A renowned theater personality, Karnad worked predominantly in South Indian cinema and in Bollywood. He was a Rhodes scholar in the 1960s and earned a master of arts degree in philosophy, political science and economics, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
President Ram Nath Kovind said with Karnad's demise India's cultural world has become poorer. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Karnad will be remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums. Karnad received India's top literary prize, the Jnanpith Award, and two national awards, the Padma Shri in 1974 and Padma Bhushan in 1992, for his body of work. His plays, written in the Kannada language, were translated into English and several Indian languages.
Karnad made his acting as well as screenwriting debut in 1970 in the Kannada film "Samskara." The movie won the Indian president's Golden Lotus Award for Kannada cinema. He was popular on television as well, especially for playing a role in "Malgudi Days." He also hosted a science magazine, "Turning Point," on state-run television in the early 1990s.
He made his directorial debut with "Vamsha Vriksha," a Kannada-language movie that won a National Film Award for best direction along with B.V. Karanth, who co-directed the film. Karnad directed nearly a dozen movies in the Kannada and Hindi languages.
He championed freedom of expression and condemned violent attacks on journalists or critics of religious superstition and extreme Hindu nationalist politics. Karnad was one of 200 writers who appealed to people to "vote out hate politics" in April-May national elections.
In 1992, he condemned the demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu radicals in the northern town of Ayodhya that triggered the worst communal rioting in India in decades. Karnad is survived by his widow, one son and one daughter.