A crucial part of my early cinematic memories are two song sequences—'Kaanadante Mayavadano, Namma Shiva Kailasa Serikondano' from Chalisuva Modagalu (1982) and 'Bisile Irali Maleya Irali' from N Lakshminarayan's classic Bettada Hoovu (1985). These made a lasting impression not because of the prowess of their musical compositions but rather because of my fascination with this ordinary looking boy who could sing, dance and emote like a seasoned professional. The movie camera seemed as enamoured by his charm as we were and yearned to capture every gesture and emotion; and the audience danced with him during the songs, cried with him when he suffered and cheered up when he smiled.
This young boy was lovingly called Appu but officially credited in the films as Master Lohith. He was the youngest son of Karnataka's beloved matinee idol Dr Rajkumar and his producer wife Parvathamma. By the age of 10, Master Lohith aka Master Puneeth had captured the hearts and minds of Kannada film fans.
It might sound like a cliche, but Puneeth Rajkumar literally grew up in cinema; he made his debut as an infant in the 1976 crime thriller Premada Kaanike (this was also the first of the two Kannada films written by Salim-Javed) and went on to act as a child actor in more than a dozen films till 1989. Out of the many memorable pairings with his real life father (mostly as his reel life son) during this period, Hiranyakashipu's killing sequence in the mythological drama Bhakta Prahlad stands out; it required the 8-year-old Puneeth (playing Prahlad) to match the classical singing skills of Rajkumar (playing Hiranyakashipu) and also hold his own against the thespian in this emotionally charged scene. Never for a moment did he look uncomfortable or less involved during this long and challenging scene.
In what could be called the pinnacle of success as a child actor, Puneeth played the main protagonist in two films—Krishna in Bhagyavantha (1981) and Ramu in Bettada Hoovu (1985). The narrative of Bhagyavantha revolves around Krishna who is perceived to be the harbinger of bad luck as both his parents die immediately after his birth, and is ostracised by everyone except his adopted father.
Young Krishna does all the menial jobs at home—washing vessels, mopping the floor etc.—but cannot eat or play with any of his housemates; yet he has only love to give to all of them. In Bettada Hoovu—an adaptation of the American novelist Shirley Arora's short story—Ramu is fascinated by books (especially a particular edition of the Ramayana) and going to school but his family's economic condition forces him to take up the responsibility of earning. As luck would have it, Ramu meets Shirley madam—an American researcher who is looking for wild flowers for her arts project—and soon brings her the orchid she has been looking for. But whether to use the money earned to buy his favorite book or buy blankets to keep his family warm during the impending winter is the moral dilemma facing Ramu in the climax of the film. I find these two performances of Puneeth—then Master Lohith—most poignant. While Bhagyavantha's treatment is overtly melodramatic and requires Puneeth to evoke unending sympathy for his character with the full force of his emotional repertoire, Bettada Hoovu is more in the realm of neo-realist cinema and albeit a very tragic story, Puneeth is expected to portray his pathos subtly. He fulfils the varying requirements of these two movies with great success.
By the time Puneeth stopped being Master Lohith and Master Puneeth, he had achieved what many mainstream leading actors dream of; he had won a National Award for Bettada Hoovu and a couple of State Film Awards for two other films; he had acted in a double role; he had sung many hit songs; he had played the lead protagonist multiple times; he had featured in several song and dance sequences; he had acted in action thrillers, family dramas, romantic comedies and mythologicals.
Suddenly, in 1989, as abruptly as he had captured our consciousness, Puneeth vanished from the silver screen for 13 years. In these intervening years, his elder brother Shiva RajKumar was delivering hit after hit and was the new rising star of Kannada cinema and his celebrated father was making the last few films of his career.
By the time Puneeth Rajkumar made his debut as the leading man in Appu in 2002, the grammar of mainstream Kannada film had changed; the narrative of the mainstream cinema had shifted from middle-class family dramas to high intensity romantic comedies and action thrillers with elaborate dance and fight sequences; and the hero was no longer the simple morally upright middle-class man who followed the letter of the law. But being from the first family of Kannada cinema, there was no room for failure and Puneeth seemed to have understood this and prepared accordingly.
Soon, he stamped his authority on the box office and earned the accolade of "power star". Since then, almost all of his films have been super hits and have run successfully for more than 100 days across the State. Although I did not engage actively with each of his films in his new avatar as the power star, in whatever little I watched, it wasn't difficult to notice that Puneeth was trying to do some things differently within the framework of commercial cinema. For instance, he was the only Kannada film star to helm a film (Prithvi) on the ill effects of mining in Bellary district at the height of the mining controversies in the state. Also, some of his films consciously made an attempt to expand the geographical reach of Kannada cinema by locating the narratives—either physically or culturally—in an otherwise less explored north Karnataka region. Apart from his extremely popular action thrillers, Abhi (a rare Hindu Muslim romantic drama), Milana, Jackie, Mythri and Raajkumara are notable films from his oeuvre.
But what I found most impressive is how seamlessly Puneeth embraced the legacy of his father of being a people's person. It is hard to find a single journalist or a co-actor or a producer or a director or a fan who would have a serious complaint against Puneeth. He ensured his producers made money, fans got his undivided attention, co-actors got the respect they deserve and journalists got the time they were promised for interviews. After the passing of Dr Rajkumar in 2006, Puneeth seemed to have voluntarily taken up the mantle of being the flag-bearer of his family's reputation as Kannada cinema's first family. True to this spirit, he played cameo roles in movies of new directors, became the narrator's voice in a documentary project and few independent films. Along with wife Ashwini, Puneeth Rajkumar started a production house (PRK Pictures) focussed on financing new voices in Kannada cinema. The result of this endeavour has been a set of refreshing new films such as Kavaludaari, Law, French Biriyani and Maya Bazaar 2016. He also lent his star value to these independent projects through a special appearance, a voice over or by featuring in a dance number. In my opinion, this production venture is a much needed intervention in Kannada cinema where traditional production houses have focussed on safer star-led formulaic projects. Evidently, Puneeth (and team) understood the need to find and nurture new narratives and voices in Kannada.
Ofcourse, many in Karnataka would also know about his team's charitable work towards education and how he became one of the vocal voices in helping out the needy during last year's lockdown. Bengalureans will also remember him being the unanimous brand ambassador for running events and the Royal Challengers Bangalore team in IPL.
But what we should remember the most about Puneeth is how he understood cinema as an influential cultural medium and shaped it in his own gentle ways in the last two decades. And how he always had that magnetic smile while doing it and a polite Namaskara to go with it. Just like his father. He leaves behind a legacy of good films made with utmost sincerity and a number of good deeds done with utmost humility. Just like his father.