with two others, Jagadish (A6) and Ravi (A8), abducted Renukaswamy on June 8 and brought him to a 5-acre plot in Pattanagere in the suburb of Rajarajeswarinagar, used to house seized vehicles. Though leased out to others, the plot belonged to the uncle of Darshan’s friend Vinay (A10), who had access to the land. 

Renukaswamy was brought here around mid-morning and kept for several hours. By evening, he was dead.

In the few hours that he was held captive, Renukaswamy was tortured and brutally assaulted for several hours by a group of people, allegedly including Darshan, resulting in a gruesome death. The police have seized lathis and tree branches, ostensibly used to assault him. The autopsy report showed 15 wounds on Renukaswamy’s body and concluded that he died of shock and haemorrhage. There were wounds and marks on the head, abdomen, chest and other parts. The post-mortem report said he died of “shock and haemorrhage as a result of multiple blunt injuries sustained.” Police also said around 14 people might have assaulted Renukaswamy. The police have recovered CCTV footage from the shed’s surroundings in addition to physical and biological evidence. Sources in the police said the scene of the crime had enough indications that this was not a one-time assault. “It looks as if this was not the first time they did something like this,” a police source said.

The place where Renukaswamy's body was recovered
The place where Renukaswamy's body was recoveredKorah Abraham
The narrow road between the Sattva Anugraha apartments and the stormwater drain
The narrow road between the Sattva Anugraha apartments and the stormwater drainKorah Abraham

Deepak (A13), an accomplice in the crime, allegedly confessed to the police about the actor’s presence in the shed when Renukaswamy was being assaulted. 

According to the police, Deepak also confessed to distributing Rs 5 lakh each to the four individuals who initially took responsibility for the murder to protect Darshan. He also allegedly promised the accused that their families would receive Rs 30 lakh each once they were arrested.

Darshan has reportedly admitted to being present when the assault took place.

The police reviewed CCTV footage near the shed where the murder was allegedly committed and found visuals of Darshan’s vehicle entering and leaving the premises. The footage captured two vehicles: a black Scorpio and a red Mahindra Thar in the area where the body was dumped.

Darshan’s stardom and infamy

Darshan is the son of renowned actor Thoogudeepa Srinivas but did not automatically get opportunities in films. After his father’s passing in 1995, Darshan had to carve his own path in the industry. He enrolled in Ninasam, a prestigious theatre school in Shivamogga. He began his film career as an assistant cameraperson to cinematographer BC Gowrishankar. After appearing in minor roles, Darshan finally landed his first lead role in the 2002 film Majestic. 

Throughout the early 2000s, Darshan played diverse roles, including a budding singer in Laali Haadu (2003), a renowned journalist in Lankesh Patrike (2003) and a visually impaired person in Namma Preethiya Ramu (2003). These films solidified his status in the Kannada cinema as a leading man and garnered a massive fan following. 

“He was perceived as a self-made actor. Darshan was seen as arrogant and brusque, but fans loved him for that attitude. This was at a time when superstars carried an aura around them and despite his arrogance, Darshan made fans feel as if he was one of them,” said a film critic who didn’t want to be named. He also ventured into film production in 2006 with his younger brother Dinakar Thoogudeepa and started Thoogudeepa Productions.  

Darshan’s soaring popularity has been equally marked by infamy. His career has been dotted with controversies and accusations of criminal behaviour. One such incident was in 2011, when he spent 14 days in jail for allegedly assaulting his wife. Vijayalakshmi had accused him of burning her face with cigarettes, hitting her with slippers and threatening to kill their three-year-old son. This incident sparked a disturbing reaction from his fans, who burned buses and protested in front of the police station, demanding his release. Bigwigs of the Kannada film industry like Ambareesh, Jaggesh, and Munirathna tried to pressure Vijaylakshmi into dropping the charges. They reportedly assured her that they would advise Darshan to change his ways and that police intervention was unnecessary. 

Vijaylakshmi was ready to reconcile under one condition – actor Nikita Thukral, whom she alleged to be the cause of their marital problems, must be banned. The Kannada Film Producers’ Association promptly banned Nikita for three years in 2012 for “allegedly creating marital discord in Darshan's family.”

Darshan with his wife Vijayalakshmi
Darshan with his wife Vijayalakshmi

The incident, rather than harming Darshan’s career, emboldened his fan base and consolidated his image as a larger-than-life figure. Darshan’s movie Saarathi, released while he was in judicial custody, became a massive box office hit. This episode also marked the beginning of Darshan's public disdain for the media, an attitude that still resonates with his followers. 

Over the years, Darshan’s problematic episodes continued. In 2016, Vijayalakshmi filed another complaint against him for objectionable behaviour. In Mysuru, he reportedly assaulted a waiter at Hotel Sandesh Prince (owned by film producer Sandesh Nagaraj), who was paid Rs 50,000 to maintain silence about it. In another incident, Darshan was criticised for making an inappropriate statement about the Hindu goddess Lakshmi during a film promotion, saying, “The Goddess of Luck does not always come knocking on your door. So, when she does come, grab her, drag her, and lock her in your bedroom without giving her clothes.” This statement led to a member of the audience hurling a slipper at him. In 2023, Darshan was arrested after being accused of setting his dogs on a 48-year-old lawyer for parking her car near his residence. 

Through this history of violent behaviour, Darshan has enjoyed political patronage from all parties.  In 2012, a year after he went to jail after his wife complained of assault, Darshan was made an ambassador of the state Health Department by the government led by the BJP. In 2018, when JD(S) chief HD Kumaraswamy was the Chief Minister in alliance with the Congress, he was made brand ambassador of the Forest Department. Ironically, in January 2023, his farm was raided for harbouring endangered bar-headed geese, a migratory bird. In 2021, again under a BJP government, he was also made brand ambassador for the Agriculture Department. He also promotes the Zoo Authority of Karnataka.

While the crime that Darshan has been accused of now is graver than anything in the past, his fan clubs have been unwavering in their support. Scores of fans gathered outside the Annapurneshwari Nagar police station (where Darshan was being held), shouting slogans in his support. The situation escalated to such an extent that the police had to deploy additional forces and impose prohibitory orders.

Senior journalist and film critic Muralidhar Khajane told TNM, “Darshan wanted to be so popular that he wanted his photo plastered on the back of autorickshaws. Since 2011, Darshan has solely relied on his fans to promote his movies. Most of his movies since then have been successful at the box office. To date, Darshan feels that fans will always back him, rarely relying on film critics or industry people.” 

Darshan's picture on the back of an auto in Bengaluru.
Darshan's picture on the back of an auto in Bengaluru.Shivani Kava

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