Bangalore Talkies: Puneeth Rajkumar and the limits of fitness

Subhead: During this festival of lights, Shoba Narayan takes stock of the meaning and limits of fitness.

This Deepavali is a quiet and sombre one in Bangalore, not only because of Covid– it’s long shadow is finally fading– but because of the sad and untimely death of Kannada superstar, Puneeth Rajkumar at age 46.

“Look at these crowds,” said a hardened news reporter, filming the hundreds of thousands of weeping fans who had gathered.  “To touch so many lives so deeply is something amazing.”

The death of a Bollywood actor does this– we know.  But Puneeth Rajkumar seemed to wear his fame lighter than most.  Perhaps it was being born as the son of Rajkumar, a legend and icon in Karnataka.  Perhaps it was being the youngest son in a joint family of 30 people.  Whatever the reason, the word that most people used to describe the “power star” is “humble.”  You can see it in the movie clips that are currently playing on loop in Twitter.  There is a lovely one made by Hombale Films in which fans are describing how they watch Puneeth’s films– first day first show for many.  As they talk, Puneeth quietly walks up behind them and ad libs a phrase.  “Will you give me a ticket to see the movie with you?” he mutters.  The woman fan turns to find her matinee idol standing behind.  He grins, she screams, they shake hands.  You can see the delight in both parties.

Beyond the crowds, beyond the condolences from Prime Minister Modi, to Sadhguru to Sanjay Dutt to Virendra Sehwag to pretty much everyone in the Kannada film fraternity, one news item stood out: the fact that two fans died of heart attack when they heard about Puneeth’s death.  Now, a fan can commit suicide, as some did when they heard of MGR’s death in Tamilnadu.  But to die of a heart attack (of natural causes) requires you to be so linked to this actor emotionally that the grief of his passing is quite literally heart-breaking.  That, if true, tells us that Puneeth Rajkumar had an emotional resonance with his fans that few can equal.  

Part of the reason for the shock is of course that Puneeth died tragically young– he was just 46.  Also the fact that he seemed really fit.

There is a fake message, ostensibly from Dr. Devi Shetty, another denizen of Karnataka that is making the rounds.  It talks about people who are seemingly fit– like Puneeth was, who take exercising everyday to the extreme– Puneeth allegedly died after working out for two hours in his gym.  The message ends with the cheery call for moderation.  Eat what your ancestors did, and exercise in moderation, the message said.  Fake though it is, the message resonated with many including me, partly because all of us have lost friends and family who are ridiculously young in this pandemic, and not just because of Covid.  The truth is that I personally know four people who died young in the last year, all of them because of a heart attack.  

When people die young, the public post-mortem includes their lifestyle.  Puneeth was known to be a fitness fiend and suddenly, that is being called in question.  A friend of mine cancelled a marathon because he is exactly Puneeth’s age (46) and his wife is freaked out by his “extreme fitness” as she calls it.

To me the message in Puneeth Rajkumar’s death is not about altering your lifestyle or your fitness routine.  It isn’t even about moderation or being careful about what proteins or steroids or muscle relaxants you take.  It is the limits of human intervention and being humble about what you can control.  

People say that the only certain things are death and taxes.  To that short list, I add pain.  The one thing that lies in your future and mine is heartbreak.  Some months ago, our family endured the loss of a young person– also of a heart attack.  It was horrible, unfair and heartbreaking.  We are still reconciling with this loss– just as Puneeth’s wife, Ashwini and his two daughters, Vanditha and Drithi will in the coming months and years.

It is easy to say that pain is and will always be part of the human condition.  But living through it is hard because this pain will hit you when you are least expecting it. How then to make sense of it? 

Well, our ancients tried to view pain as a pathway to the higher self.   When the human ego is beaten, they said, the soul instantly recognizes this as an opportunity to shed what is no longer needed. When the heart is broken, the soul is released from its prior constellations. It begins the ancient process of dissolution, dismemberment, and new life. Rebirth. This is not a comfortable process. But it is a neccessary one.  

Not all of us get to do it.  Puneeth’s family will have to.


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