The riddle posed by Kannada screen icon Rajkumar in his cult English song If You Come Today is impossible to answer. Nearly everyone who has heard the song, which was hugely popular when it came out and has endured in the public imagination, has tried to crack it.

Might the movie to which the track belongs hold some clues? Operation Diamond Racket (1978), directed by Dorai Ram and SK Bhagwan, is the last in a series of James Bond knock-offs starring Rajkumar. Time is of utmost essence to the plot. Secret agent 999, also known as Prakash (Rajkumar), has to be in the right time at the right place if he has to successfully stop a smuggling racket involving the precious stones. After following a trail laden with physical combat and ample car chases, Prakash continues his search for the kingpins all the way to Nepal (where, fortunately, everyone speaks Kannada.)

If You Come Today is the first tune in a movie in which every song nudges the screenplay forward. Prakash poses as a pop singer so that he can lurk around smuggler David (Tiger Prabhakar), who is waiting for a female colleague to pass on details of a consignment. The song is meant to distract everyone and fix a recorder under David’s table. Meanwhile, Prakash’s partner is sitting outside the restaurant in a car transcribing notes from the recorder.

With a white microphone in his hand and dressed in a red bow tie and a waistcoat, Prakash (Rajkumar sings the song himself), declares: “If you come today, it is too early. If you come tomorrow, it’s too late. You pick the time.” Prakash imitates the clock ticking before dismissing morning, noon and evening as potential answers.

Is tonight, then, the answer? Could be, but one never knows.

The mood of the song is anticipatory, since Prakash is actually addressing David’s colleague. The timing of her arrival is crucial – it has to be after the recorder is fixed and before the song ends. When she finally enters the restaurant, Prakash anoints her arrival with a dramatic “Daarliiiing.”

Very few actors have been as versatile as Rajkumar. He has shown as much versatility in his choice of roles as the songs he has sung. Much of the cult appeal of If You Come Today is a result of Rajkumar’s rendition. The English is laced with a thick Kannada accent, and GK Venkatesh’s composition, with lyrics by Udaya Shankar, is a perfect merger of Hollywood and Sandalwood.

Only Prakash knows the answer to the riddle he has posed, but for fans of the song, any time is a good time for If You Come Today.

Operation Diamond Racket (1978).