From Aa Dinagalu (those days), Kannada actor Chetan Kumar has been a ferocious feminist, said Megha S, his wife. The actor was granted bail on 25 February after being arrested for tweeting against one of the judges hearing the hijab issue that has been raging in Karnataka in the recent past.
His bail came right on the day when the hearing of the case concluded in the Karnataka High Court. The bench asked all the parties to give written submissions, while the judgment has been reserved.
This is not the first time that Chetan has faced legal action. There were two FIRs lodged against him by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) last year for alleged remarks against Brahmins and Brahminism.
“So we expected this arrest. It was just a matter of time,” says Megha, who claims to have fallen for “the feminist in him”.
Born and raised in a family that hosted activists, Chetan’s tryst with Sandalwood was a mere accident. While his parents are doctors in the US, his brother a professor in the UK, this US citizen set foot into Yale University and decided to do research on theatre for his scholarship programme.
“It was during this time that I ran into him a couple of times. I am into theatre and he was touring through Karnataka for his research study. I was then looking for a fresh face for the Kannada movie Aa Dinagalu in 2007. He fit the role,” says director of the film KM Chaitanya.
Actor By Accident
“Chetan would have become a professor after his PhD, acting was never part of the agenda,” says Megha, laughing while reminiscing how his family reacted to Chetan on reel. “His father wasn’t quite happy initially. He asked Chetan why he had taken up acting after getting into Yale. It was after they saw the movie that they began accepting him in this newfound role,” she adds.
This actor soon became the sought-after ‘chocolate boy’ in tinsel town. “We were dating then and I must confess I had my fair share of insecurities,” Megha admits.
The two met at a gathering in Delhi. “It was during the time when the Aam Aadmi Party was making its political debut in 2013. I wasn’t following politics so keenly then, but our ideologies matched,” she shares.
Activism More Than Acting
"He was more an activist than an actor," filmmaker and theatre person Director KM Chaitanya says.
“Chetan’s brother too had been part of the Liberal Party. He comes from a family of writers. His father is well-read. He grew up with activism being ingrained in the family. Being an activist is just part of his DNA,” the director continues.
Agreeing with him, director Srinivasa Raju expresses, “Chetan was a fine actor, but had a long way to go if he wanted to focus on pursuing acting. He has, however, done a great deal more when it came to activism.”
Chetan has fought for adivasis, Lingayats, farmers, Dalits and more. He was working with blind children when Megha read an article about the adivasi community at Diddalli forest of Kodagu in 2016.
“I immediately alerted him. He took my advice and spearheaded the protest and helped them with over 500 homes, high-quality tents, ration and toilet facilities. He always gives me all the credit for this,” says the actor’s wife.
In 2017, Chetan founded FIRE—Film Industry for Rights and Equality—for the benefits of women, writers, and workers in the Kannada Film Industry.
A Kid at Heart
While the activist was fighting for many causes in the state, at home, “he is a kid at heart”. Megha explains, “He believes people easily. I have to be his sixth sense all the time.” Despite working in an IT firm, she decided to engage in social activism and began helping her husband with managing the Chetan Foundation.
Chetan never wanted a marriage function, while Megha wanted a simple one. She persuaded him with an eco-friendly ceremony that can drive home a message—inclusiveness.
“Our wedding invitation was made of seed paper. We held the ceremony at an orphanage. Our vows were presided by a transgender activist. It wasn’t a big, fat wedding. It was a meaningful one."Chetan Kumar's wife Megha
Reel Hero to Real Superstar?
Chetan is a real superstar to Megha. “The reason he got into acting is so that he can have a bigger reach while taking up a cause. More than on reel, he has been a true hero in real life,” she says.
“We have successfully created a situation where nobody can speak up,” shares Chaitanya, referring to the political climate of the nation.
“I hope more actors do join in action against injustice and inequality. While Hollywood actors take strong stands, it’s high time we did too.”Director Kavita Lankesh comments
Begging to differ, actress-politician Khushbu Sundar expresses, “You have the freedom to speak, but if your words incite violence or unrest, you are liable, I am glad celebrities are speaking up. We are giving you the freedom. Words should be measured, while opinion must be clear.”
Srinivasa Raju agrees, “While the matter is still sub-judice, Chetan shouldn’t have responded.”
When there’s religion involved, one needs to be sensitive, thinks director Indrajit Lankesh. “Some of Chetan’s causes have to be appreciated. But some remarks of his have been dividing the society,” he adds.
Chetan’s Role Models
Chetan’s next is a Telugu thriller film titled 100 Crores. However, this star doesn’t have his eyes set on the multi-crore box office, says Megha. “His superstars are Dr BR Ambedkar, Periyar, Kuvempu, Basava and the likes,” she expresses, while adding that Chetan always saw a friend in late actor Puneeth Rajkumar.
The actor celebrated his birthday in jail on 24 February. However, Megha is waiting to hug him as he walks out on bail and tell him, “I’m proud of you. I’m lucky to be part of this journey with you. Let’s hope more voices grow.”
(Pratiba Raman is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru.)