Here’s a man we love to hate

During the late 80s, Kannada film industry was reeling from a villain shortage. Charan Raj, the most popular baddie till then, had switched over to the Telugu film industry, thus leaving Kannada cinema bereft of a cigarette-smoking, arm-flexing, eye-popping villain. But thankfully, a young man called Devaraj came along. With his scarred face, light eyes and pencil moustache, Devaraj made heroines fear for their lives and heroes quiver in their boots. He became a villain the audience loved to hate.

“I just wanted to act,” states Devaraj clearly, sitting in his Banashankari home on a sunny morning. “In those days, I didn’t think about the kind of role I got. I believed repeated screen appearances will guarantee success. So, I accepted every role that came my way. For instance, in my sixth film, Preethi, I was asked to play the father of Bhavya, one of the female leads. I was hardly 32-33 years old, but I still accepted the role. I was just happy to get an opportunity,” he explains.

Devaraj is right. For, before he embraced films, he was a trainee in HMT Watches. It was only by chance that he began participating in the drama competitions of the company, and it was again only by chance that he stepped into amateur theatre. When he managed to impress the producers of Thrishula, he ventured into films. However, fate didn’t seem to favour him. The first three movies he worked in (Thrishula, Koogu, Dange) never saw the light of the day. “It didn’t affect me as I didn’t have any lofty ambitions of becoming a hero. I was merely going with the flow,” he says.

Even though his first three movies didn’t release, word had spread about this young actor who could take on any hero with panache, and people were lining up to hire him. His debut, 27 Mavalli Circle (1986), had him playing the role of a gangster. Yet, the audience whistled, clapped and rooted for him. His fabulous portrayal in Aaganthuka (1987) earned him a state award for the best supporting actor that year.

Before he realised it, Devaraj had crossed the line into the world of extremely negative characters, or the ‘psycho’ ones, like the one in Tarka. “Playing pyscho characters took a toll on me. Some were purely verbal. But scenes like raping a woman were mentally draining.”

If he played a baddie in many films, he also played a law-abiding police officer in many others.

But Devaraj reveals how it all got monotonous after a point. “I was exhausted. I wondered why no one was offering me anything different. I then decided to say no to such roles. The producers weren’t confident of trusting me with non-negative roles. But that’s how the industry works even today. Once you are branded a certain way, you are stuck with the same label for life. Of course, I did get the opportunity of working on some creative projects such as Aaganthuka and Huliya,” the 64-year-old actor says.

The pinnacle of Devaraj’s career was the 1991-biographical drama, Veerappan. His face lights up when he talks about this movie that earned him the state film award for best actor that year.

The movie brings up many memories for the actor, including his family’s resistance to him doing the film, near-fatal encounters with elephants on the set, and running into members of Veerappan’s gang.

But the most exciting one, Devaraj reveals, was the one wherein Veerappan himself came to the sets, albeit disguised. “One day, we were shooting a scene in his village Gopinatham, and many villagers had gathered to watch us. At one point, everyone went silent. When I asked the director why, he simply asked me to continue to act. Later on, when we packed up, he told me that Veerappan had come to watch the shooting himself!” Today, Devaraj reveals he is free to take up any kind of role. “If I was a hero, I would have to protect my image. But these days, I look for non-stereotypical characters that challenge me,” he says. Yes, Devaraj is shaking off all the labels and embracing varied roles. Take, for example, Tarak, wherein he played a loving grandfather who wants to right all wrongs with his grandson. Or, Mufti, wherein he played a corrupt politician who takes on a fearful don.

Ask him what advice he would give to aspiring actors, and he says, “Don’t confine yourself to labels; keep learning constantly, and never break your audience’s trust.” And this is exactly what Devaraj has followed in his three-decade-old career.

His latest film, Hebbet Ramakka, which won the national award recently, is proof enough. Here, he played the role of a middle-class husband who harbours political aspirations and uses his wife as a pawn to achieve his dreams.

When it’s time to leave, he shares his life lesson — “Never build tall gopuras of dreams. Work on whatever you have with the utmost dedication, and things will be fine.”

 

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Here’s a man we love to hate

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