January 12th, 2023, is an important day in the history of cinema. Gopichand Malineni’s understated and compassionate study of death and grief, Veera Simha Reddy, was released amidst fanfare, much to the joy of unapologetic cinephiles. Balakrishna roughly slays 700 goons in this moving, sensitive commentary on mortality that makes classics like The Seventh Seal and Ikiru look like cartoons. The massive kill count of the film alludes to the death wafting around us, spelling out the insignificance of our brathukulu (lives). The film’s most profound moment happens exactly at 02:06:34, when a youngster, filled with rage after losing a shooting competition, gets drunk at night, screams his enemy’s name and discharges his shotgun into the air in a fit of anger. We hear a scream. The young man runs to check what happened and discovers that he has contributed to the least meaningful and the most unintentionally funny death in the history of cinema. His bullet hits and kills Rajeev Kanakala, who was walking on a cliff nearby.
Now, what lends thematic gravity to this farce is the absolute truth that the individual who dies due to the gun firing could have been ANYONE and it would’ve made no difference. But Gopichand Malineni specifically chose Rajeev Kanakala for this character. To make a thankless appearance early on and then...to die. “How did Gopichand Malineni convince Rajeev to play this character?” and “What attracted Rajeev to play such a trivial role?’ are questions entrenched in my mind. Sure, I know that his death is sacrosanct to the film’s poetic commentary on the fragility and fallibility of life but the question, "Why Rajeev Kanakala?" remains.
His fate in Veera Simha Reddy might be his most meaningless, but death is no stranger to Rajeev’s characters. It’s safe to say that the very first time I remember seeing Rajeev Kanakala die on the big screen was traumatising, like any on-screen death should be, ideally. It was in Athadu (2005), a film that now enjoys a modern classic status. The death of Rajeev’s Pardhasaradhi aka Pardhu is not just graphic but tragic on multiple levels. Mahesh Babu’s Nandu, an assassin on the run, crosses paths with Pardhu on a train. Pardhu is returning home 12 years after he ran away as a child. When the train halts, the police officers chasing Nandu arrive and aim their guns at him. The benign Pardhu leans over to grab some biscuits to munch on with coffee and takes the shot on his neck instead. It’s incredibly unfortunate because he was robbed of a completely new life that awaited him, a life that destiny (and Trivikram) let Nandu embrace instead. This harrowing death is central to the film. Without Rajeev’s five-minute role, there’s no Athadu. You see, this is why his death in Veera Simha Reddy feels like a personal insult.
Over the years, Rajeev has died in numerous films in many unpleasant ways and the pattern is easily recognisable. In Ashok (2005), he plays Jr NTR’s loyal friend who is murdered while protecting the film's female lead, Sameera Reddy, from the clutches of the bad guys led by Sonu Sood. In Raja The Great (2017), he plays a police officer and in Lover (2018), he is a goon, but his fate remains unchanged; he is killed while trying to protect the female leads, played by Mahreen Pirzada and Riddhi Kumar, respectively. Nayak (2013) sees him essay a doctor and loveable brother-in-law, who is beaten to death by a criminal after the former uncovers a sex racket. In Raju Gari Gadhi (2014), he is murdered for uncovering an organ transplantation mafia. In Athidhi (2007), Rajeev plays a kind man who adopts the homeless protagonist as a child but is quickly gunned down by a mugger along with his wife. Because why not? The gun gets him in Sankara (2015) and Samanyudu (2005) and Raja Cheyyi Vesthe (2016) too. In Dookudu (2011), he is stabbed to death by his brother's enemies; in Baadshah (yes, he was in the film, if you forgot), he played a police informant who is tortured to death for foiling the bad guy’s destructive schemes. Rangasthalam (2018) features a fairly shocking death sequence in which Rajeev is an educated villager who resists the tyranny of the village’s president, only to be hunted down by his men. In Bimbasara, he is run over by a car solely because the villain decides to give our hero a taste of his power. Filmmakers have relegated poor Rajeev to being an object of sympathy and vulnerability.
While he is a victim in the aforementioned films, there have been instances where he’s played the perpetrator. Even then, the protagonist would get him eventually. The universe has never been kind to my man. As a villain, he has been killed in films like Love Story, Anando Brahma, Swamy, Ontari and 28 April, to name some. Rajeev’s most remarkable (read: hilarious) death scene as a bad guy came in Hare Ram (2008), in which a cylinder of liquid nitrogen is pierced into his stomach, making his body freeze and later, break into pieces like a massive chunk of ice. Yes, you read that right.
Rajeev has been a perennially under-utlised actor even if there are some brilliant glimpses of his acting calibre in his two decades-plus career in television and cinema. And I can see why filmmakers are keen on casting Rajeev in characters that are killed. There’s an innate warmth and tenderness in the actor that instantly elicits sympathy. This image helps films a great deal but unfortunately, overdoing it has rendered us insensitive to what has now become a trope.
While some filmmakers who have worked with Rajeev Kanakala on some of the films mentioned here were unavailable for comment, I caught up with Karthik Dandu, the director of Virupaksha, in which Rajeev played Harishcandra Prasad, his most prominent role since Narappa in 2021. Karthik feels that the practice of reaffirming stereotypes in the film industry is a major reason why the actor is restricted to particular kinds of roles. “When I interact with some writers and people within the industry, I feel that they simply follow the prevailing sentiment. If there’s a character that dies in the film, they’ll automatically think of opting for Rajeev Kanakala. I think a lot of people are stuck in this thought process.”
Rajeev’s Harishandra Prasad is quite an interesting character. This Harischandra, unlike the king from history, creates a lie and maintains it for 12 years. It is a meaty character that Rajeev portrays beautifully with just the right amount of mystery, kindness and authority. “When Sukumar sir (the film’s screenwriter) and I were discussing this role, we knew that we wanted him. Because the character has two shades. If you notice, his behaviour is suspicious in some scenes because his character is keeping a lie from the entire village and he has guilt and fear due to it. But the viewer suspects him of foul play. It’s also nice that he played an older role,” Karthik says, adding that working with the actor is a breeze. “He picks up my explanation in one go and performs exactly that. There might be retakes but not because of his performance, but to make sure we perfect the content of the scene.”
It’s puzzling that Rajeev doesn’t get enough roles like these, when there’s nothing left to prove. He shone as a brooding coach with a tragic past in Sye (2004). In Narappa, the remake of Asuran, he had big shoes to fill as he was essaying Pasupathy’s role but Rajeev felt like the perfect choice to play a supportive uncle and the loyal aide, and he passed with flying colours. Even in his 5-minute role in Janatha Garage (2016), Rajeev sells the integrity of his character effortlessly.
More recently, he had a fresh cameo in Dead Pixels as a staunch patriarch who decides to fight his son in a role-playing video game. It’s a departure for him and we are seeing the actor embrace a different phase in his career. We have witnessed his transition from being the hero’s friend to the hero’s brother to the hero’s father now. As a friend and brother, he was killed mercilessly and meaninglessly. In his new role, let’s sincerely hope he lives happily ever after.