Vijay Age: 38 Nickname Ilayathalapathi (young commander) Biggest hits Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, Ghilli, Nanban, and Thuppakki What makes him click Complete package: Comedy, dance, fights Why producers are betting on him A mass hero, with a fan base across age and gender Fast facts Son of director/producer SA Chandrasekhar, campaigned for AIADMK Punch line “Oru Vatti Mudivu Pannitenna En Peacha Nane Kekkamaten”—Pokkiri (Once I’ve made a decision, I won’t even listen to disagreement from myself)
Superstar yarunu kaeta chinna kozhandayum sollum (If you ask who the superstar is, even a small child will tell you) - from a song in Raja Chinna Roja
I am a little star, aaven naan superstar (I will become a superstar) - from a song in Samsara Sangeetham
There was a time in Tamil Nadu when these two songs would blare from every other tea shop loudspeaker, on All India Radio programmes (like Neyar Viruppam, or ‘Audience Choice’), and on tape recorders in drawing rooms across the state. There were no similarities between the two, either in tune or in setting. One featured Rajinikanth, the undisputed superstar, and the other a five-year-old boy, the son of an ambitious producer, director and actor. But the first lines of both songs captured a reality and an aspiration that defined Tamil cinema in 1989, the year those films hit the screens.
And they capture the reality today, 23 years later: Rajinikanth is still the superstar, and it’s every actor’s dream to inherit the title from him.
Much is promised to the winner. Superstardom means the extreme affection of the people. In May 2011, when Rajinikanth was hospitalised, many of his fans cried and went without food for days, praying for his recovery. There were special pujas in temples and at homes.
Superstardom also means immense political influence. Even though Rajinikanth has kept himself out of politics in the last several years, many remember how his campaign in 1996 dethroned Jayalalithaa. (His famous line, ‘Even God cannot save Tamil Nadu if the AIADMK returns to power’, went viral, just like the ones he delivers on screen.)
It also means national recognition. While most Tamil stars are hardly known outside the southern states, Rajini is well known across the country, and even in a few overseas markets (he has a huge fan following in Japan). His fame seems to be only growing, says SP Muthuraman, who has worked with Rajinikanth in 25 films. And, of course, it means wealth: Rajinikanth gets Rs 35 crore for a movie, according to at least four people in the industry.
Rajinikanth is still the undisputed No. 1 in Tamil cinema. But things have changed too. Despite what the innumerable jokes—or the kind of roles that he takes up in movies—suggest, he is getting older: He is 62. He is not doing as many films as he used to. In the year Raja Chinna Roja was released (1989), he acted in six other movies. Now, he takes up one project in two-three years. His next film, Kochadaiyaan, is an animation feature. While no one suggests the Rajini phenomenon has run its course, talk about who will occupy his throne once he vacates it is getting louder in his adopted home state. (Rajini is a Maratha. His original name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad).
This is not the first time that the topic has come up. Several names have popped up in the past, including Vijayakanth, Karthik (son of yesteryear actor R Muthuraman) and Prabhu (son of Sivaji Ganesan). Rajini outran all his prospective successors. Vijayakanth and Karthik have launched political parties; Prabhu plays supporting roles.
In theory, any of the top actors have a chance of claiming the title. Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vikram are at the top rung. On the rung below are Dhanush and Silambarasan—both relatively young and still in the process of establishing their fan base. Vikram has delivered a number of hits, but lacks the base that the top three have.
Image: Venkat Ram
Forbes India Celebrity 100 No. 28
Suriya Age:37 Biggest hits: Kaakha Kaakha, Ghajini, Singam and 7aum Arivu What makes him click Variety of roles. Something new in every film Why producers are betting on him Popular among female fans. Popular in Telugu market too. Fast facts Son of actor Sivakumar. Married to actress Jyotika. Fitness freak signature line “Ongi adicha onra ton weight da. Paathirukiya?”—Singam (If I hit, it comes with the force of one-and-a-half tonnes. Have you seen it?)
Kalpathi Aghoram, whose AGS Entertainment has produced movies such as Santosh Subramaniam, Madrasapattinam and Maattraan, says there’s no doubt about who the top three are: Vijay, Ajith and Suriya. “It’s the name that sells in Tamil cinema. If you have a Vijay or a Suriya or an Ajith, you can be sure it will have some audience. Distributors pay us not for the content, not for aesthetics, not for screenplay. They pay for the actors. And right now, these three rule.”
It takes enormous amounts of determination—or money—to get tickets to their movies on opening day. While the adulation is not as intense as it is for Rajinikanth—lighting camphor, pouring milk on cut-outs—it’s impossible to miss the celebration around the movie releases of these stars if you are in Tamil Nadu.
Each also has several things going for him beyond onscreen performance. All three are considered to be ‘good’ people. Vijay has converted all his fan clubs into social service centres and encourages his fans to do good. Suriya runs Agaram Foundation, which is into educating the poor.
So, who will win? To find out, we need to look at the one enduring framework into which actors have fitted through Tamil cinema history. During the growth phase, two actors dominated—MGR, the Charismatic Star and Sivaji Ganesan, the Actor. Both were immensely popular. They were seen as rivals, but they also complemented each other. Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth inherited these roles, almost by default. Haasan, who is as active as Rajinikanth, was interested in cinema as an art, was more open to experimentation in form (he did a silent film), and was willing to transform himself physically (he has played a dwarf, a man disguised as a woman, and a deformed person). And Rajini had all the characteristics of The Star. His mere presence made people come to the movies. Anirban Das Blah, who heads entertainment marketing firm Kwan, says if Haasan appealed to the head, Rajinikanth appealed to the heart.
Who will win? The answer gets easier when we ask who is likely to inherit Kamal Haasan’s position: The consensus is Suriya.
G Dhananjayan, chief of south business for UTV Movies says, “He almost occupied the slot of Kamal Haasan by being the mass and class hero. He is one actor who is loved by every family, after Vijay. However, like with Kamal, they expect something ‘different’ from each of his films to appreciate. If Suriya ends up doing films like Vijay, then it will be tough for him to satisfy his audience. If he does different and mass films like Ayan or Kaakha Kaakha, the audience will love him.”
That leaves Ajith and Vijay. Ajith, the King of Opening, has such a strong fan following that all his movies run to full houses for at least three days, irrespective of how good or bad they are. Another truism in Tamil cinema: Many Rajinikanth fans are also Ajith fans, not least because of the sentiments each has expressed for the other. When Billa (Don’s Tamil version that starred Rajinikanth) was remade, the role went to Ajith, and the movie was a huge success. But, at 40 plus, Ajith is also the oldest of the three.
Image: Venkat Ram
Forbes India Celebrity No. 61
Ajith Age: 41 Nickname: Thala (head) Biggest hits: Kadhal Kottai, Vali, Billa and Mankatha What makes him click Intensity Why producers are betting on him King of the opening weekend. His films run full house for the first three days. Fast facts Married to actress Shalini. Passionate about cars and bikes. Participated in Formula races. signature line “Ennoda nanbana irukka thagudhi venam. Aana, ennoda ethiri ya irukka thagudhi venum”—Billa 2 (You don’t need to be qualified to be my friend, but you need to be qualified to be my enemy)
Vijay looks more likely to occupy that slot. Dhananjayan says, “He has a mass fan following carefully established in the last 20 years. Like Rajini, he is loved by the family audience and has deep reach in smaller towns and villages. He is the true mass actor, like Rajini and Salman Khan. His weakness is his inability to carefully select stories and get involved in their making as Rajini is following, leading to multiple failures and then a hit film. So, if Vijay ends up getting solid and huge films like Baasha in his career, he will end up at the same slot, provided Rajini vacates it. As long as Rajini is acting, Vijay will remain at No. 2 and once he vacates, he will straightaway occupy that slot.”
Blah says Vijay still has a good 10 years ahead of him. This means Vijay could still deliver phenomenal hits, just like Rajinikanth has in the current phase of his career. But Vijay will also find that the throne is very different from the one Rajini occupied. There are three reasons. Two of them arise out of Rajini’s personality and one has to do with the time he occupied the throne.
The best way to define Rajinikanth is that he is impossibly charismatic. And he had charisma in oodles long before he became a star.
Raja Bahadur, Rajini’s friend since his days as a bus conductor in Bangalore, told Forbes India earlier about his presence when he acted in amateur plays: “Even when he was in one corner, it seemed as if he occupied the whole stage.” Film director SP Muthuraman said he could make out that he was “hero material” the moment he set eyes on him. (Rajini had just made his film debut, playing a small role in K Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal. He didn’t have conventional good looks; he was dark, plump, with a head full of untameable hair.)
Second, Rajinikanth’s name, to borrow a phrase used to describe the mathematical genius of Ramanujan, seems to ‘transcend jealousies’. Part of the reason could be the way he is seen off-screen. He dresses simply, never hides his age, and his jokes are self-deprecating. (“When I told a neighbour Aishwarya is acting in my next film, he asked, ‘Who’s the hero?’”.)
It also has to do with the dedication he puts into every movie, and the respect with which he treats his colleagues. Cho Ramaswamy, who has worked with Rajinikanth, says, “He is very co-operative, particularly with comedy actors like me. We would require somebody to throw a feeding line. He would do that willingly, obligingly and in fact, go about asking if we need anything.” Suresh Krissna, who directed Baasha, says he is a director’s delight.
But more importantly, his image, reputation and influence were built during pre-IPL, pre-internet, pre-satellite TV days when cinema was the prime, and often the only, source of entertainment. A movie rested on the charisma of the star.
That is changing, says Theodore Bhaskaran, who has written books on the history of Tamil cinema and society. Now there are directors who give importance to the content, the story and the screenplay. Audiences have changed too. They don’t see cinema just as entertainment. They want more: “The age of superstars is over,” he says.
Some time in the future, Vijay might end up occupying the slot left by Rajinikanth. But, he will never replace him. No one can!