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Rajkumar is dead, long live Rajkumar

One man was missing — though he was very much there as well — at a recent dharna of stars from Karnataka in Bangalore. The man was the actor Rajkumar, who died two years ago.

The dharna, over the Hogenakkal project that has left Tamil Nadu and Karnataka bickering over water, has made one fact clear — the vacuum left by the Kannada actor is still to be filled. A few stars are waiting in the wings — but the lacklustre protest meeting indicates that the leader’s post is vacant.

Unlike Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where film stars have played an important role in shaping the politics of their state, Karnataka has never had a close relationship between stars and politics. Andhra Pradesh had N.T. Rama Rao; Tamil Nadu boasted of M.G. Ramachandran, K. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. Karnataka, on the other hand, has no heroes to catapult to the Vidhan Saudha, the assembly. Of course, Karnataka always had Rajkumar, but he studiously stayed away from politics.

“We pleaded with him to form a party, but his point was simple. He was happy being accepted by all classes of society, which would not be the case if he joined politics,” says Chandrasekhara Champa Patil, president of the Karnataka Sahitya Parishat and an old Raj Kumar associate.

The Karnataka film industry’s lack of interest in politics is more evident than ever now that the assembly polls in the state are hardly a month away. But at the hub of the film industry, the bustling Gandhinagar area in Bangalore that houses numerous production and distribution houses, the hottest topic is not the poll but the supposed “threat” to Kannada by Telugu and Tamil films running to packed houses in Karnataka.

Karnataka has had actors in politics — and quite a few have fought the elections, too — but no one has the stature of actor-politicians in the neighbouring states. Observers point out that the Kannada film stars in politics are popular, but not leaders.

Rajkumar, on the other hand, was a leader — and a rallying force for the film industry. In his absence, the fraternity seems to have come apart at the seams. The protest was attended by a small section of the industry. Top stars such as Vishuvardhan and Ambarish kept away.

“Nobody would have dared to stay away from a protest of this sort had annavaru (elder brother) been around,” says Putte Gowda, a producer who was a part of the protest. “He was our strongest glue. And that was because he was apolitical. He not only held the film industry together but also the state and its identity, and that was his greatest strength,” says national award winning actor Jayamala. Jayamala recently hit the headlines when she said she had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Aiyappa temple in Kerala, which doesn’t allow women to enter.

Rajkumar’s absence is felt every time the industry needs to take an issue up. “He continues to cast his shadow even after his death on the industry personalities and their politics,” says Agni Sridhar, a film producer and the publisher of an influential weekly, Agni. Had Rajkumar joined politics and succeeded, it would have opened the doors for others, says Sridhar.

Rajkumar was drawn into causes during the Gokak movement in 1982, a literary campaign espousing the primacy of Kannada in high school curricula. “That was perhaps the only time when a star in Karnataka could have won elections purely on his own steam, but that was not to be,” recalls Chandrasekhara Patil.

Ever since, prominent actors, including Amabarish, Mukhyamantri Chandru, Anantnag, Kumar Bangarappa, Jayanthi, Dwarkesh and Jaggesh, have tried their hand at politics and quite a few have fallen by the wayside.

“Where are the charismatic stars in Kannada to sway the public,” asks Chandru — who has been known as Mukhyamantri ever since he acted in the play of that name.

Some now pin their hope on Chandru, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader who has been seeking to spread Kannada in the border districts through his Gadinadu Horata Samithi — a forum that the BJP is not in support of. Chandru’s movement, however, has been drawing crowds. But the actor-politician has one disadvantage. He doesn’t belong to either of the two dominant communities — Vokkaliga or Lingayat.

Some believe that the reason Karnataka is different is the fact that while stars are admired they do not occupy the same elevated spot as their counterparts in Andhra and Tamil Nadu. “We adore our stars, but don’t worship them,” says Kannada poet and political observer Shudra Srinivas.

Writer and theatre personality Maralu Siddappa believes that Karnataka’s stars also lack political maturity. “MGR and NTR had good political insights and they were able to sell themselves as politicians because they raised socio-economic issues. No actor in Karnataka had that kind of an insight.”

“We are more of ivory tower people. We are happy in our own worlds and we don’t want to risk anything in life,” adds T. Lohithaswa, a Kannada actor who has acted in more than 500 films. A reason for the lack of interest, observers say, is money. Forming a party, or having political ambitions, calls for money — for cadres, offices and so on. “Even the most popular star in Kannada will not earn in his lifetime what Tamil or Telugu super stars Rajnikanth and Chiranjeevi earn in a year,” says Sridhar. While Rajnikanth charges anywhere between Rs 15 crore and Rs 30 crore, Chiranjeevi commands a fee of Rs 5 crore to Rs 10 crore. Current Kannada top stars Vishnuvardhan, Ravichandran and Punnet Rajkumar have not crossed Rs 30 lakh.

Moreover, the history of forming regional parties in Karnataka — even by stalwarts such as Devraj Urs, P. Lankesh and K. Nanjundaswamy — is not a happy one, with the efforts having all failed.

So who will fill Rajkumar’s shoes? Chandru’s caste does not work out, Ambarish has been criticised for a nondescriptive career at the centre as minister, and Anantnag is seen as a lightweight. Others with a considerable fan following, such as Vishnuvardhan, are not interested — at least not for the moment. “It is not my cup of tea. My nature and politics don’t go together,” he says.

Jayamala believes that cine stars will come forward when the three N’s — naadu (land), nudi (language), and neeru (water) — are involved in any issue. “Political parties always use us for pulling the crowds, but it doesn’t mean that we will win elections. We should also know our limitations,” she says.

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