‘Sultan of Sandalwood’ and the murderous ‘flop’ he allegedly scripted in real life

'One glaring fact was that Darshan failed to handle his success, fame, and popularity. He fell into bad company as well.'

ByB S Arun

Published Jun 20, 2024 | 5:00 PM Updated Jun 20, 2024 | 11:09 PM

Darshan in 'Kaatera'. (Supplied)

The life of Kannada superstar Darshan is nothing short of a film script. Coming up in life the hard way, from supplying milk to making a living and being a light boy in film shoots, Darshan had reached a stage only a few could dream of. From being the highest-earning Kannada star whose films rarely bombed at the box office, the “challenging star”, who had several brush-ins with the law over the last 15 years, now faces the biggest challenge yet in his life: arrested for the chilling murder of a fan.

Darshan (original name Hemanth Kumar) is the son of well-known Kannada film villain Thoogudeepa Srinivas, who is known as a genial person in real life. Following his death, Darshan did sundry jobs to make two ends meet. After attaining stardom, he claimed in an interview that he ran errands, milked cows and supplied milk, and did odd jobs for a film unit, including being a light boy.

He acted in school plays, which gave him immense satisfaction. Sharp enough, he was a quick learner and soon became an assistant cameraman for a film. In between, knowing his acting talent, someone suggested he join the respected Neenasam Theatre Training Institute in Heggodu village in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district. After obtaining the Neenasam degree, he started acting in Kannada TV serials and did odd film roles.

Also read: Chilling details of the murder

The ‘Majestic’ moment

His big moment came in 2000 with the film ‘Majestic’ (an area in central Bengaluru, also the name of an old single-screen movie house), in which he acted as the hero for the first time. The film deals with an orphan becoming a gangster whose life changes when he falls in love with Kiran, his enemy’s daughter.

‘Majestic’ changed Darshan’s life. He was flooded with more film offers. Over the years, many of his films became super hits, some bombed. He became one of the few most sought-after heroes in Kannada filmdom. His earnings multiplied with every blockbuster film he delivered.

Daasa, Kariya, Kalasipalya, Saarathi, Gaja, Chingaari, Bulbul, Snehana Preetina, Anaatharu, a protagonist in the historical film Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna which won him the Karnataka state film award and Filmfare award for best actor, Chakravarti, Sarvantaryaami, Ambareesha, Odeya, Yajamaana, Kurukshetra – most of these films raked in massive revenues.

He has acted so far in over 75 movies, his next film ‘Devil – the Hero’ is due for release. The 47-year-old diversified a bit – he produced and distributed a few films and tried his hand at playback singing in a couple of them. Though most of his films were centred on violence, there were messages in some of his films which showed him siding with farmers, as one who wanted to bring changes in the education system, setting right the health infrastructure by breaking the corporate monopoly, etc.

Also read: KFCC awaits probe report

Fans and contemporaries

As his success continued, his fan base grew. Almost every district in Karnataka has a Darshan fan association. Likewise, there are fan associations of other stars, like the late Puneet Rajkumar, Sudeep, Yash, etc. There are occasional ‘fan wars,’ but these have not gone out of hand.

How have other top stars reacted to the latest Darshan saga? Shivarajkumar, son of Kannada icon Rajkumar, and Yash have remained silent, while popular heroine Ramya has strongly attacked Darshan for the crime. Two other top stars – Sudeep and Upendra – broke their silence after a full week but did not indulge in a direct attack on Darshan.

Darshan was friends with politicians but did not take to politics. He campaigned for a few of them—for Sumalatha, wife of the late actor Ambareesh, in 2019, and Star Chandru, friend and producer, in 2024.

Interestingly, Darshan was also keen on farming and wildlife. He has a mini private zoo near Mysuru. The ‘Sultan of Sandalwood’, as his fans call him, has adopted animals from different zoos in Karnataka. When incomes at different zoos in the state were hit following Covid-19, Darshan made an appeal to animal lovers to adopt animals. Close to ₹3.5 crore was generated following the appeal. The state agriculture department, despite knowing the background of the star and his police cases, made him its brand ambassador. This was withdrawn only after the murder charge surfaced.

Related: BJP seeks compensation

The other side of Darshan

Despite all the above, there was another face to Darshan. It first unveiled itself in 2011 when his wife, Vijayalakshmi, complained of domestic violence. He was jailed for attempted murder. As the marital discord was settled out of court, he apologised to the fans. Alongside, there was a dalliance with a female star. The late Ambareesh intervened to settle the issue. In 2016, his wife approached the Bengaluru police again to complain against the star for ‘objectionable behaviour’.

Film director Indrajit Lankesh in 2021 accused Darshan of assaulting a waiter at a Mysuru hotel. Reports later said there was a compromise between Darshan and the waiter. Next year, Bharat, a film producer, filed a police case against the actor, alleging that the latter had threatened him. Another controversy hit him in January 2023 as the Forest Department raided his farmhouse and seized four Bar-headed geese he possessed in violation of the law. In November last year, a neighbour alleged that Darshan let his dogs out on her over a parking dispute.

And now, the latest – the most serious of them all. The fan, who was angry that actress Pavithra Gowda was having an affair with Darshan, was killed after he was allegedly subjected to torture by about two dozen men. His fans are said to have been divided between Pavithra and Vijayalakshmi, who is still his wife.

Also read: ‘No soft corner’

Mishandling success

Why did Darshan’s life come to such a pass? One glaring fact was that he failed to handle his success, fame, and popularity. He fell into bad company and, because of his arrogance, created problems for himself. Muralidhar Khajane, the well-known film critic and journalist, says it is difficult for the Kannada film industry to digest Darshan’s absence, as over ₹150 crore is currently riding on him.

“The industry, in a way, is depending on him. And for this reason, even if he is banned, it won’t work. Producers won’t support the ban. But this murder case involving Darshan and a few other incidents has left the Kannada film industry badly bruised. Its image has sullied even as Malayalam and Tamil film industries are thriving,” says Khajane, author of “Random Reflections: Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema”.

(B S Arun is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru. Views are personal.)

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