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Actor's Death Prompts Rioting in India

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Bangalore, India, distraught fans of an Indian film icon smashed cars, burned busses, and fought with police, as thousands gathered for his funeral. Raj Kumar, a revered actor, and one of southern India's best-loved figures, died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 77. Today was the second day of trouble in Bangalore, in connection with his death.

We're joined on the line from New Delhi by NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves. And first tell us about the violence, and why--for a movie actor, rather than, say, a politician-any violence would break out?

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, the violence does appear quite serious. The police have called in reinforcements. They've been firing teargas and beating rioters back with sticks. This is a very large crowd, we're talking about tens of thousands, if not more than that-who assembled to watch Raj Kumar being carried through the streets in a transparent coffin, to a cremation site.

Why they would riot for an actor, rather than a politician, isn't absolutely clear. But, it's a very large number of people, it's hot, and it's very emotional, and I think these are big factors.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us, then, about Raj Kumar--big star.

REEVES: Big star, yes, an icon in that part of India. He's a star in movies in India's Kannada language. He's made more than 200 of them. He's seen by many as a role model, a kind of sage, and I think the large crowds that we're seeing today, are a reflection of the huge admiration he was held in this part of India.

MONTAGNE: Well, I gather he didn't smoke and, sort of, lived a good life.

REEVES: Yeah, he has a reputation of being a, you know, a role model, an aesthete, and something of a community leader. And, his death is being considered, in India, as a matter of national importance-not just regional importance. It's dominating the headlines, and in fact, the viewers of one television news channel have been lighting candles for him.

MONTAGNE: And, one other thing about him, in recent years-he made news a few years ago when he was kidnapped by a bandit, who was also quite famous in his own way.

REEVES: Yeah, this made international news in the year 2000. He was taken hostage and held for three months in the jungle by the bandit, Veerappan. Veerappan was, some years later, shot by the police. But he emerged unharmed, much to the relief of his multitude of fans-who are out today to mourn his death.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, very much, Philip.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves, in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.