My mood has been sombre for the past two days. A friend messaged me that Kannada superstar Puneeth Rajkumar passed away from a heart attack. He was only 46.
I didn’t think I would be perturbed by the news at all. For one, I was not a fan of his films; I’ve only ever watched one—Bindaas, a terrible potboiler—in a single-screen theatre back in 2008. Secondly, I’m not someone who follows Kannada pop culture closely or is ‘struck by its stars’, certainly not when I am 12ooo kms away from its epicentre. Like most mainstream Kannada cinema, his films didn’t cater to an urban—English-speaking—middle-class Indian like me. So my opinion of his films was always inconsequential. Despite all this, I was affected by the news of his sudden demise.
Unlike his brothers who are stars in their own right, Puneeth Rajkumar was more than just a member of the illustrious Rajkumar family. He had a grip on the hearts of his fans, yes, but he also had the ear of Bangaloreans and Kannadigas everywhere. He spoke with great humility when he appeared in media, a trait he probably inherited from his late father, the icon Dr. Rajkumar—actor, singer, superstar par excellence.
He appealed across classes when he spoke. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who would probably look on helplessly if they weren’t pestered to repeat terrible dialogues from their films, Puneeth Rajkumar seemed to hold his own. He sounded like someone who knew there was more to life than the glamorous world of ‘longu-machhu’ (sickles and machetes, a trope used to describe mainstream Kannada films, not that his films had much violence). This isn’t to say his stardom wasn’t conventional. He was loved for his family-friendly films and action sequences. Most of all, he was a terrific dancer, probably the best in the entire industry.
He also seemed to be paving way for the next generation of filmmakers in his role as a producer. He was the first star to sit up and take notice of the digital content wave, much before Covid; a void that long needed filling in Kannada.
He was extremely fit and the face of TCS 10K, a world-class running event that is held in Bangalore every year, one that I’ve taken part in numerous times. He was a huge promoter of health and fitness, another reason why his sudden passing has gripped all of South India by grief. ‘He was so fit!’ you can almost hear everyone yelp.
In many ways he was an ambassador for the city of Bangalore itself.
All stories about him seemed to align—in the press, in his interviews, hearsay, or directly from my grandmother who acted with him in a film in 2017. That he was humble, down-to-earth and had no airs about his stardom whatsoever.
Watching his brothers, Shivarajkumar and Raghavendra Rajkumar, constantly address the media is a grim reminder of 2006, the year their father died. Rajkumar’s passing caused rioting, arson and killed some six people
. I was in Bangalore then and remember the anger and grief that engulfed the city. A public icon’s untimely passing demands that the public be helped to deal with the sorrow and the suddenness of it all. In a heartfelt appeal to everyone, Raghanna says
that “Appu"—as Puneeth Rajkumar was fondly known to his fans and family, the two often indistinguishable—"must be sent off well”. The grief is collective and the two brothers’ acknowledgement of this is why the family is as beloved as it is.
Sometimes you don’t fully know who holds a place in your heart until they are gone; Appu was one of us.
This loss feels personal.