Let’s Talk about Autos Only

What Shankar Nag fandom has to do with the making of and contemporary Kannadiga identity

A legendary figure in Kannada cinema, Shankar Nag acted in over 80 films and directed ten, along with two television series. DC NAGESH
01 September, 2013

IT IS A RAINY EVENING in early May when I squeeze into an autorickshaw at Mathikere in north Bangalore with some friends. Electric blue lights blink above the driver’s seat; fluorescent stickers glow on the windshield; and speakers at the back play loud Kannada film music.

“Where, madam?” the auto driver asks, over the blaring music, expertly turning on the auto meter with his left hand while adjusting the rearview mirror with his right.

“Cantonment,” I reply, and then, spotting the photograph of a stylish man with thick hair at the bottom-right corner of the windshield, whose features I can only dimly make out through the white, sticky flipside of the sticker, ask, “Is that Shankar Nag?”

The driver smiles, and shakes his head. “It is Darshan, madam.”

In 2011, Darshan Thoogudeep, a Kannadiga actor commonly known by his first name, starred as Raja, an auto-rickshaw driver, in a Kannada film titled Sarathi. The film was released on 30 September, the death anniversary of Shankar Nagarkatte (better known as Shankar Nag), a legendary figure in Kannada cinema who acted in over 80 films and directed ten (along with two television serials, including Malgudi Days, adapted from RK Narayan’s work). Darshan’s film, which even included an animated dance-sequence featuring Nag, was widely viewed as a tribute to the late star, who, in 1980, had also essayed the role of an autorickshaw driver in the film Auto Raja, directed by Vijay.

Auto Raja was an inter-class love story, with Nag playing an urban working-class auto driver and the leading actress Gayathri the daughter of a wealthy estate owner, and Nag’s love interest. According to the critic MK Raghavendra, the film attempted to “build a community around the urban working class”, represented by Bangalore’s autorickshaw drivers. It was a super-hit, making Nag a rage with auto-rickshaw drivers across Bangalore. Nag’s popularity with the community hasn’t worn off with time. As recently as June 2013, more than 30 years after the release of Auto Raja, a Kannada film by the same title, with contemporary Kannada superstar Ganesh in the lead, channelled the popularity of the original. Directed by Uday Prakash, the director of the 2011 comedy Kalla Malla Sulla, Auto Raja is the story of an aspiring autorickshaw driver in Bangalore who is a huge Shankar Nag fan, and explores how his love for Nag influences the lives of others in the city when he becomes a radio jockey whose identity is secret to the public.

To the auto drivers at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand on 8th Main Road in Basaveshwaranagar, Bangalore, however, Shankar Nag is much more than an iconic film star. Standing proudly against the red and yellow of the unofficial Karnataka state flag painted on the auto-stand’s signboard, Nag is for them a symbol of Kannadiga identity—perhaps more so today than during his lifetime—as the vibrant 2012 documentary Shankar Nag Kelkond Bandaga (When Shankar Nag Comes Asking) demonstrates.

The film, a 66-minute documentary directed by Sushma Veerappa—who has previously worked as an assistant to the filmmaker MS Sathyu—offers us a sidelong glance into how Nag lives on in the imaginations of Bangalore’s auto drivers. In doing so, it ruminates on the place of Kannada in the hierarchy of Bangalorean languages, on Kannadiga identity, and on the ways in which a city remembers its roots.

The primary characters that Veerappa engages with are auto drivers, or people who work in the autorickshaw trade: Ramanna, who, over the course of the film goes from being a mere autorickshaw driver to the state president of the auto drivers’ wing of the Kannada Protection Front; Mahadeva, an autorickshaw driver whose vehicle is renovated over the course of the film; a man renting out autos at a dargah compound in Shivajinagar, and various autorickshaw drivers at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand.

The film juggles animated landscapes of Bangalore that play out to a remixed classical music track with interviews of Ramanna and his colleagues, often conducted during rides across the city. Conversations with Mahadeva and the proprietor at the dargah reveal much about the daily exasperations and concerns of autorickshaw drivers in Bangalore. Those with Ramanna and the auto drivers at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand, while also about similar matters—such as the need to charge passengers more than the meter reading since they are otherwise unable to make the R12,000 or so they owe proprietors every month—engage frequently with Nag and his relevance in their daily lives and, consequently, touch upon issues of regionalism much more strongly.

When Shankar Nag Comes Asking never explicitly explains who Shankar Nag is, or what his relationship to these auto drivers, or indeed Bangalore, might be. It is through the film’s exuberant montages of images and songs—including those from Nag’s dance sequences in old movies —and the testimonies of the autorickshaw drivers that one is hesitantly able to piece together the phenomenon that is Shankar Nag. It makes the viewer yearn to be included, however temporarily, in the Nag fan club. And the film seems to play off the dominance and familiarity of Hindi cinema over regional cinema: for the uninitiated viewer, Nag comes across as a famous but mysterious figure whose identity is constructed over the course of this documentary, like Mahadeva’s auto rickshaw, to reveal a gigantic, transformative presence. If When Shankar Nag Comes Asking is the biography of a city, then Nag is the ghost who takes us through it—a pervasive presence that shapes Kannadiga Bangalore, but who now lies outside it.

ALTHOUGH MUCH OF THE MATERIAL in the film is ethnographic, the film’s narrative is far too nebulous and playful to even approximate the form of an academic or journalistic documentary. One is still not sure what exactly Nag has come asking for, but it is not hard to imagine he would be amazed by the various means in which his image has been appropriated. “Yellow and red symbolise Karnataka state,” one of the drivers says about the Shankar Nag signboard at the auto stand. “These particular colours add to his look.” While the camera lingers on the signboard, another driver chimes in. “Shankar Nag is a Kannadiga,” he says. “The Kannada flag makes him look better.”

Fandom surrounding the male South Indian superstar figure is barely ever apolitical, often leading to a significant blur in personal and political love, with some of these figures inevitably defining major regional formulations and conflicts. Tamil superstar MG Ramachandran, fondly known as MGR, formed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and became the first film actor to serve as a chief minister. Telugu actor-director NT Rama Rao founded the Telugu Desam Party and served as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for three terms. Speculation about whether Rajnikanth will join politics used to make national headlines during the peak of his stardom. Kannada superstar Rajkumar’s kidnapping by Tamil forest smuggler Veerappan sparked violence for three days, between 30 July and 2 August 2000, in Bangalore and brought the city to a halt.

The post-Auto Raja fandom for Shankar Nag, however, appears to belong to a particular strata of Bangalore: the working class. Ramanna, who came to Bangalore to be an actor and watched films on 10 paise tickets in 1980, confesses to dropping his tea and chasing after Nag and his brother Anant’s car in Gandhinagar once. “Anant Nag remained in the car,” Ramanna says, smiling slightly as the camera blurs the background of the auto. “Shankar Nag stepped out. He always showed respect. A real gentleman.”

For Bangalore’s autorickshaw drivers, Shankar Nag is more than an iconic film star. COURTESY KOWDI

Adulation for the male South Indian superstar figure, while deeply influenced by factors such as linguistic, regional or even class identity, is hardly restricted by them. Where autorickshaws are concerned, according to the film, the admiration often transcends borders—Tamil stars are a favourite, says Ramachandran, who runs the Keerthi Stickers Emporium in Thyagarajanagar, which the filmmaker visits. Ramachandran says that the sticker trend is a recent one and did not exist in the 1970s and 1980s; back then, people would iron-press the images onto their shirts. “Auto drivers like to show their favourite actors as Kannadigas,” he explains. As he talks, the camera focuses on red-and-yellow stickers gently flapping in the wind: images of Rajnikanth and Shankar Nag saluting the viewer, smiling. “They want Rajnikanth, too, in yellow and red. Even Chiranjeevi.” He goes on to add that their films are popular in Bangalore although they are not Kannadigas. When asked to elaborate, his response is quick: “Happiness. Kannada. That’s all.”

This celebration of Kannada as the reigning component of Kannadiga identity is a preoccupation that the film is never distracted from; among the events that Veerappa films is a celebration of the Kannada Rajyotsava by the auto drivers. The Rajyotsava, which means “birth of a state” in Kannada, is celebrated on 1 November every year and marks the day in 1973 when the state of Karnataka, known as Mysore until then, came into being. Rajyotsava celebrates the inclusion of various Kannada-speaking areas into the state of Mysore, from Coorg (or Kodagu), the Madras and Bombay presidencies and even the princely state of Hyderabad. The unification—alternatively, the demise of the independent princely state of Mysore—took place in 1956, a year after the States Reorgnisation Commission (SRC) identified Kannada-speakers as the most alienated during the colonial era. The push for a unified state was fuelled primarily by a desire for linguistic assimilation by the Kannada-speaking minorities in the various incorporated areas. The movement intensified after the 1930s, when the Congress accepted the notion of state formation based on linguistic terms. Mysore, however, was reluctant to incorporate these Kannada-speaking areas into a newly formed state, because it did not identify with the linguistic and cultural alienation which these areas suffered.

Although Kannada became Mysore’s official language in 1963, English is the dominant language of Karnataka today in sectors such as administration, and in international-business-driven cities such as Bangalore, which was always viewed as a city of migrants who came not just from the rest of India but from other Kannada-speaking districts.This view of Bangalore became even more entrenched in the new millennium, with the city’s presence in Kannada films as a site of promise beginning to coincide with the demise of Mysore.

The 1991 census showed that only 35 percent of Bangalore’s citizens declared Kannada as their mother tongue. Even though Kannada dominates other languages spoken in the city, such as Urdu, there has been a paranoia among some Kannadigas that these languages pose a serious threat to their mother tongue. Following the telecast of a ten-minute news bulletin in Urdu during prime time in October 1994, for example, riots against Muslims, incited by Hindu activist groups such as the Rajkumar Abhimanigala Sangha, broke out. Twenty-five people were killed, and several died as a result of police firing and injuries.

The fault lines formed then are visible today, especially in Bangalore, where the aforementioned domination of English over Kannada in much of the corporate sector often brings to the fore a vision of a city that is modern and prosperous. We catch a glimpse of the city’s current position in the opening scene, when Ramanna is ferrying a Hindi-speaking passenger who asks him to recommend sights to see in Bangalore. After listing historical sites like Lal Bagh and the ISKCON temple, he says, “Not many places to see here. This is a business centre, maloom hai?” He pauses, then remarks, “Mysore is the place for sight-seeing.”

Ramanna’s acknowledgement of this divide between the ‘authentic city’ of Mysore and the ‘business city’ of Bangalore is echoed by several other drivers at the Shankar Nag Auto Stand. “You came to Bangalore seeking something … you came looking for a livelihood,” the filmmaker says to them in Kannada, her voice rising over the din of traffic, while a montage of aspirational Bangalore—neatly-arranged rows of vibrant-coloured ice-creams; a man enjoying a scoop by himself while staring into the haze of the city’s night lights—plays on the screen. “Has the city given you what you wanted?” A jump-cut later, we are gazing at a smooth flow of night traffic on Shankar Mutt road with neon signboards of Titan, Lee and Wrangler beaming across the road, when an auto driver replies, “This is a sea. Bangalore is a vast sea. It’s big enough for the poor and the rich … IT, BT have been useful. But not for the local people.” Someone else mutters, “Let’s talk about autos and auto drivers only.”

Veerappa takes us through the autorickshaw drivers’ preparations for Rajyotsava, before they are filmed for the channel Zee Kannada: one driver is patiently trying to replace a sticker of Hindi superstar Salman Khan on the windshield of an auto with a brand new, red-and-yellow poster of Shankar Nag superimposed on an outline of the state of Karnataka, while others are drawing a yellow-red rangoli on the floor. When the theme song of the celebrations, ‘Namma Rajyotsava’, begins to play, the film cuts to someone’s living room, where a young woman and two children are intently watching the celebrations play out on television. We watch them watch the screen, and are offered a glance into the manifestations of Kannadiga identity in everyday life through multiple perspectives, as the camera switches between the site of the celebrations and the living room.

When the host for the occasion, dressed in the subdued brown uniform of autorickshaw drivers, begins a quiz themed around the occasion, we are taken back to the site. “What is Karnataka’s original name?” he asks. “Mysore State,” a man named Abdul Razzack answers. “We are so fortunate that a Muslim knows the answer to our first Kannada question,” the host cheerfully acknowledges, while several drivers around him nod solemnly. By this point, the camera has taken us back to the living room, where we see a Hindu family quietly watch as Abdul Razzack affirms his Kannadiga identity on Zee Kannada. The nested perspectives—of the host who is playing an auto driver, the crowd of actual auto drivers surrounding him, the woman and children watching the broadcast at home, the filmmaker herself, and us the documentary audience watching the filming of a TV show—that are woven into the scene magnify Razzack’s own affirmation of his identity as a Kannadiga and the host’s emphasis that he is not just any Kannadiga, he is a Muslim Kannadiga. However, the constant back-and-forth of Veerappa’s camera between the site and the room, along with her subtle reminders that you are watching celebrations that are, to an extent, staged, blur the sense of what is truly ‘real’ about the identities constructed in these scenes: is Razzack’s answer a spontaneous one or was he given a script? Do the host’s comments stem from a performative impulse for the camera? How do communal differences manifest themselves during Rajyotsava celebrations when they do not occur under these layered gazes? Above all, how telling are these performances of the differences in Kannadiganess?

THIS CAPTIVATION WITH AUTHENTICITY and Kannadiganess can be noted not merely through Veerappa’s interrogations of state ceremonies but also through her choice of clips from Shankar Nag’s films. In a clip from the 1990 film Hosajeevana—which is preceded in Veerappa’s documentary by an austere, animated rendition of a Kannada poem that laments the mutating nature of the city, (“Only a language remains mine / And the memory of a home”)—Nag, seated smugly in a middle-class restaurant in a shiny violet suit, hands the menu back to the waiter, disinterested, after the latter recites the culinary options in English. The waiter is unsure about what Nag wants. “Yen beku sir?” (What do you want, sir?) he asks Nag, frustrated. “Ah,” Nag exclaims, “Hange, achch-kattu kannadadalli kelu” (“That’s how you ask in perfect Kannada”). This line is cheekily woven into a montage of his face where the line itself is repeated thrice, zooming in closer on Nag’s face each time and dramatically accompanied by gunshots. The self-reflexive effect is funny and Nag’s question that follows—“How do I understand your nonsense English?”—is one that retains the humour but stresses one of Veerappa’s key interrogations in the film: the making of contemporary Kannadiga identity. The emphasis on his is not lost on the viewer; Nag may be dressed in glamorous Western attire but his preference for perfect Kannada over “nonsense” English is telling of the fraught relationship that the two languages—and by extension, the cultures associated with them—share.

A contemporary take on Shankar Nag’s Auto Raja was made this year to channel the popularity of the original, with the contemporary star Ganesh in the lead. PUBLICITY STILL FROM CHITRALOKA.COM

The Nag fans we are introduced to in the documentary are primarily Hindu working-class men. The definition of Kannadiga identity that we witness through this documentary, also remains for the large part, a Hindu-dominated one. It is worth asking, at this point, to whom does Nag truly matter—and whether his regional popularity is restricted to a male Hindu fan base. The question “What is ‘Kannadiganess’ for Bangaloreans?” cannot be asked without simultaneously asking “Which Bangaloreans?” It is one of the questions that the film is careful enough to evoke, not so much to produce a definitive answer as to suggest that the concern of ‘authentic Kannadiganess’ filters through various Bangalorean identities, including those working-class lives that are unified by their love for Shankar Nag, who appears to symbolise amongst much else, the triumph of a Kannadiga imagination.

AFTER A 30 MINUTE RIDE THROUGH NARROW AND MUDDY LANES, we have arrived at Bangalore Cantonment. I am standing near the rear of the auto rickshaw, thumbing my wallet for change.

The driver stands next to me, and when I hand him the fare, he points to the blinking, yellow rear lights of his vehicle.

“What happened?” I ask in Hindi, moving closer to the lights.

Near the lights, hidden from easy sight, is a small sticker of a man’s face—he, too, is smiling and has thick hair, but it is not Darshan. The driver bends slightly and taps the sticker with his index finger. “Shankar Nag,” he says with a smile.