Rajkumar (1929-), often referred to as Dr. Rajkumar or Dr. Raj because of an honorary degree, is the most popular actor in India’s Kannada language film industry. It is difficult, even in the celebrity obsessed West, to understand exactly how popular he is in Karnataka, his native state in southern India. He is literally a living legend. In 1991, rumors spread that he had died, he had to appear on television to ease the building tensions. When the state government considered dropping the requirement that students learn the Kannada language in school, Rajkumar objected and the government quickly abandoned the proposal. Rajkumar could have easily channeled his immense popularity into a successful political career.

Rajkumar was a stage actor before he made the transition to the screen in 1954’s Bedara Kannappa. He has appeared in over 300 films, everything from Hindu mythological dramas to James Bond like detective movies. One of his films, Bangarada Manushya, stayed in release for two years. He usually plays the dashing leading man, these days wearing a toupee and fake moustache and – like Western actors such as Sean Connery and Michael Douglas – sharing the screen with actresses young enough to be his grandchildren. His wife Parvathamma is a film producer and they have three grown sons, Shivraj, Raghavendra, and Puneet, and two married daughters.

He made news around the world when he was kidnapped by the notorious bandit and Robin Hood figure Veerappan last year. Rajkumar and his wife were staying in his family’s home in his native village of Gajanur. Rajkumar’s property is on the edge of the huge Satyamangalam forest which straddles the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, a thick jungle which is the favorite hideout of the bandit. Veerappan had made kidnapping a cottage industry, and his captives were usually well cared for. The government could not charge into the forest, because it would have been unforgivable and unthinkable if Rajkumar had been harmed as a result, and Veerappan, an ethnic Tamil nationalist, could not kill Rajkumar because tensions between the people of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu would have exploded.

This stalemate lasted 109 days until Rajkumar was delivered unharmed by helicopter to Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. All seemed to be well, but speculation is spreading that the kidnapping did not involve Tamil nationalism at all, but was instead a monetary dispute revolving around one of Rajkumar’s sons in the granite business.

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