Relationships in the film industry are generally transactional— we meet at cinema events a couple of times a year, laugh here and there, sing a few songs, drop a dialogue or two, at best work together, and then part ways.
Rarely does an emotional, visceral, filial chord strike. I was fortunate to have the latter meaningful connection with Appu sir (Puneet Rajkumar) for 13 years. I have valued him not just as a good friend but as an elder brother I never had. Appu sir genuinely cared for and guided me.
My connection with Appu sir dates back to my childhood in the States. I would perform the profound mythological dialogues from ‘Bhakta Prahlada’ between father Hiranyakashipu and his son as a 7-year-old on Kannada platforms across the country, garnering the nickname ‘Prahlada’
I was unaware who Appu sir was at that time, let alone know that he had effortlessly essayed the role in 1985 as a child artiste. Little did I know that an American acquaintance of Appu sir had told him about my nickname after I entered the film industry — something he mentioned with an affectionate, comforting smile when I invited him for my marriage in 2020.
If I had to describe one specific moment that laid the groundwork for my substantive journey with him, it took place during ‘Amrutamahotsava’ rehearsals in February 2009 in the wake of my second film's release ‘Birugaali’.
Around 50 of us were sitting on the floor waiting for our turn to practice our respective dance routines when Appu sir’s turn came up. He stood up, phone in hand, and began looking quizzically at all of us sitting cross-legged. As I sat there wondering the reason for his delay, he came over to me— a newcomer not just to the industry but Karnataka as a whole— dropped his phone in my lap with complete ease, & turned towards the dance floor. It was at that point that I understood Appu sir trusted me; it was my responsibility to retain that trust — not just with his phone but in life in totality.
During that rehearsal week, I broached several topics with Appu sir, we developed an earnest kinship, and later on that year I readily agreed to act alongside him in ‘Raam’. It was on the shooting set in Rockline Studio that he effervescently suggested I join his gym in Sadashivnagar since my home was in an adjacent Bengaluru neighbourhood— I did so in early 2012.
At the end of that year, I led my first activist struggle— the fight for government benefits for Endosulfan pesticide victims across coastal Karnataka. My understanding of social movements was relegated to history books, so I went to Appu sir’s home for the first time to ask for his guidance.
He watched the video of Endosulfan victims on his laptop and readily agreed to come anywhere in support of the humanitarian cause. I was emboldened. Six months later we won that battle after the Karnataka state government released Rs. 90 crore for victims’ benefits. At that point, I began to observe Appu sir’s social concern, knowing that he cared sincerely for the vulnerable.
Since then and for the past nine years, Appu sir and I have worked out in the same gym, conversed while running on parallel treadmills, lifted weights alongside one another, & done yoga together. I was always struck by his sheer physical fitness, strength, flexibility— all the while with a broad smile and a joyous shout he would ask me, ‘Hey, Chetan, how are you, man?— watch any good movies this week?’
In early 2020, I went to Appu sir and Ashwini madam’s home to invite them as special guests for my wedding celebration at a local orphanage. We spoke for a half-hour about a wide range of topics from Bahujan philosopher Narayan Guru’s contributions to the need for learning & social service in the current contexts.
He mentioned how he had understood the importance of education after hosting 'Kannadada ‘Kotyadipathi’ (the quiz show modelled on ‘Who Wants to be A Millionaire’) and as a result, had taken up brand ambassadorships for Right to Education and Skill Development Board to help uplift our rural youngsters.
In terms of social service, he believed that after securing one’s fundamental and family requirements, it was our responsibility to give back in our own capacities. Subsequently, in the first wave of the pandemic, he contributed Rs 50 lakh to our state government and then supported many working-class folks we both knew from the gym, yoga, and cinema all without publicity in the second wave. He also never took money for the songs he sang, singing them for their musicality and lyrics, and convincing patrons to donate to his family charitable organisations.
On my wedding function on 02/02/2020, Appu sir (& Ashwini Madam) arrived at the orphanage precisely at the 7.15 pm time I had requested, waited patiently on stage as my parents spoke and Megha/I took our self-written vows and articulated to the crowd about our mutual admiration for the Kannada language. I will always treasure the memory of us all holding up our Indian Constitution book together in front of thousands of well-wishers on my, Megha’s, our family/friends’ special day.
In 2020, our interactions were plenty— both personal & professional. I valued his words when he told me to stay clear of any film industry ‘conflicts’ since I knew they came from a place of warmth and concern, and he attended a launch of my film ‘Maarga’ after just a request via phone call.
Although my opposition to the privileging of a few at the expense of so many both in society & KFI— aka ‘star culture’— began to grow more vigilant via protests, speeches, and writings, it did not interfere with the relationship between Appu sir and I shared even though he was a ‘star’ ever since birth.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ Appu sir had stardom ‘thrust upon him’ but never possessed the tantrums, arrogance, or superciliousness that came with that package. Just as a staunch advocate of democracy can acknowledge that there were good monarchs, an avid champion of equality can accept that in theory and in Appu sir’s case in practice as well, there can be ‘good’ stars.
Appu sir’s body of work as an actor as well as his choice of leads and content as a producer corroborate the aforementioned claim. In a society and film industry that prioritises profits at the expense of people, he made sure the films he was a part of could be enjoyed by the entire family together.
Even though violence, cruelty, self-aggrandising, and hero-glorification films would have benefited his bank balance and ‘massy’ appeal more, he continued the glorious legacy of his father by playing the protagonist in wholesome entertainment projects and thus, enriching the artistic, inclusive aspects of cinema. As a producer, he launched newcomers via content-based subjects so as to enhance the creative elements of Kannada films and ensure a higher percentage of commercially-successful ventures rather than an occasional blockbuster.
Although Appu sir was affable and affectionate to all in the film fraternity and outside, he admired those actors who refined the craft of performance. Once in the gym, he spoke to me about his close camaraderie with the talented Aamir Khan in the Hindi Film Industry. I also read about how, in an award ceremony inundated with celebrities, he was keen on interacting with another Hindi actor of immense ability Pankaj Tripathi.
Lauding those of acting aplomb over those with superstardom reveals Appu sir’s emphasis on the artistic dimensions of cinema rather than the financial ones that often take unjustified prominence. He was an oasis in a desert of ‘money at any costs’; KFI will truly realize the gravity of his loss in the years to come.
The two aspects of Appu sir I value most are his willingness to learn, grow into a better human being with time and the care, love he showed so many of us even when he got nothing from us in return. Selfless goodness is an attribute that few possess; a fitting tribute to Appu sir would be to cultivate such noble principles within ourselves.
Like his parents before him, Appu sir donated his eyes. I give my complete respect to his family for honouring his wishes. As I was in the hospital to see him on October 29th, 2021, a medical team removed his eyes in the 6-hour window after death. In the coming days, his cornea and eyeballs provided sight for four Karnataka youngsters. Following in Appu sir’s footsteps, we must also keep giving in life and death by being organ donors. I promise to do so and hope to initiate a campaign for as many others as possible to follow suit.
(The author is an actor and activist)