Demigod of southern Indian film
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The Independent Online

Mutturaju Singanalluru Puttaswamayya (Rajkumar), actor: born Gajanur, India 24 April 1929; married (three sons); died Bangalore, India 12 April 2006.

Revered as a demigod by millions of fans, the southern Indian actor Rajkumar, in a film career spanning nearly six decades, appeared in more than 210 movies in his native language, Kannada.

The winsome Rajkumar made his cinematic début in the late 1930s, at the age of eight, reaching iconic heights in the south and only retiring five years ago. Fans worshipped life-size replicas of him with libations of milk and honey, much as they would their many gods. They would cycle long distances across Karnataka State on dirt roads to see his films, rioting if they were unable to obtain tickets to his new releases.

Even in death, the star evoked mass hysteria, as mobs torched buses, attacked offices and stoned police on the streets in his home town, Bangalore, in the lead up to his funeral. Panicky police fired tear gas and resorted to baton-charges as tens of thousands of mourners converged on the stadium where his body was on view in a glass coffin.

Southern India's film industry, particularly its icons, has a firmer grip on its audience than anywhere else in the country. The cult of the film star M.G. Ramachandran, who became chief minister of Tamil Nadu state exclusively on the strength of his acting career, was so all-encompassing that scores of Tamils committed suicide by setting themselves on fire and jumping from moving trains after his death in the mid-1980s. But to his credit Rajkumar never exploited his celluloid image by entering politics, despite cajoling from even the prime minister Indira Gandhi. He professed naïvety in such "lofty matters", a decision that further enhanced his image and profile.

Born Mutturaju Singanalluru Puttaswamayya in 1929 in the small rural township of Gajanur in Tamil Nadu into a family associated with Kannada theatre, he dropped out of school at an early age after acting in street plays and making his film début as a child star in 1937. At 25 he was christened Rajkumar by one of his early directors who "discovered" the actor at a local bus depot and signed the handsome young man on for a macho role in Bedara Kannappa ("Hunter Kannappa") in 1954.

Thereafter, he almost always played rugged, masculine heroes in movies like Bhakta Kumbara ("Potter's Devotee", 1974), Satya Harishchandra ("King Harishchandra: the champion of truth", 1965), and Ranadheera Kanteerava ("Brave person", 1960). Playing the village simpleton in films like Mannina Maga ("Son of the soil") and Doorada Betta ("The Faraway Hill") further endeared Rajkumar to the masses. He never accepted roles that required him to smoke or drink, an abstemiousness that he practiced off-screen too.

Rajkumar earned international fame in July 2000 after he was kidnapped by the notorious bandit-leader Veerappan. Widespread rioting erupted, paralysing Bangalore's global information technology industry for many days, whilst his release after 109 days in captivity was celebrated equally boisterously.

Kuldip Singh