Puneeth Rajkumar’s shocking demise leaves a vacuum at the top in Kannada cinema. The 46-year-old had steadily risen to be among the most bankable of stars in the industry — and not entirely owing to his family connections.
Puneeth was the youngest of Kannada film icon Rajkumar’s three sons (the others being Shiva and Raghavendra). As a child actor, he was cast (and also sang) in a number of films, credited under the name ‘Lohith’. My favourite among these films is the mythological Bhakta Prahlada (1983), in which Rajkumar played Hiranyaksha and Anant Nag was Narada.
All three of Rajkumar’s sons had star launches when they reached adulthood: Shiva, the eldest, with Anand (1986); Raghavendra in Nanjundi Kalyana (1989), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew; and Puneeth with Appu (2002), a youth film. That he was nicknamed “Appu” by his fans should give one a sense of the film’s importance in his career.
The youth film thrives when there is disaffection between generations and with an older order. In Appu, the eponymous protagonist is a young man known for his toughness. After being brutally attacked, he is saved by a woman called Suchi, who donates blood. She later becomes his classmate, and Appu wishes to marry her.
Appu’s father — a head constable — despises his son’s unruliness. Appu, on the other hand, has only disdain for both his father — a sycophant — and the police. To him, family only means his mother, who loves him unconditionally.
Meanwhile, Suchi’s father is the commissioner of police. The fact that Suchi and he are from different classes (although both fathers are employees of the state) does not deter Appu because the informal power he wields as a toughie is greater than the formal power wielded by Suchi’s father. Some of Appu’s informal power comes from being president of the Rajkumar Fans’ Association. The film has a sequence in which members of the association, led by Appu, stone a cinema hall for not providing them with tickets to a new Rajkumar-starrer. When Suchi falls in love with Appu, her father tries to have him eliminated, but fails.
We must understand that when this film was made, there was deep local disaffection; the state government was seen to be on the side of the rich and privileged. Chief Minister SM Krishna was an emblem of anglophone sophistication and had instituted a task force called the BATF (Bangalore Agenda Task Force) in which many of the city’s prominent businesspersons — especially those from the IT industry — were members. Kannada cinema caters to a constituency that feels injured by this deference to anglophones and Appu was cashing in on that. The hostility towards policemen habitually shown by Kannada cinema — with the torture of locals by policemen being a routine ingredient in films — is essentially from the sense that the state machinery is anti-local and is in the service of the well-heeled outsider. Appu therefore represents the locals discriminated against by the state in cosmopolitan Bengaluru.
In his later films Puneeth did not stray particularly from this kind of cinema — something that marked him out from his older brother Shiva, who makes movies that are much blander in tone (Kaddi Pudi, 2013). Puneeth used the motif of the love story between socially disparate people, with the title of the film often being the name of the character he portrayed as well. In Aakash (2005), he was the tough subaltern, a fitness or swimming instructor as in Aakash (2005). Very often he played a ‘rowdy’, or the son of a rowdy (eg. Vamshi, 2008, in which his father has been murdered by a rival gang with the complicity of the police and politicians). In Abhi (2003), the protagonist is in love with a Muslim woman, a relationship that is opposed by her parents. The villains in Puneeth’s films also tend to carry a hint of the non-local. The villain in Anjani Putra (2017) is named Bhairava and the protagonist played by Puneeth follows him to Jodhpur to kill him.
Puneeth was an action star and it was hence necessary for him to be a fitness enthusiast to play the above kind of roles: usually a local who has been discriminated against and who is therefore enraged. No other contemporary Kannada star is quite like him; Darshan or Yash may be macho and well-built but they do not convey the same violent emotions Puneeth could be relied upon to communicate to the Kannada public — a public that felt the same rage his films draw upon.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and critic