If anyone can make Chuck Norris look like a one-roundhouse-kick wonder, it is the southern superstar Rajinikanth. He’s larger than life. His fans would have you believe, he created God when he smiled
It is not unknown for fans to fast before a Rajini release, as prayer to the Gods for success of his film. But, perhaps, in a part of the world that puts its film stars on very high pedestals, that’s not unusual. Try this.
If you could possibly wangle a first-day-first-show ticket to a Rajini starrer, you will witness something you won’t see in a movie theatre, ever.
Rajinikanth gets his very own credits styling. The screen will say ‘Superstar’, then his name will follow: ‘Rajini’ in English and then in Tamil, glowing in platinum. By the time your eyes adjust to the glare, you realise that you might also lose your hearing. Every member of the theatre audience is standing up, chanting ‘Thalaivar! Thalaivar!’ (which means ‘boss’ in Tamil). Then he will make his entrance: First you see the underside of his shoe; then dried leaves and debris will fly out of the way when the foot comes to earth. Then the camera moves above ground and pauses, looking up, as a supplicant would to the saviour. That’s when the noise in the theatre reaches a crescendo and… the credits pause. And you see, at the foot of the screen, the regional distributor, the multiplex manager, and a few other dignitaries, resplendent in crisp white veshtis, are standing with a priest, who begins to chant prayers. Which end with the men in veshtis holding out their right hands and performing an aarti by burning camphor on their palms.
Then the crowd will settle down and the film will continue. Chances are, you’ll see the signature moves: The finger pointing skyward, deft handiwork with the sunglasses (in older movies, you’d have seen the cigarette toss; he doesn’t smoke on screen now, though). You’ll see gravity-defying jumps and hordes of bad guys being done in. Through it all, nothing will dislodge the Superstar’s smile and sunglasses.
Rajinikanth’s story is straight out of the movies: Boy from the wrong side of the tracks makes it big. Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, he had a wild childhood and even wilder youth where his pranks got him into all kinds of trouble: He was thrashed by the cops for chasing girls and beaten by restaurant workers for trying to pass off an old six rupee bill for a table full of food that he and his gang had demolished. The tale of how he moved from bus conductor to stage to screen is too well know to retell. Suffice it to say that for all his hell-raising, there was a talent which his friends recognised and people noticed first on stage. His wild ways were temporarily tamed when playwright and director ‘Topi’ Muniappa offered him a chance to act in mythological moral plays. The story goes that he played the villainous Duryodhana so well, he was applauded by old men when he was ripping off Draupadi’s sarees.
Hindi cinema, which was yet to become Bollywood, was, like much of Indian cinema, entangled in social themes. South Indian cinema, especially, was dealing with morality issues, which was fantastic for a performer like Rajinikanth, because he played the villain with much glee (shades of this are visible even in his blockbuster hit Chandramukhi, where his demented, ‘Laka, laka, laka, laka’ still sends shivers down one’s spine). 16 Vayathinile (At the Age of 16) paved the way for unkempt villains who had a singularly disgusting laugh. Mithun Chakraborty ruled 80s Hindi cinema with the same brand of impossible heroics and made-for-the-front-row lines, and inspired similar devotion from his fans. But it took Rajinikanth to not just find the formula of punch-line-laden, impossible-action-packed movie persona, but to make it work for over three decades. And counting.
That he was talented was evident to the director K. Balachander, who offered him a 15-minute role as a drunkard in Apoorva Raagangal (Rare Melodies), a Kamal Haasan starrer. Rajini made an impact as the man who muddies the love story by announcing a prior claim to the affections of the heroine just before she admits her love to the hero.
His mentor/teacher at the film institute, Puttanna Kanagal, gave Rajini his first Kannada movie Katha Sangama (Collection of Stories), where he played a baddie, a man who rapes a blind girl. Rajini played negative roles with ease, and it was just such a villainous role that first offered him a chance to flick his cigarette in the air and flourish his sunglasses. The film was Moondru Mudichu (The Three Knots), in which he played the friend who creates trouble between Kamal Haasan and Sridevi. The movie became a hit and established Rajinikanth as a super villain.
Rajinikanth, Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in a movie meant registers ringing at the box office. But Rajini was restless. He wanted to taste success in Bollywood as well. And though he worked with Amitabh Bachchan and other major stars, the Punjabi lobby dominated Hindi cinema. Dark-skinned Rajini chose wisely, and returned to his millions of fans. But note this: His Billa, an almost frame-by-frame copy of the Bachchan starrer Don, made more at the box office than the original. Billa, in fact, marked the beginning of the Rajini cult. It was clear from here on that he could carry the weight of a movie by himself.
What’s his secret? How does this 60-year-old grandfather, who makes no attempt to conceal the fact that the little hair he has left is very grey, transform miraculously — and credibly — into a limber young chap with a full head of shiny black hair, who wears jeans and whips up bad guys as easily as he polishes his sunglasses?
Partly, it is the focus. After his initial experimentation, he did not attempt to stretch his range, as with the thespian grandstanding of his illustrious contemporary and great friend, Kamal Haasan. He stuck to what he did best, and made that all his own. (Recently, he said that the two of them had struck a gentlemen’s agreement to not cannibalise on each other’s territory.) He wanted to hear the chants of ‘Adhirudhile!’ (‘Rocking!’) from the cheap seats, and he worked hard to ensure that he kept earning it.
Partly, he’s a nice guy, someone who pays his dues, with a sense of responsibility. Like when Valli and Baba failed to bring in expected profits, he returned the money to the distributors who had made a loss, earning their loyalty forever.
Partly, it’s the simplicity of his image, the impossible, uncomplicated heroics that give the man on the street something to cheer. Like splitting an oncoming bullet into two with his knife, dodging both split halves, then smiling as each half hits a different baddie and his knife plunges into the heart of the man with the gun. Or how about saving the heroine, who is strapped to an electricity transformer, by running faster than electrical current after a vengeful villain switches the electricity on.
Certainly the whiplash actions, the mannerisms, the gimmicks, if you will, contribute to memorability.
But face it, there is no film school theory that explains why he can make the viewer not just suspend disbelief but chop it into little pieces, set fire to the remains and stomp on the ashes. There is no intellectual explanation for why the corny rhyming punch lines are such a hit.
Purely and simply, Rajinikanth makes the whole package work. Only he can.
That’s why there are thousands of dedicated fan sites, whose members would rend you limb from limb should you even think about dissing the Superstar.
That’s why even today, the script, the story, the dramatic lines, the costumes of a Rajinikanth movie — they’re all treated like a national security issue. Fan clubs go into frenzy at the slightest hint of a leak and with every movie Rajini and his producers laugh all the way to the bank.
That’s why when Kuselan, not as big a hit as Baasha or Padayappa, was shown across the USA, the candy giant M&M made specially-coloured bites of joy to be made into giant posters of the star; M&Ms were distributed to kids and his fans stampeded the halls as though it was the last show on Earth. In Japan, he is the ‘Dancing Maharaja’ — and to this day busloads of Japanese tourists stop by his Poes Road home in Chennai to take pictures. In Malaysia and Mauritius people expect to be granted leave from work when his movies release.
Applause? Sample this: In Baasha, he’s just asked his brother to step away from the action. The row of thugs is behind him. They drag swords and sickles and what have you from behind and advance towards him. He does not turn around; he’s seething mad though. And just when you think he will be diced by those swords, he bends down and pulls apart a hand pump and with the remains, proceeds to beat them all up, one thug after another, then he ties up the honcho to the lamp-post and beats him to pulp. With the light behind him making him look like some avenging God, he raises his finger and the whole theatre screams: ‘Naan oru dhadavai sonna, nooru dhadavai sonna maadiri!’ (If I say it once, it is like saying it a hundred times!)
It doesn’t matter whether you are originally from north of the Vindhyas, you find yourself whistling and stomping your feet, pretending there are villains there, crushed!
What’s next for Thalaivar? Will he, like so many film stars of the South, move into politics? He’s certainly a thinking man, and fans have admired his plunging into issue-based responses, like fasting during the Cauvery water division fight between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But he has kept his followers guessing. ‘Yesterday I was a bus conductor,’ he said, ‘Today, an actor. Tomorrow who knows?’
Perhaps it will be spirituality that takes over. Despite the ever-growing bank account, he only seems to get more humble each year. Not for him the carefully publicised temple visit photo-ops of the Bollywood brigade. People who know him say he goes on pilgrimages and visits temples disguised as a beggar. (And, a possibly apocryphal story goes, he is so convincing that once a woman pressed some money into his hands. When she realised who the mendicant really was, she apologised. Rajini, they say, kept the note as a reminder and as a reward for his acting skill.)
Or will he just keep being Rajini?
His Endhiran (in theatres October 1) released a trailer that was shown in a special 10 a.m. screening. Tickets cost Rs. 70. It was sold out. A trailer. Could anyone else command such a following?
I can bear witness that his star power is intact. There was this time I was in Chennai, and was headed to the airport to catch a flight. But my cab ran into a massive traffic jam. Apparently the cops had blocked off the road because the then-Chief Minister was to land in an hour or so, and it had been deemed essential that her road home be kept clear by simply not allowing any other traffic to move. Certain I’d miss my flight, I was panicking.
Image: Babu / Reuters
Fans pour milk on a huge cutout of Rajinikanth after the release of his movie Sivaji in Chennai
That’s when I saw the man himself, talking to the police about three or four cars ahead. They didn’t relent. So Rajini simply stepped out of the car, took out a pack of cigarettes, lit one and sat on the bonnet. Within minutes, the road kept empty for the CM was swarming with people who had come out of nowhere. Clearly the black-caped lady would have as much of a wait as the rest of us. The policemen knew what was good for them. They pleaded with him to get back in and waved him and quite a few other cars through, my cab included. I made my flight, thanks to Rajinikanth.