“This holy ash on my forehead?” “Cow dung.”
“And god?” “Does not exist.”
“That which is in the temple?” “A piece of stone.”
In Iruvar (1997), Mani Ratnam’s film on the two towering heroes of Dravidian politics, Prakash Raj plays Tamil Selvam, a poet-ideologue committed to the makkal (people) and the pride of his language. He is the atheist and Periyar disciple who wears a black shirt even to his wedding, lies in the path of speeding trains to demand reservation for lower castes, and has nothing but scorn for the blind bhakti of religion and tradition. He is the iconoclast, and he gets the best lines.
Twenty-odd years later, as the Indian film industry holds its tongue against an onslaught of bullying from assorted state and non-state actors, Raj still has the most fiery lines.
In the last few months, the actor has spoken out on a range of issues, from the campaign against Padmavati to the gag on Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga at IFFI, Goa, from demonetisation to Hindutva politics in Karnataka and the pageant of hate from Rajasamund, Rajasthan. When Twitter accounts followed by the Prime Minister of India celebrated journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder, Raj questioned Narendra Modi’s “chilling silence”. “I raise my voice as an artist. If creative people become cowards, we should realise that we will be making society cowardly,” he said in a speech at the International Film Festival of Kerala in December.
For his outspokenness, Raj has earned respect, abuse as well as criticism. “Yes, I should have asked [questions] earlier,” he admits. “Does that take away my right to ask now? There is a point when somebody snaps, when it comes from within… For me, it was Gauri [Lankesh, a close friend of the actor]…I am not answerable to others, I am answerable to my conscience. My conscience says, Prakash you can’t be silent,” he says, his baritone filling the hotel room on a balmy December night in Chennai.
In the nearly three decades of his career in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinemas, Raj, like many artistes, hunkered down and stuck to work, rather than take a public stand on contentious issues. So where does this strident voice come from? Those who know him well point to the Bengaluru of the 1980s, when a generation of young men and women, shaped by the giants of Kannada modernism, were itching to take on the baton and sprint. P Lankesh had started his Lankesh Patrike in 1980, and his newspaper office in Basavangudi was a magnet for the young, restless and curious. “At the end of the evening, the books and proofs on the editor’s table would be swept aside, and there would be writers, thinkers. As a youngster, I had the greatest joy that we were allowed to sit there, listen to them, express our opinion,” recalls Raj. “There was [Kannada scholar] DR Nagaraj, [Dalit writer] Siddalingaiah. We were kids but still (Girish) Karnad used to speak to us, BV Karanth used to speak to us. And none of them told us how to live, what to do. They lived a life and taught us how to live,” he says.
Raj was then Prakash Rai, a gangly, promising theatre actor in Bengaluru, who had walked out of St Joseph’s Commerce College at a teacher’s rebuke and never gone back. “In school, I did plays for the applause. But once I came to theatre, I realised how theatre can be a movement. I didn’t come to theatre to become an actor, I was in search of an identity. All I knew was that I was not comfortable with being an accountant, but I didn’t know that I would reach here,” he says.
As a young theatre actor, Raj was swept up in the idealism of those times. “We were committed to street and protest theatre, the kind that Safdar Hashmi practised in the north,” says writer-director B Suresha, an old friend of the actor. He remembers the two of them, a part of a troupe, hopping on a Matador as they travelled to villages in Karnataka. “In 1983, there was a big drought in Karnataka, and the Ramakrishna Hegde government was a corrupt one. We would go from village to village, not knowing where we would sleep, what we would eat. We did political, anti-establishment plays that spoke about the farmer and his struggle,” he says. To the itinerant players, Raj was an asset because of his electric ability to own a language. “There are several dialects spoken in Karnataka, the language changes every few hundred kilometres. Everywhere we travelled, Prakash would pick up the accents immediately,” says Suresha. The actor knows seven languages — Kannada, Tamil, Tulu, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and English — and many more dialects.
Those were also days of deprivation. Raj’s mother was a nurse in Bengaluru, struggling to bring up and educate her family. His father, an alcoholic, was almost always absent. “When I first saw him, Prakash was as thin as a rake, without the energy to even play a role. He had gone hungry as he often did, until a friend loaned him some money,” says Suresha, whose family opened their house to Raj. The actor would rather not dwell on those days of struggle. “I spent nights hungry when I was struggling. But that’s fine. [The important thing is that ] you should be hungry for something else in life,” he says.
But despite the lack of financial capital, Raj stood out in the crowd. Theatre actor and filmmaker Prakash Belawadi, who struck up a friendship with Raj in the late ’80s, recalls him as a gifted actor with an extraordinary memory. “He could learn a whole script with just one reading. He had superb aural learning ability, too.”
From theatre, he moved on to bit roles in television and Kannada cinema — till a co-actor in a Kannada film, Harakeya Kuri, mentioned his name to K Balachander. Raj travelled to Chennai and the Tamil film industry, with next to no connections and Rs 100-odd in his pocket. In 1994, he made his Tamil debut in Balachander’s Duet. As the film released during a bout of tension between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over Cauvery waters, the director changed the actor’s name from Rai, easily identified as a Kannadiga surname, to Raj.
By all accounts, the crossover was a hard one, but the Tamil film industry, much like other cinema guilds in India, was open to all kinds of peddlers of dreams. “Balachander never looked at my religion or my state. He just wanted someone who can tell his stories. Imagine if he had said, ‘You are a Kannadiga and you cannot act in a Tamil film’, where would I have been? So many moments in our life are decided by people who do not care where you come from, what religion you come from, what gender you are,” says Raj. He went on to have a phenomenally successful career in Telugu films as well. “He had a powerful presence. It was a combination of the body, voice and his eyes,” says filmmaker and theatre director Chaitanya KM.
The eyes, he has used to baroque effect in one-note baddie roles, as well to convey the vacant-eyed despair of a broken man in a film like Kanchivaram (2008), which won him the third of his five National Awards. They light up with wry mischief midway into the interview. “Every photo with the glass you [should] print,” he says to the photographer clicking away, as he nurses his whiskey. “I don’t want to lie to people that if you meet Prakash after 8.30 pm, he won’t be with a drink. I am not Yogi (Adityanath).”
He is dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, with a grey-white stubble on his face. It is the end of a busy Saturday, one he wants to wrap up so that he can get into the role of an Alzheimer’s patient for a Tamil film. At the age of 52, Raj shows no signs of flagging. He is travelling every other day to keep his commitments. He has signed up for the next Mani Ratnam film; he is shooting for Odiyan, a Malayalam fantasy thriller which casts him with Mohanlal, their first film since Iruvar. Three days ago, he was in the communally-sensitive Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, attending a peace rally, urging for an end to hate politics.
Some of this politics is personal. Raj grew up in an inter-faith family. His mother was a Roman Catholic, who married a Hindu. He is a non-believer. “I don’t have a religion. My daughters don’t have one. I didn’t want to force anything on them. I wanted them to grow up and decide for themselves, but [they had to be] persons of good values. My wife is Hindu, my mother is Christian. We are very happy at home,” he says. “Till recently, no one looked at anyone’s religion. Till Aamir Khan said there was intolerance, no one said he was Muslim. …Religion and god should be within us. They have brought it down to the roads,” he says.
A whirlwind of commitments does not keep him away from books. In an hour-long interview, we come back to literature often — from a KS Narashimaswamy poem which taught him to question the authority of the father, to the playwrights who made him understand theatre (such as Brecht, Athol Fugard, Tennessee Williams and Albee) and the time he took off on a whim and arrived in Old Delhi and spent an evening reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is currently reading the P Sainath classic, Everyone Loves a Good Drought, and journalist Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files. “I want to know more. I am trying to know people who are questioning like me. I search them on Twitter, on channels, in books. I need to tell them that…I have joined the gang,” he says.
In the polarised world of social media, Raj is either lauded or reviled; hailed as a free speech warrior or dismissed as an anti-Hindu partisan. Through his @prakashraaj handle, he tweets to 1.9 million followers, his comments on nearly all hot-button political issues is prefixed with the #Justasking hashtag — from the Gujarat elections results, Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde’s now-withdrawn brag about changing the Constitution, a query to Adityanath on his comments on Tipu Jayanti; Modi’s allegation about a conspiracy against Gujarat being hatched at Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house.
As Karnataka heads for the Assembly elections, this refashioning is being watched closely. Is Raj’s voice amplifying the voice of dissent from India’s cultural community? Or is he testing political waters? Unlike neighbour Tamil Nadu, Karnataka’s cine-stars have not made the leap into politics. At the height of his popularity, megastar Rajkumar kept away from electoral politics, even when he passionately espoused the causes of Kannada sub-nationalism. “It is my wish that people like him enter politics,” says stalwart Dalit writer Devanoora Mahadeva, also a member of the Swaraj India party. “[He is not] just a film actor or a swamiji from some math…He has retained the ability to be empathetic and listens to that voice in his heart. When a person like this acts on their conscience, paths open up,” he says.
But not everyone is enthused by Raj’s open espousal of an anti-right wing politics. Sugata Srinivasaraju, senior editor and a seasoned observer of the state’s politics, says he is disappointed by the way Raj has positioned himself. “He is falling into the ‘liberal reactionary trap’. If you start off by criticising Modi, you make a classic mistake. You are easily labelled and slotted, which is a bad thing in politics. Besides, this kind of criticism has only strengthened the BJP. Why spend so much energy on trolls or a troll MP?” he says.
In November last year, Raj sent a legal notice to BJP MP from Mysore, Pratap Simha, who had insinuated on social media that Raj was “running behind a dancer” when his four-year-old son, Sidhu, died in 2004 after he fell from a table while flying a kite. Raj parted ways with his first wife soon after, and eventually married choreographer Pony Verma. But in the three years after the tragedy, Suresha says, he struggled to get back to a normal life. The actor says he is not reacting in rage. In a line that could belong to Singham or Wanted, he adds, “A doctor doesn’t look at a virus and feel angry. He cures it. Simha and this sort of thought process is a virus. I will cure it.”
Raj denies that he is with any political party, but he does not rule out a future role. “#JustAsking is a movement I have started. I want to be with the people. It is my journey, my fight to be, first, an honest, fearless citizen of the country. What it will snowball into I don’t know. But now, I will be airing political views, I will be travelling among people when elections in Karnataka are on, telling people to just ask. I won’t tell them who to vote for but I will tell them who not to vote. That’s my right.” For now, Raj seems to be driven primarily by his need to send a message, to prove that — after Gauri Lankesh’s death — “if you silence a voice, a louder voice will arise.”
A politics of hate, he believes, will not last and does not have the support of a “silent majority”. “History says they will not survive. Because a human’s need to evolve, to breathe free, is bigger than these people. Has Hitler survived? Has Idi Amin survived? There is going to be bloodshed, but nature will find a way. Life will find its own way. But till that time, we should be the voices.”