Multi-hyphenate talent Shankar Nag died very young – he was just 35 when he perished in an accident while he was on his way to a shoot of the Kannada movie Jokumaraswamy in 1990. By then, Nag had already blazed several trails: he had appeared in parallel films, he was a commercially successful name in so-called mass movies, he had directed a few titles, he worked in theatre, and he directed the hugely popular television adaptation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. The title music, composed by L Vaidyanathan, continues to resonate in the form of a ringtone.
Nag shone on the art house and mainstream circuits with equal luminosity. His acting breakthrough was in Girish Karnad’s Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978), an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Nag plays the role popularised by Toshiro Mifune in the original. Nag is also a part of the ensemble cast of Karnad’s period movie Utsav (1984), in which he plays a thief who falls in love with Neena Gupta’s courtesan.
Nag’s appeal extended all the way to the front-bencher crowds. Like Rajinikanth in Tamil cinema, Nag was a popular screen icon among working-class audiences in Karnataka, and such films as Auto Raja (1980) made him a hero among rickshaw drivers.
Documentary filmmaker Sushma Veerappa’s When Shankar Nag Comes Asking (2013) examines the enduring love that Bengaluru’s autorickshaw drivers have for the actor who represented them on the screen. The documentary uses Nag, whose rugged visage is pasted on the windshields of several vehicles in the city, to discuss the rise of nativist politics and the impact of globalisation.
Nag’s memory persists in other ways too: the theatre space Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru was set up by his wife, actor and director Arundhathi Nag, in his memory in 2004. A story on the NDTV 24x7 news channel made on the occasion of Ranga Shankara’s tenth anniversary reveals the challenges faced by Arundhathi Nag in setting up the theatre and keeping her husband’s dream alive.