Meeting Sivaji is the best thing that has happened in my life," says Raghunandan of Tamil film superstar Rajnikanth.
"Yes, I still refer to him as Sivaji, his original name," says the associate director, who has worked in more than 100 Kannada films.
Raghunandan's association with Rajni dates back to the late 1960s when they enrolled at the Adyar Film Institute, Chennai, together to learn filmmaking. Rajni was his classmate as well as Kannada actor Ashok, directors Amar Mullah and Ravindranath.
There were four separate batches for acting -- one each in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Rajni was in the Kannada batch. Nataraj, the director of Valli, and actor Sathish, who did many Tamil and Kannada films, were in the Tamil batch, while actress Hema Choudhary was in the Telugu batch. Chiranjeevi, the Telugu superstar, was a year junior to Rajni.
Raghunandan recalled all the students of the Kannada batch coming to Chennai with the sole ambition of becoming actors though they faced stiff opposition from their parents and relatives.
"With little support from our homes, we led a life of struggle, often doing menial jobs to earn extra money," he says. "The fact that we had just one meal a day did not disappoint us as we were hungry to achieve something more in life.
"Rajni shared and cared for all of us. With what little money he had, he bought food for all of us. I was working in a hotel in the evenings and I used to bring the remaining food from the hotel after midnight. Even after he tasted success, Rajni continued his friendship with Raghu and others. All of us were very happy for Rajni. We were there for his wedding. We were also invited for all the functions that took place at his garden residence.
"He has a special guest room for us and his childhood friends from Bangalore like Raj Bhahadur, the driver, Prakash from Karnataka Bank, Rajanna of the Milk Dairy and so on. He was extremely happy to have us in his house.
"Recently, I went to his house along with Raj Bahadur for a religious function. The moment his wife saw us, she told us Sivaji would be very happy to see us.
"He has no starry airs about him at all, more so after he became spiritual. He always talks to us about the sanyasis.I know Sivaji will not like me talking about this incident but I have to.
"You know something, he made Valli to help out his friends.Nataraj was the director of Valli. I also worked in the film along with Ashok, Ravindranath, Amar Mullah and many others. Even his childhood friends were there in the film.
"Rajni also shared the profit with all his friends, that is the kind of man he is. All of us got around Rs 2 lakh each, which was kept in a UTI deposit. I am earning interest from this deposit even now.
"But he is one man who says all the time that it is a sin to publicise help given to others. Our friendship has lasted more than four decades and I am grateful to god for giving me a friend like Sivaji!"