Rajkumar and the Kannada Language Film

M. K. Raghavendra

The male star in India’s popular cinemas

If film stars in world cinema are often associated with specific genres(1) , those in India have other associations largely because of the relative lack of generic differentiation in Indian cinema. Hindi language popular cinema, which played the role of an unofficial national cinema after 1947, used star personae to address social concerns which come to the fore in each historical era; the same star’s persona often transforms in different eras to suit a new socio-political purpose. As an instance Dilip Kumar played the urbane man beset by uncertainties in the early l950s (Babul, 1950, Jogan, 1950) furthering an uncharacteristic open-endedness in Hindi films when independent India was confronted with an array of political choices(2) . The same actor became known for playing the ebullient rustic later in films like Naya Daur (1957) and Ganga Jumna (1961), when India had settled into a stable political system in which rural issues had gained prominence. Since Hindi cinema addressed the national identity and there were several concurrent issues which needed addressing, different stars played their parts to weave a coherent fabric of interdependent narratives.

In contrast to the mainstream Hindi film which has addressed national issues, India has also


had a regional language popular cinema which can be seen as addressing local identities within India. Unlike Hindi cinema, in which a single star has not dominated because of the variety of issues needing to be narrativised – usually allegorically – each regional language popular cinema has tended to be dominated by a single male star(3) . The regional language popular cinemas, by and large, serve much smaller territories(4) and this suggests that there is a concentrating of address-worthy issues at any moment into one or two major ones, and a single star has been the vehicle. The fact that their ‘constituencies’ are concentrated in smaller territories has also enabled regional film stars to succeed in politics – something that the Hindi film which is more widely dispersed – does not allow. If regional film stars have sometimes appeared in more than one language cinema their biggest successes have been confined to one territory demarcated by language.

Rajkumar, the star who dominated Kannada language cinema for several decades, appeared only in the Kannada film. Kannada cinema is nominally consumed across the entire territory where Kannada is the lingua franca (i.e.: the Indian state of Karnataka in South India) but in actual practice it addresses only a part of that territory, the part once constituted by the Princely State of Mysore, under indirect British rule. Rajkumar, in fact, can be interpreted as a living icon of former Princely Mysore.   

Understanding the milieu
Hindi cinema is intended to appeal to a wide cross-section across an enormous territory and therefore attempts to use a ‘non-local’ idiom but since the Kannada popular film began by addressing only the citizens of Princely Mysore the socio-political milieu in the state has a large role to play in our understanding of Kannada film convention, if not form which appears similar to the mainstream Hindi film. That Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films are dubbed into other languages implies that the films cannot be formally very apart because they must be understood by audiences from the other regions as their own cinema.

The key factor to understand about the milieu in Princely Mysore was that it was under indirect rule by the British before 1947. After the break-up of the Vijayanagar Empire (1336-1646) and before the rise of Hyder Ali in the 1760s the area known as Mysore State was ruled by a network of ‘little kingdoms’ over which the chieftains who claimed to rule had only a loose suzerainty(5). The Wadeyar family, the ancestors of the Maharaja of Mysore ruled over Mysore but it was only under Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan that any genuine consolidation of the little kingdoms under one authority took place. After Tipu’s defeat in 1799 the British needed suitable rulers over the dominions that they did not wish to administer themselves, and reinstated the Wadeyars although they ruled indirectly through the Dewan (minister), who was (in the initial period) from the Madras Presidency.

When the Maharaja resumed power he was required to raise resources for the British while also restoring the splendour befitting a royal Court. If this weakened the Maharaja, it was compounded by to other factors. The peasantry had, as may be expected, grievances and there was also the issue of caste dominance. The Wadeyars were Arasus, who were only a few(6) while the most powerful castes/ sects in the region were the Vokkaligas and the Veerashaivas who constituted the powerful local elite. These factors contributed to the political climate in Princely Mysore and its differences with that of the British-ruled presidencies of Bombay and Madras – though the Maharaja was presented with an administrative structure based on the Bombay and Madras models. As indicated, the British had installed an Indian administrative head (the Dewan) with the centralization of power in his hands also as a way of maintaining control. These officials were usually of the highest calibre and Mysore State soon earned the reputation of being among the best administered native states in India. Since caste will be of some importance in this inquiry it is necessary to note that while Brahmins constituted a small minority in Princely Mysore(7), of the thirteen Dewans of Mysore between 1881 and 1947, nine were Brahmins, most of them from the Madras Presidency. The first Mysorean Dewan was PN Krishnamurthi (1901-1906) and the next one was Sir M Visveswaraiya (1912-1918), perhaps the greatest of the Dewans. The dominance of Brahmins in the administration led to an anti-Brahmin movement among the elite classes, which did not lead to mass mobilization as had the anti-Brahmin movement in the Madras Presidency.

Mysore State was exceedingly fertile and blessed with two rivers, as a consequence of which cheap hydroelectric power could be produced. The state was therefore able to bring off several impressive entrepreneurial schemes. Its performance in areas like industry and education were so impressive that the Government of India rarely interfered in governance either formally or informally. Overall, Mysore state was a prosperous state with few of the contrasts of the rest of India. Mysore was a Hindu kingdom ruled autocratically by a local king with a limited colonial interface. Hinduism was more orthodox and the position of the Brahmin caste and the priests more elevated although Veerashaivism developed here as a system of protest against Brahmin domination. It is also to be noted that the fact of the state being governed by Muslim rulers from 1761 to 1799 did not change this Hindu characteristic as far as structure was concerned – although in terms of personnel Brahmins and Veerashaivas were largely replaced by Muslims in this period(8). The fact that the Mysore regime was virtually created by the colonial power does not mean that it did not strive for autonomy. In fact the struggle for autonomy became the dominant interest of the Mysore Government and the Maharaja even designated his country as a ‘nation within a nation’(9).

Caste/ sect being a crucial way in which ties were created and maintained, the largest arena within which sustained social interaction occurred was the area across which people from one caste group or sect had established marriage alliances with other families. Being of the same caste/ sect was not enough and families sought out links with families of comparable status, some of these ties reinforced by second and third generation alliances. The marriage networks overlapped with one another so that over a range of eighty or hundred miles an entire endogamous unit would be knitted together(10)

The conventions of Kannada popular cinema
The description of the milieu provided above will explain many of the conventions of Kannada popular cinema which inform the films of the 1950s, which was when Rajkumar entered the scene. The major conventions followed by Kannada popular cinema around the time are under (11) :

  1. Where Hindi cinema uses love as the basis of heterosexual attachments, Kannada cinema uses endogamy as the basis and marriages are contracted within the same caste unless specified. Marriage across caste, in defiance of endogamy and for ‘love’ appears only as an anomaly. The joint family, consequently, is also valorised much more than in Hindi cinema. 
  2. Caste hierarchy is much more rigid than in Hindi cinema although one has to deduce caste identity through names and qualities are associated with the names. Brahmin names connote education and sophistication, and teacher, engineer and doctor are the occupations associated with the caste. But if a person is denoted as a Brahmin by making him a priest, he is usually hypocritical, selfish and opportunistic. Farmers and grain merchants are connoted as Vokkaligas while traditional businessmen are usually given Veerashaiva names. When ‘farmer’ comes with sophistication, he is a ‘progressive farmer’ or coffee planter with Brahmin attributes/names.  
  3. There is little evidence of non-Hindu characters in Kannada cinema and their appearance is anomalous.
  4. The code of dharma is much more operational in Kannada than in Hindi cinema. As a corollary, there is a hierarchy within the family with the father treated as lord and master. The ideal father performs his duties towards his wife and children the way a monarch does towards his subjects.
  5. Unlike Hindi cinema, Independence has little or no impact on Kannada cinema. Much more important is the linguistic reorganization of the states in 1956, which enlarged Mysore (renamed as Karnataka in 1973) to include other territories from the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, the Nizam’s Hyderabad and Coorg.
  6. Magical elements and mythology are absent from mainstream Hindi cinema after 1942-43. Independence was increasingly anticipated from then onwards – after the British reverses against the Japanese. The reform movements of the 19th and early 20th century had striven to free the milieu of superstition and this influenced the shape of Indian nationalism thereafter. Kannada cinema does not address the ‘progressive nation’; mythology and magic are staple elements until very much longer.  
  7. The domestic melodrama (or ‘social’) enters Kannada cinema only in the 1950s and after linguistic reorganization. Till that time virtually every Kannada film includes magical elements. The advent of the ‘social’ introduces generic differentiation between two broad categories – those with costumes (mythological and historical films) and those without (domestic melodramas or ‘socials’).  

Till linguistic reorganization in 1956 Kannada cinema was quite content to address a public in former Princely Mysore. Since the Kannada-speaking areas outside Mysore suffered the most because of their linguistic minority status, it was outside Mysore that the movement for unification of Kannada areas began(12). Those opposing the linguistic re-organization of Mysore into a new state were largely dominant groups in Mysore who felt that their interests, both cultural and administrative, would suffer in the enlarged state (13) because Mysore was far more prosperous. But Greater Mysore was nonetheless formed and Kannada cinema –nominally – took to addressing the enlarged territory after 1956. Rajkumar came into cinema two years before with Bedara Kannappa (1954), which allegorizes the prospects of linguistic reorganisation from the Mysorean perspective. 

Rajkumar and Mysore
Rajkumar was born as Singanalluru Puttaswamayya Muthuraju in 1929 at Gajanur in the Madras Presidency. His father was a small-time theatre artiste who played mythological roles on the stage. Rajkumar dropped out of school at the age of eight and started his career as a theatre artiste with his father in a troupe led by Gubbi Veeranna. He was then discovered by a movie producer and played minor characters on the screen until he was twenty-five when he played his first lead role in HLN Simha’s Bedara Kannappa (1954).

Awaiting integration
Bedara Kannappa was the first of a series of mythological films made between 1954 and 1956 with a strikingly common motif with two other films being Mahakavi Kalidasa (1955) and Bhakta Vijaya (1956). These films are all about a princely personage grown so arrogant that he is cursed with deprivation of some sort. In Bedara Kannappa, the ‘prince’ is a celestial being cursed by a god and being reborn as a tribal while in the other two he is a human who has to  take up life at a humbler level; but the princely arrogance of the protagonist is unmistakable in all the films. The protagonist is joined each time by his wife who shares his privation without complaining and the man gains a following because of his goodness/devoutness although he remains a common man.

The common motif identified in the three films, the motif of the prince facing deprivation should be considered in the light of Mysore being a former princely state and the representational habits cultivated under monarchy persisting. ‘King’ and ‘Country’ are synonymous to subjects in a monarchy and this suggests the prince’s/ princess’s predicament in the three films has parallels with the predicament of former Princely Mysore State in the period 1954-56. That the prince and his wife share the suffering suggests that this is a predicament shared by the king and his subjects rather than the privation forced upon an individual. This is consistent with my earlier indication of wife and husband being in the analogous position of subjects and monarch. The ‘curse’ of hardship finds correspondence in the apprehensions of prosperous former Princely Mysore when faced with the prospect of integration with poorer Kannada areas. The fact that it was a ‘curse’ with no remedy suggests that the people of former Princely Mysore (the constituency addressed by the film) gradually came to realize that they had no option but to submit. The only solace was perhaps that there was a ‘higher’ benevolent monarch/ authority ensuring that the dispensation would not be without recourse. By showing that in the process of dealing with the curse the prince also gains a larger community the films appeal to the attractions of an integrated Kannada community.

Rajkumar arrived on the scene just when Kannada cinema was contending with a larger Kannada territory which it needed to address. The rest of his career can be fruitfully interpreted as former Princely Mysore finding an icon for itself which could be held up to the other Kannada-speaking areas as well. Rajkumar also becomes instrumental in addressing all the key issues in the 1960s to engage the Kannada-speaking state – Greater Mysore as an equal constituent of the Indian nation, the extension of Mysore to include the other territories and Mysore’s claim upon modernity.

Greater Mysore and the mythological film  
With the linguistic reorganization of the states in 1956 politicians from former Princely Mysore had an obvious advantage over those from the other areas in their efforts to take charge of Greater Mysore. The Kannada speaking politicians who inherited Princely Mysore were able to approach linguistic reorganization with a considerable organizational advantage over their colleagues in the Kannada-speaking districts outside the state and they were able to garner most power within the enlarged Kannada space(14). This finds correspondence in cinema which presumes to speak for the whole of Greater Mysore but uses the idiom employed in addressing the Princely state.

Mythological films do not dominate Kannada cinema after 1956 as much as earlier because of the appearance of the family melodrama (the ‘social’) and the historical film, but two of Rajkumar’s mythological films of the period –Bhukailasa (1958) and Mahishasura Mardhini (1959) show a change in attitudes. This becomes more striking if the motifs are regarded as a continuation of the motifs in Bedara Kannappa and Bhakta Vijaya. Bhukailasa tells a story about Ravana (Rajkumar) who has grown so arrogant with his prowess that he challenges the gods. Ravana in the film embarks upon penance so severe that the god Shiva has no alternative but to grant him a boon. A key factor in this film is that the god and the king are treated roughly as equals with a democratic transaction between them rather than the unconditional submission of the latter. In fact the king as ‘devotee’ has a self-important swagger that is unmistakable. In both films the king responds to a divine visitation (during his penance) as though the god was an expected visitor and this is different from the rapturous way the protagonist receives the gods in Bedara Kannappa. The relationship between the king and the god gradually becoming one between equals is consistent the state becoming part of the nation with full democratic rights. The motif of interrogation of the gods (through Narada, a celestial intermediary) in Mahishasura Mardhini in which the gods conduct themselves wrongly perhaps finds correspondence in the courtroom scene in Hindi cinema of the 1950s in which the judge is interrogated (Dhool Ka Phool, 1959) for a wrongdoing(15) .

A different sub-category in the mythological films starring Rajkumar responds to the other side of ‘belonging to a larger nation’. In this category a childless couple is divinely blessed with a child and when the child grows up he becomes distant from his family and has thoughts only for God. This motif can be interpreted as a measure of the aspiration on society’s part to move away from narrow attachments defined by kinship ties towards higher loyalties. The years up to 1960-61, as has been observed by critics, was a period in which optimism over the India was made palpable in Hindi cinema(16) . It would be expected that such a period of nationalistic optimism would also be the most appropriate moment for narrow loyalties to be abandoned. Two Kannada films of around this period – Bhaktha Kanakadasa (1960) and Kaivara Mahathme (1961) – display the motif just described. In both films the protagonist moves away from the identity determined by his birth and embraces God although it involves hardship and being ostracized. A comparable film Chiranjeevi had appeared in 1936 when there was a move away from ‘narrow loyalties’ towards nationalism. 1936 was the crucial year when a movement gathered strength to unify the opposition to Princely Rule in Mysore, when the Mysore Congress moved away from being a local entity by establishing stronger ties with the Indian National Congress(17) and the motif is repeated in the 1960s.

Extending Mysore through the historical film
It is acknowledged that historical films partly project the concerns of the present back into the past and this is true of Indian cinema as well. Kannada cinema beginning in the late 1950s is also actively engaged in constructing a pan-Kannada nation by appealing to the past – especially empires like the one in Vijayanagar and to heroic kings and queens. Ranadheera Kanteerava (1960) is a story of palace intrigue under the Wadeyars and the film begins with a young king who loves pleasure being accosted by his mother the dowager queen and his uncle Kanteerava (Rajkumar). The film is preoccupied with defining a Kannada identity and – apart from the opening song eulogizing Kannada – proceeds about it in two ways. On the one hand are Kanteerava’s friendly dealings with various chieftains or emissaries who speak different kinds of Kannada. Kanteerava is also allowed to have two wives and the second is a ‘romance’ signifying the knitting of Kannada areas outside the traditional marriage networks. On the other hand are Kanteerava’s deeds against the Tamils. The chief of these acts is his defeating a Tamil wrestler in Tiruchi. Characters who speak Tamil and Malayalam are placed by the film in the position of Kanteerava’s adversaries. After Kanteerava’s killing of the Tiruchi wrestler, the wrestler’s brother who is intent upon revenge attempts to enter into a secret alliance with the crafty minister trying to undo Kanteerava.

Kittur Channamma (1961) is a straightforward product of Indian nationalism. Kittur Channamma deals with the colonial period and makes an attempt to enlist a national heroine from Belgaum district (Bombay Karnataka) on behalf of the Kannada Nation. The film remains fairly true to the actual story of Rani Channamma of Kittur and explains concepts like the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. Channamma (B Saroja Devi) is the second wife of the Raja Mallasarja (Rajkumar) who is captured by Tipu Sultan but escapes – with Tipu duly appreciating his valour. As opposed to the Mallasarja’s first marriage, his wedding to Channamma takes place after a ‘romance’ – once again suggesting a discourse about the knitting of territories not linked by marriage networks as in Ranadheera Kanteerava. In praising the kingdom of Kittur the film briefly pours scorn on the rulers of Mysore – as lackeys of the British. At the same time, Channamma speaks the Kannada spoken in Mysore while her two ministers/ advisors (who are British agents) speak the dialect of Belgaum (in former Bombay Presidency). The film is apparently identifying a suitable icon for the Kannada nation while at the same time – through its selective use of different Kannada dialects – privileging of Mysore over the other Kannada-speaking areas.

Modernity and the ‘social’
The genre to establish the first explicit link between Mysore and the Indian nation was evidently the domestic melodrama because it invokes the same notion in the late 1950s that Hindi cinema was also invoking – ‘modernity’. There were domestic melodramas earlier but there was also an element of magic as in Gunasagari (1953) but magic is eliminated after 1956 with films like Rayara Sose (1957) and School Master (1958) embracing the modern. In Rayara Sose, the doctor played by Rajkumar helps in ushering in social justice into a family when the father-in-law demands dowry from the wife. ‘Modernity’ in Hindi cinema means eschewing superstition and nation-building but there are not issues in Kannada cinema in which modernity in the form of industrialisation had been ushered in as early as the 1920s largely through the efforts of Sir M Visweswaraiya. Social reform including emancipation of women was however outside this ‘modernization’ and this is what Rayara Sose addresses. In School Master (in which Rajkumar does not appear) the teacher comes from outside into the corrupt village and cleanses it. ‘Outside’ may be regarded as outside Mysore, which had been plagued by corruption – as ‘India’ was seen as less afflicted by. Also introduced in School Master is the notion of marriage for love outside the endogamous circles.       

From the 1960s onwards the ‘social’ undergoes changes and its movement until the end of the decade may be understood as trying to bridge the gap between (Greater) Mysore and India by becoming modern in the Nehruvian sense. After introducing different kinds of spoken Kannada after 1956 the Kannada film increasingly uses a uniform Mysore Kannada, which becomes the standard.  Where the Kannada social appears to change most significantly after 1960 is in the way hierarchy is treated and in the denotation of caste. Where, in the earlier films, people were segregated into caste/occupational groups (servants, courtesans, priests, farmers etc.) with little commerce between them, there are fewer signs of it.  It is however apparent that hierarchy persists in a subdued way and these are usually in the comic servant romances through separate sub-plots. This implies a hierarchical segregation of plot components. As a way of playing down hierarchy without interrogating it, Kannada film narratives of the 1960s deal exclusively with one class – e.g. a Brahmin class straddling both the village and the city as in Nandadeepa (1963) or a rural landowning Vokkaliga class as in Chandavaliya Thota (1964) both of which star Rajkumar. It is as though the Kannada social was trying to democratize itself (in appearance) to become more Indian.

As the 1960s progress the Kannada social strives harder in this direction with relevant themes. Bangalore, with which Kannada cinema has had an ambivalent relationship because of the city’s association with the British and with Central government investment after 1947, is increasingly seen as a modern space. A reason was the former Chief Minister S Nijalingappa ascending to the post of President of the undivided Congress at the Centre. The ‘reformist’ films in the period – with Rajkumar as the star – include Bangarada Hoovu (1967) in which a good man helps in curing a girl of leprosy and marries her and Hannele Chiguridaga (1968) in which widowed people marry. The climax of this ‘modern’ trajectory is reached when Rajkumar plays a spy (CID 999) modeled after James Bond in Jedara Bale (1968), a film complete with nightclubs, girls and gadgets.  

Mrs Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969 and S Nijalingappa, who had been on the rise for several years, abruptly lost his importance to the Indian nation – at least in the eyes those in the Kannada state of Mysore. The films coming immediately afterwards are also preoccupied with modernity but in a different way. Instead of making common cause with the Nehruvian variety, it is to assert that modernity knocked at Princely Mysore much earlier than it did at Nehru’s India. The key films of this period – representing Rajkumar’s most iconic roles – are Dorairaj/ Bhagwan’s Kasturi Nivasa (1971) and Siddalingaiah’s Bangarada Manushya (1972). The protagonist’s of these films have all the qualities idolised in the Brahmin caste (but rarely found in those denoted as Brahmins) which is sophistication and generosity without any hint of selfishness in their acts. They are modern but their Mysorean modernity is contrasted with a more rapacious kind associated with Bangalore – with its British/ Central Government associations. In Bangarada Manushya the protagonist (a progressive famer) is explicitly compared to Sir M Visweswaraiya. Alongside this kind of ‘social’, as if to complement it, is a historical film extolling a Kannada king who submitted to no outside authority – Rajkumar as Sri Krishnadevaraya (1970). This is in contrast to Kittur Channamma in which the Indian nation is the heroine’s object of loyalty. 

Mysore fades from memory
By the mid 1970s Princely Mysore is already fading from memory and the renaming of Greater Mysore as Karnataka in 1973 was perhaps the last straw. Kannada cinema tries to hold on to the memory of former Mysore in various ways. A phenomenon of importance is that so many Kannada films of the 1960s and 1970s are based on works of literature, which was not so in the 1950s and before. Popular films found the dramatic novels by writers from Mysore like Triveni, AN Krishna Rao, MK Indira, TR Subba Rao and Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar most suitable. As Benedict Anderson proposed the possibility of the nation depends upon the development of the book, the novel and the newspaper(18). This implies a reading public capable of using them within a territory and able to imagine themselves as a single community through them. Former Princely Mysore remains inscribed as a territory in Kannada cinema long after it had ceased to exist as a political entity. Although ‘Mysore’ became defunct as a political entity in 1956, it existed in the place in which it might have existed – in the collective memory of the people of the region, given shape and manifested in the region’s literature. If Mysore had not become defunct as a political entity (i.e. it had been ‘living’ like the Nation) adapting literature might have been redundant. ‘Mysore’ was not only a space but also an ethos that faded as the last generation of Mysoreans passed on. In the mid-to-late 1970s, we already find popular cinema less dependent upon literature. Another way in which Rajkumar’s films cope with this approaching demise is to introduce the figure of the sacred mother – in a way reminiscent of Hindi cinema in which the mother allegorizes the nation in films like Awaara (1951), Mother India (1956) and Deewar (1975). But where the mother in Hindi cinema needs to act and make sacrifices to deserve the adulation, the mother in Rajkumar’s films of the 1970s is loved for her position. This is consistent with what she represents – former Mysore – being defunct as a political entity, only being remembered for what she was – while the nation-as-mother is a functioning entity.

Rajkumar had a series of hits in the mid-to late 1970s but the person who really came to the fore in the period culturally was the director Puttanna Kanagal – who had made Sakshathkara (1971) film with Rajkumar earlier, a film which has the same motifs as Kasturi Nivasa and Bangarada Manushya. Kanagal made his mark with women’s melodramas but he had a big success in Nagara Haavu (1972) in which the unruly youthful male protagonist has two teachers – the one he reveres being associated with Kannada cultural figures and the one he despises and insults having pictures of national leaders on his wall(19) . Rajkumar’s films from the later 1970s are not of much cultural importance today because they are largely vehicles for his histrionic abilities. The star’s presence is dependent on its invocation of Mysore – an entity which was losing its significance, not least because Mrs Gandhi’s doings at the Centre had found a proponent in Greater Mysore/Karnataka Chief Minister D Devaraj Urs; Mysore’s cultural identity – as standing apart from that of the Indian nation – was weakened by this.

Rajkumar’s career continued well after the 1970s but it is a career kept alive by a hysterical fan following and, in my view, not of much significance culturally to Karnataka. Overall, one could say that the star came into prominence when Mysore was at the point of becoming defunct politically and his career represents an attempt not only to keep Mysore’s memory alive among the people of the region but also to hold up its traditions to a Kannada-speaking public outside former Mysore. But one question remains, which is why Rajkumar as a powerful icon did not enter politics – as his contemporaries in Tamil Nadu (MG Ramachandran) and Andhra Pradesh (NT Rama Rao) did. The explanations offered have generally been of a personal nature – his simplicity, his Gandhian beliefs etc.  But the most plausible solution to the problem lies elsewhere. For someone to stand for a political principle, he must identify the principles he is against and therefore also be clear about his political adversaries. What an icon represents only means something in relation to the forces or ideas it is against, and in Rajkumar’s case it is difficult to identify them because (being a ‘good man’) he was ‘for everyone’, he was the ‘ethical hero’.

As suggested earlier, the milieu in which Kannada cinema originated had not had the benefit of mass mobilization and this tended to accentuate the effects of ‘one party dominance’. The Congress came to power in India not as a political party but as a movement for independence and reform. With independence the Congress did not immediately become a political party and it continued to be a ‘movement’. The difference was that, having acquired independence from foreign rule, it now took upon itself the task of building a nation and it tried to achieve its ends through a consensus(20) . In Mysore, ‘one-party dominance’ meant a virtual absence of political polarization. Although there had been a non-Brahmin movement in the state, it was not based on mass mobilization but was simply the manifestation of the non-Brahmin elite trying to secure for itself privileges (within an authoritarian system intended to be dominated by a single male monarch) that were enjoyed by the Brahmins. When the Congress came to power in Mysore the absence of any opposition also meant the absence of clear-cut political programs.  It has been recorded that in the pre-independence period the only program that the Congress leaders offered to the public was that the Congress-Raj would be a ‘panacea to all public ills’ (21).

I would like to argue here that the ‘ethical hero’ represented by Rajkumar comes out of a milieu in which there was little political polarization. Rajkumar in the later films of the 1960s is the voice of the ‘good’ and his adversaries are not identifiable as traders, landowners, the upper-castes or servants of the State etc. (which are all political categories) but simply as ‘bad people’ who do things that are not legally and ethically correct. ‘Incorrect’ is initially going against dharma but it also takes other shapes gradually – like promoting superstition as in Bangarada Hoovu or forging currency as in Jedara Bale.  Unlike Raj Kapoor’s films or those of MG Ramachandran, which always have a political agenda, Rajkumar’s have none, and this has an evident parallel in the bland pronouncements of the first Congress government in Greater Mysore. It was perhaps for these reasons that Rajkumar did not become the political icon that he might have been.

May 2020

1 As instances from Hollywood, John Wayne with the western, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck in noir, Gene Kelly with the musical, Bette Davis in a category called ‘drama’ and Marilyn Monroe in comedy.

2 See Sumita S Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema; 1947-1987, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, p99. Also See MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp 106-8. 

3 Female stars have never dominated any language cinema in India in the same way. This may be attributed to the action in each film narrative revolving largely around the male protagonist and the female lead dominating only in exceptional cases, as in films like the Hindi Andaz (1949) which had Nargis in the most important role or the Kannada film Belli Moda (1967) which had Kalpana. For a star to dominate a cinema he/she needs to be constantly fed key roles over a significant period and this has not happened with female stars.

4 They also serve their respective diasporas as, for instance, Tamil cinema, which is consumed by Tamils in Malaysia; but this is not a factor of importance to the Kannada film because Kannada speakers do not constitute a significant part of the Indian diaspora abroad.

5 The chieftains were called polegars, local power-holders who were normally in charge of 20 villages – a political unit known as pollam. Björn Hettne, The Political Economy of Indirect Rule: Mysore 1881-1947, London: Curzon Press, 1978, pp 30-31.

6 According to the census the Arasus numbered less than 1000 around this time. See Census of India, 1891, (Bangalore, 1893), xxv, 4, p80, cited in Ananthakrishna Iyer, The Mysore Tribes and Castes, Bangalore 1928, Vol. II, pp 47-73.

7 According to the census of 1931 Brahmins constituted 3.8% of the population, Veerashaivas 12% and Vokkaligas 20.4%. The category later to be termed ‘scheduled castes’ constituted 15.1% of the population and Muslims 5.8%. Census of India, 1931, xxv, 2, p230.

8 Björn Hettne, The Political Economy of Indirect Rule: Mysore 1881-1947, pp 28-9.

9 Ibid, p44.

10 James Manor, Political Change in an Indian State: Mysore 1917-1955, New Delhi: Manohar, 1977, pp 40-4.

11 MK Raghavendra, Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp xx-xxv.

12 For an account of the agitation for a Kannada-speaking state, see Myron Weiner, Party Building in a New Nation, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1967, pp 239-255.

13 M Muthanna, History of Modern Karnataka, New Delhi: Sterling, 1980, p89.

14 Glynn Wood and Robert Hammond, Electoral Politics in a Congress Dominant State, Mysore 1956-1972, from JO Field, F Frankel, Mary F. Katzenstein, M Weiner (eds.) Studies in Electoral Politics in the Indian States, Vol. IV, Delhi: Manohar, 1975, p 146.

15 MK Raghavendra, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, pp129-30.

16 For instance see Ravi S Vasudevan, Shifting Codes, Dissolving Identities: The Hindi Social Film of the 1950s as Popular Culture, from Ravi S Vasudevan (ed.) Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp 99-121.

17 James Manor, The Formation of a United opposition to Princely Autocracy: 1936-37, from Political Change in an Indian State: Mysore 1917-1955, pp 95-104.

18 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983, p14.

19 See MK Raghavendra, Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film, pp 53-4

20 Rajni Kothari, The Congress ‘System’ in India, Asian Survey, Vol. 4, No. 12, (Dec. 1964), pp 1166-7.

21 James Manor, Political Change in an Indian State: Mysore 1917-1955, pp168.