This post is a reply I gave to a fellow journalist based in New Delhi who asked me to explain Rajinikanth (includes some strong portions that I deliberately chose not to give)
I’m not exactly a fanatic but I have to say there is something about the way he looks that attracts people to him, almost like a magnet. I have seen about 90% of his movies (including the black and white ones) and there are certain things that most people agree on: the man CANNOT dance, his onscreen persona — at least in the post 90s era — has been largely preachy, blatantly patriarchal, tilting towards the spiritual and sometimes very cringeworthy. But the audience loved it. And he delivered punchlines like none other. He still does to some extent. His signature walk, the way threw a cigarette and caught it between his lips (he’s replaced it with a chewing gum now to cultivate a more responsible image), and his natural timing for comedy made him a perfect package for most directors. But above all, and this is my personal view, I think he was able to channel a rage that was prevalent among many men of his generation and put it into his characters. He was Tamil cinema’s Angry Young Man. And naturally the perfect choice to essay Amitabh Bachchan’s roles in Tamil remakes of his films.
Rajinikanth was the underdog, the voice of the subaltern (finally got to use this word!), the man of the masses. He was and continues to be the paragon of simplicity for many. That goes for both his onscreen and offscreen avatar. And Tamil people love a rags-to-riches story. They embraced him without question. They have willingly tried offering their lives for him. They love the fact that he doesn’t pretend to be someone else when the camera is not rolling. That he refuses to wear a wig in public and avoids ostentatious clothing appeals all the more to the common man. His ways of dealing with the most powerful people in the State have been nothing short of epic. On the professional front, he has always expressed himself as a “director’s actor”, is never considered a control freak, and has always been respected for his punctuality and commitment to shooting schedules — something that is found rarely in today’s generation of actors and actresses.
As he transitioned from being cast as a villain to a hero, he was slowly molded into a larger-than-life protagonist (he otherwise, almost always, played second fiddle to Kamal Hassan) by directors like S.P. Muthuraman, P. Vasu, K.S. Ravikumar and later, Shankar. There was no going back. The man was an assured hit. There was no such thing as Rajinikanth fitting into a role anymore. He was the dazzling star, the rest — script, supporting roles simply needed to orbit around him. With every film came a king-size cutout of the man; fans would climb dangerous heights to worship his ‘idols’ with milk or even beer. There was too much at stake with every release and immense pressure to satisfy the raging crowd. They had to have their opium of Superstar’s swag.
I have, of course, experienced this high in theaters many times. All you have to do is wait for the opening credits.
The letters R-A-J-N-I scrawl out in their most familiar style, between ‘SUPER’ and ‘STAR’ which appear like a dot-matrix printer’s output. The Star Wars text crawl can go screw itself. Everything else in the universe gets blanked out for those 20-odd seconds. Goosebumps are induced, fingers turn into whistles, and any semblance of paper becomes confetti. The rest of the movie is just a joyride, probably like a hippie experiencing an incredibly good LSD trip. If you arrive inside the cinema hall on the first-day-first-show of a Rajini movie as a serious connoisseur, just head right back out the door. Dialogues get drowned in hooting and cheering, song sequences mean you break into a dance as well and the guy playing the baddie gets showered with a volley of your finest abuses. These are sacred templates that no one dares interfere with.
All this was a rabbit hole into which the actor Rajinikanth fell into somewhere during the course of finding immortality on celluloid. His onscreen persona has to have equal, if not more swag than the previous. If it doesn’t, like his last two releases (Kochadaiiyaan and Lingaa) or even the forgettable Baba, chaos prevails. His fans go home disappointed, their pilgrimage to the screen halted. His critics snigger, “how long can the old geezer fool people that he is young?”. Rajinikanth, the man, has to pacify theatre owners and producers. He has to compensate them for their losses. And probably head to the Himalayas and ponder over existential questions.
The writing on the wall is there for all to see. Rajini is as old as our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His wig on film has not greyed (until now at least) like he has in life. Consumers are now exposed to more quality entertainment than ever. And they have developed a taste for a bit of authenticity in their cinema too. Rajini’s angry-old counterpart in the north, meanwhile, is already a good ten years into playing age-appropriate roles. So why not him too?
Kabali‘s director Pa Ranjith comes as a breath of fresh air in these troubled times for thalaivar. He says he wants to bring back the actor that is Rajinikanth as he saw him in the 1978 film Mullum Malarum (Ranjith had not even been born then) while simultaneously satisfying his army of fans. Personally, I think his ambitions are far-fetched. Mullum Malarum marked an important transition in Rajini’s life. He was not the cunning villain anymore. But he wasn’t the good guy either. He was the oppressed, fighting a battle against existing systems dominated by the fair-skinned bosses. Strangely, that same battle played out against him as the film was being produced. The financier who belonged to a class of businessmen was dead against a dark-skinned man being the central character of the film. The director persisted, saying no one else will do. Rajini’s heart had already sunk by then. His salary of Rs.13,000/- wasn’t of primary concern anymore. The performance had to be all or nothing. We know how that turned out in the end.
In 2016, Rajini has little to lose. The yardstick set by his previous two flops seems unprecedented in an otherwise legendary career. There is really nothing to prove anymore. And yet, the juggernaut rolls on.
The pre-booking slots for the film have opened a week ahead of its release and have sent servers crashing. One of my colleagues, a man in his 50s who sits next to me, was surprised by my attempts to somehow get a reservation. “It’s surprising,” he said. “I could understand the frenzy Rajini caused when his film released during my time. But even now … ?”
I guess that somehow explains why Rajini is what he is.