Bangalore’s Auto Raja – just WHO is he?

By November 5, 2013 Autos No Comments
Pic courtesy

Man on the windshield (Pic courtesy

If you’ve been on Bangalore roads (even if you HAVEN’T taken an auto), you’d have seen this guy’s picture. By this guy, I mean the man on the windshield of this (and tens of thousand other) auto rickshaws.

It’s noted Kannada actor and director Shankar Nag. Outside Karnataka, he’s best known as the Director of Malgudi Days, a phenomenally popular TV series based on RK Narayan’s short stories. He has acted in over 80 Kannada movies but Auto Raja is the movie that made him into a cult hero figure amongst Bangalore’s auto drivers (possibly in the rest of Karnataka as well?) He died in a road accident over 23 years ago (at the age of 35) but his popularity among the auto rickshaw drivers doesn’t show any sign of waning.

Nag’s enduring popularity spurred Sushma Veerappa to make a documentary film, When Shankar Nag comes Asking. The documentary explores the relationship of the working class to cinema, the endurance of a star’s fame even after his death, the nature of fandom, the rise of nativist politics in Karnataka, and the changing nature of Bangalore.

I’m excerpting several interesting tidbits from this Livemint interview of Veerappa.

On filming..

I filmed everything from the Ganesh utsav on Shankar Nag Road in Domlur, Bangalore, to a CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) rally, of which the autorickshaw union is a member, Karnataka Rajyotsava celebrations across the city. Sometime in 2010, when I seriously started seeking funds to make the documentary, a structure began to emerge based on what I had filmed.

The documentary began with Shankar Nag on autorickshaw windshields. That’s something all Bangaloreans of my generation have grown up with.

On how the documentary evolved..

Yes, it was supposed to be about Nag on windshields. Except that the Suvarna Karnataka celebrations took over the city around that time in 2006. I noticed how autorickshaws became a prime constituency for the playing out of identity politics on the streets. It looked like quite a joyride—Shankar Nag and the Kannada flag riding together on an autorickshaw. But was it? The trajectory of Bangalore city’s growth post 1990 seemed very intertwined with lives of auto drivers, who are the lifeline of Bangalore. 1990 was also the year Shankar Nag passed away in a road accident. Fifty years of statehood, 20 years of globalization—all being played out in this city. It seemed like a good time to look into ideas about belonging in a city.

Auto drivers’ collective love for Nag.

There are many ways of seeing, remembering, celebrating. It is complex. The auto driver is also constantly redefining the idea of the fan. Shankar Nag may be disappearing from auto windshields. But auto drivers make space for him by the tail-light of the autorickshaw. The fact that this man still remains in public memory more than 20 years after he passed away cannot be just a socio-cultural phenomenon. This means that there is a lacuna in the political system that has created space for this.

Is the auto driver not a citizen?

As a documentarian, I am compelled to show the alternative to mainstream portrayals in which the state sets up a 24×7 call centre to help the citizen against harassment by an auto driver—as if the auto driver is not a citizen. If I am saying that not all auto drivers who are Shankar Nag fans align themselves with a language activist group, it means that the kind of language politics that plays out on the street is never black and white.

On presenting impressions over information.

It was very important for me that Shankar Nag—the person, his work—gets articulated by the auto driver, and not by a subject expert. That didn’t quite happen. I could not get an auto driver to intellectualize his fanhood in so many words. But at the same time I was meeting several of them eking out a livelihood on his name. There were so many fantastic ways in which he was and is living.

For a more humorous introduction to Shankar Nag (and Auto Raja), check out this Kannada Speakeasy video. The relevant portion is from 1:20 to 3:00 though the entire 6 minutes are quite entertaining too — you’ll pickup some conversational Kannada in the process.

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