Rajkumar started his career as a theater artist with his father in a troupe led by the legendary Gubbi Veeranna. It was here that Rajkumar honed his acting and singing skills. Bedara Kannapa, in 1956, marked his entry into the film world. H L N Simha who also christened him Rajkumar directed this movie. Rajkumar would use the same name for the rest of his life. He later forayed into film production with the hugely popular Ranadheera Kanteerava, which he produced with the other legend of Kannada cinema, Balakrishna. This movie, which was made exclusively with technicians from Karnataka also, marked the beginning of full-fledged film making in Karnataka.
Dr. Rajkumar was also one of the most versatile actors in Indian cinema. His character depictions ranged from comedy to action, from lover to double/triple roles, from mythological characters to portrayal of modern day social causes. He acted with the most popular heroines in southern Indian cinema, such as Kannada’s Pandaribai, Leelavathi, Jayanti, Bharati, Arati, Jayaprada, Madhavi, Geetha, Sarita and others from neighbouring states. He acted with many directors of the south Indian cinema from B.R. Pantulu, Puttanna Kanagal to Shankar Nag and Nagabharana. He was known for only acting in Kannada movies, even though he got many offers from different movie industries in India. Actors who have acted with him considered it an achievement of their lifetime.
Prithviraj Kapoor acted in the movie Saakshatkara in the role of Dr. Rajkumar’s father. In his lifetime, Dr. Rajkumar acted in 206 Kannada movies, excluding the guest appearances. He owned a film production company called Vajreshwari Production, which produced films under the banner of Dakshayani Combines. Bhagyada Bagilu was his 100th movie and Devatha Manushya was his 200th movie. Two of his most famous performances were in his own productions – Kaviratna Kalidasa and Shankar-Guru. He produced movies based on famous Kannada novels. His friend and scriptwriter Chi. Udayashankar ably supported him.
He signed films only after consultation with his brother, S.P.Varadaraju. He chose stories, which usually had a social message for the audience. He also made many movies against social evils. One such movie is Shabdavedi, which is against the evil of drugs. He never smoked a cigar/cigarette or acted as an alcoholic in any of his movies (excepting a few in the initial days of his film career). In real life too, he was a non-smoker and non-alcoholic and maintained a very high standard of living, performing daily Yogasanas and following a strict diet. Though he had numerous chances to try his hand at Indian politics owing to his mass following, he shied away from active politics focusing his energy towards art and cinema. His last movie was Shabdavedi, in which Jayaprada played the female lead.
His most memorable films include Bedara Kannappa, Bangarada Manushya, Kastoori Nivasa, Sri Krishnadevaraya, Kula Gowrava, Gandhada Gudi, Sampathige Sawal, Shankar-Guru, Babruvahana, Bhakta Prahalada, Halu Jenu, Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma, Jeevana Chaitra, Akasmika, Premada Kanike, Vasantha Geetha, Apoorva Sangama, Daari Tappida Maga, Badavara Bandhu, Yeradu Kanasu, Mayura, Bangaradha Panjara, Havina Hede, Anuraga Aralithu, Jedara Bale, Shruti Seridaga, “Sanaadi Apanna”, “Babruvahana”, “Chalisuva Modagalu”, “Guri”, “Parashuram”, “Devathaa Manushya”(200th film), “Huliya Haalina Mevu”, “Kavirathna Kalidasa” and many others.
Rajkumar As Singer
Dr. Rajkumar was also a well-known singer. He sang many devotional songs. He won the National Award for the song “Naadamaya” from the movie Jeevana Chaitra. He had trained in classical music while in Gubbi Veranna’s drama troupe. At that time it was required for everyone to at least have a working knowledge of classical music. He had sung a song in the movie Mahishasura Mardini with G.K.Venkatesh as the music director. Rajkumar however, did not become a full-fledged singer until his hugely popular song Yare Koogadali from the movie Sampathige Sawal. Prior to his singing in Sampathige Sawal, Rajkumar’s songs were sung by Dr. P B Shrinivas. He used to call PBS ‘shaareera’ while he referred to himself as ‘shareera’. Raj had a good voice and all his songs are popular. He excelled in singing all types of songs from romantic to heavily classical. After Yare Koogadali he sang for most of his movies and for many private albums, which were mainly devotional albums. His song renditions would range from pure classical to disco and fast numbers to pathos. Although his singing was greatly appreciated, his fans of the days of black-and-white movies in 1960s and 1970s, swear by the fact that his true identity was P B Srinivas, who did the playback singing for most of Rajkumar’s movies, until Rajkumar himself started to sing. P.B.Srinivas continued singing for him in many of the movies in which Rajkumar starred in double/triple roles.
In his final years, Rajkumar had lent his voice to a few other actors and sang many background solos. One such song, which holds a unique distinction, was for the movie Muddina Maava wherein he had provided playback to the legendary singer S.P.Balasubramaniyam, who had acted in the movie. This is probably a rare occasion where an actor sings for a singer, which is probably unmatched in the world of cinema. He had sung many devotional songs on Hanuman and Sri Raghavendra Swamiji. One of his most famous songs is “huttidare kannada nadalli hutta beku”.
Rajkumar’s voice had the smoothness & depth comparable to PB Srinivas. His voice was capable of greater vivacity, noticeable in songs like Sigivem Kshanadali, Thai Thai Bangari, Naa Ninna Mareyalare, Le le Appana Magale and Aradhisuve.The theatrical background he had since childhood really helped him in acting as well as singing. Adept at rendering his voice to different moods – romantic, sentimental, devotional and semi-classical, his songs about Kannada language and culture such as Jenina holeyo, Maanavanagi huttidmele and Huttidare are immensely popular. He even sang a complete English song in one of his bond films. Interestingly, he lent voice for SPB in Muddina Mava and comedian Narasimharaju in Devasundari.Naadamaya, a classical song in Raga Thodi, which won him the national award for best playback singing, proves his versatility as a singer with its complex graces as it progresses with other ragas. He switches between ragas with ease and sings Swara patterns just like a professional.
Kalidasa’s shlokas, songs, which are based on ghazals like Sadaa Kannali, Kanneera Dhaare, Gelathi Baradu and Yaava Kaviyu have also been very melodious and popular. Besides films, he rendered his voice for many devotional songs.
Rajkumar was a highly disciplined man. He would wake up and perform yoga and pranayama at 4am. He practiced Carnatic music for one hour each in the morning and in the evening. He never smoked or drank alcohol both in real life and in movies. He never uttered swear words on screen. He seldom ate food outside except for tender-coconut. He was always punctual for any shooting and programmes. His dress code consisted of only white dhoti and white shirt, with sandals. He was always clean-shaven. He spent most of his vacations at his native place, Gajanur, near to the forest area where he was later kidnapped. During shooting he insisted that all the members of the unit should have the same menu and food must be of high quality. Regarding dress code, he always wore white or ivory colour shirt and dhothi, he has been this way since early career in drama.
Rajkumar’s Charity Work
Very few people know about Rajkumar’s charity work. Rajkumar never spoke about his charity and had supposedly requested the journalists not write about it. He is supposed to have donated the proceedings from his devotional albums to charity and to have built an ashram for young widows and orphan girls. He toured Karnataka extensively to send donations to Kargil war victims. He donated a lot of money in aid of eye donation camps and conducted many blood donation camps on the occasion of his birthday. He was an eye donor and as per his wish, his eyes were donated after his death.
Rajkumar had a brother S.P.Varadaraju who worked with him in his production company. He also had a sister by name Sharadamma. He was married to Parvathamma, who later became a film producer. They had 3 sons Shivaraj Kumar, Raghavendra Rajkumar and Puneet Rajkumar, and 2 daughters Lakshmi and Poornima.He launched all his three sons as actors in Kannada films.
For the cause of Kannada, “Gokak report” popularly known as “Gokak varadi” was about making Kannada a compulsory language for primary education. Considering that the language is spoken by a majority of people in Karnataka, the Gokak movement’s goal was to give Kannada the same basic right already enjoyed by other official languages in their respective states of India. When the Kannada literary experts and students started this movement there was a positive response from the common man in Karnataka. It gained momentum when Rajkumar was asked to lead the movement. He became actively involved in the movement and soon became the force behind the Gokak movement that was designed to bring Kannada to the forefront. He took a rally from Belgaum to Bangalore and gave speeches about the importance of Kannada. The government responded positively and Kannada was to become a compulsory language of education in Karnataka. Ensuring respect and dignity for Kannada language and Kannada culture were the corner stones of his life.
Awards and honors
Rajkumar received numerous states, national and international awards. He received an honorary doctorate from Mysore University in 1976. He won ten Film fare awards for the best actor category which happens to be the second highest in the history of Indian films. He won 9 state awards in the best actor category. Karnataka government in 1967, when Rajkumar’s half the career was over, constituted state awards for films. But still he managed to win 9 awards, which happens to be the highest in the Kannada film industry. He also won a National award in best singer category. He received the Padma Bhushan award from the Government of India in 1983 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1995, in recognition of his contributions to the Kannada film industry. He was rewarded Karnataka Ratna in the year 1993 by the Government of Karnataka. In the year 1985, Dr. Rajkumar had also won the prestigious Kentucky Colonel award presented in Bangalore by the then Governor of Kentucky state, USA. His fans have conferred him the title “Nata Saarvabhowma” (The Emperor of Acting).
On July 30, 2000, at the age of 71, Rajkumar, his son-in-law Govindaraju and two others were kidnapped from the actor’s palatial house at Gajanur in Tamil Nadu by the bandit and terrorist Veerappan. Veerappan was demanding the release of his gang members who were being held in jail under a defunct anti-terrorism law. The event prompted a massive manhunt and threw the Karnataka government into crisis. Rajkumar was released unharmed on November 15, 2000, after 108 days of captivity. His kidnapping and the manner in which his release were secured are a mystery to this day.
Death and aftermath
Dr. Rajkumar died at his home in Sadashivanagar, Bangalore, on April 12, 2006 (13.45 IST) following a cardiac arrest. Dr. Rajkumar had a history of heart-related problems and had been admitted to Wockhardt Hospital for treatment of unstable angina. His health had been an issue of concern since his return from the clutches of Veerappan and the passing away of his trusted guide, philosopher and brother S P Varadaraju. Due to his larger than life image, the city virtually came to a halt as the news spread about the death. His death precipitated a citywide reaction comparable to the time he was kidnapped by Veerappan. Following the news of his death, Bangalore city saw violence by people claiming to be his fans. The Chief Minister H.D. Kumarswamy later claimed that vested political interests instigated the violence. An unofficial bandh (closure of all shops and other establishments) was announced. More than 100 vehicles were burnt and 8 people were killed in police firing. BBC News reported on the financial impact of the riots. The state government declared a statewide holiday on April 13 as a mark of respect to the departed soul. Private firms and businesses all over the city and many parts of the state remained closed due to the holiday. His body was kept initially at his home in Sadashivanagar. Due to the immense crowd pressure, the body was moved initially to Palace Grounds and then later to the Kanteerava Stadium. He was laid to rest in Kanteerava Studios in Bangalore on April 13, 2006.
The Karnataka government announced to make a ₹ 10 crore memorial in the memory of Dr. Rajkumar at Kanteerava studios.