Rajinikanth, thalaiva (leader) to millions of fans, is an enigma that can’t be decoded. With the 50th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) getting ready to honour the superstar with a special ‘Icon of Golden Jubilee’ award, Pickle explains what makes Rajini the icon that he is
The amazing Rajinikanth story is no less fascinating than a movie script. There are multiple strands to the narrative, and each one of them can yield enough by way of drama to sustain a full-length feature.
What sets Rajinikanth apart is the fact that he is more than just another movie star idolized in a populous nation that loves its filmed entertainment. He is a true-blue phenomenon whose clout transcends boundaries of both land and language like a few things can in contemporary Indian pop culture.
One of the strands of the Rajinikanth saga pertains to the rags-to-riches tale of a Bangalore bus conductor who went on to become one of the greatest luminaries that Indian cinema has ever produced, a transformation that borders on the fantastical.
The other thread of the story relates to the emergence of the larger-than-life myth of a towering showbiz personality who commands unquestioning loyalty from a fan base that keeps growing steadily and spawning ever-new crops of Rajini-isms on the social media and elsewhere.
Rajini does not have Greek God good looks, nor does he have the height or physique to tower over everything else in a movie frame. Yet his screen presence is extraordinary. His flashy mannerisms, his flamboyant swagger, and his punchy one-liners add up to a totality that is beyond analysis.
It is next to impossible to put a finger on the exact reasons that make him such a peerless icon. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that Rajini himself has never made calculated career moves. He has merely gone along with the flow and ended up in a place where a few ever have.
For a man who has achieved the kind of sustained success that he has, he has his feet firmly planted to the ground – an attribute that immeasurably enhances his stature.
Unlike other Indian movie stars, Rajinikanth keeps his on-screen persona well removed from his real-life identity as a husband, father and grandfather. He rarely appears at public events, but exercises great influence on Dravidian culture and politics.
But his appeal is certainly not limited to the confines of Tamil Nadu and its cinema. His is a recognizable face across the country and in parts of the world where Tamil cinema has made inroads in recent years.
Who else but Rajinikanth could be at the receiving end of a musical tribute of the kind that Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan paid him in Chennai Express. The song, Lungi Dance, aimed at “all the Rajini fans”, became a chart-topper and continues to be a favourite with DJs around the country?
So confident is he of his fan following that when Rajinikanth appears in public, he does nothing at all to hide the tell-tale signs of age that a 69-year-old grandfather must necessarily live with.
At an event organized to launch the music of the science fiction epic Enthiran/Robot, he got up on the podium and narrated how he was mistaken for just another man in the crowd by onlookers in a Rajasthan village, where the film was being shot. He was hard pressed, he admitted in public, to convince fans who were milling around lead actress Aishwarya Rai that he was the hero of the film.
Nothing says more about Rajinikanth the man and the movie star than the kind of unassuming candour that he resorts to when talking about himself and his achievements. At times it is difficult to believe that a superstar who, with the fee that he got for Sivaji (2007), became the highest paid Asian movie actor after Jackie Chan has no starry airs whatever. Is he for real?
Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2000, Rajinikanth was named the recipient of the ‘Centenary Award’ for the ‘Indian Film Personality of the Year’ at the 45th International Film Festival of India in Goa. The well-deserved honour was bestowed on the megastar at the opening ceremony of the film festival on November 20. Five years on, at the 50th edition of IFFI, he receives another award to add to the trophies in his collection.
Rajinikanth’s acting career began nearly 40 years ago, with K Balachander’s
National Award-winning but controversial film Apoorva Raagangal (1975), in which the budding star played a small role as the abusive and long-lost husband of the film’s heroine. Kamal Haasan was the lead actor of Apoorva Raagangal.
Rajini’s next film was the Kannada-language Katha Sangama (1976), an offbeat omnibus film directed by Puttanna Kanagal. It was not until his mentor Balachander made Anthuleni Katha in Telugu that Rajini landed a pivotal role in a film. An even more prominent character came his way in Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976).
In the early years of his career, Rajini played largely negative roles, especially as a womanizer or a perfidious friend, in several Tamil and Telugu films. He graduated to essaying lead roles and appearing in a large number of films in the late 1970s, but his screen image as a dashing leading man began to crystallize only in the 1980s.
Who could have ever imagined that an actor who early in his career played, among other things, a village ruffian who rapes a blind girl, a man who nonchalantly lets his friend drowns so that he can marry the former’s girlfriend, and a pornographer who secretly films his wife in the act without her knowledge would turn into a screen superhero endowed with bionic powers?
Rajinikanth had 15 releases in 1977 and 20 in 1978. These films were made in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. He not only starred in many remakes of Mumbai hits of the 1970s and 1980s on the way to becoming the pivot of the Tamil cinema business, he also acted in several Hindi films without quite replicating his southern success.
This was a crazily frenetic period for the star. MGR had just bowed out of the movie industry to concentrate on politics. Rajini and his contemporary Kamal Haasan (he had 33 releases in 1978-79) moved into the breach. Rajinikanth, generous to a fault, has always praised Kamal Haasan for inspiring him with his professionalism.
His characteristic humility notwithstanding, there can be no denying that the box office clout that Rajini wields is unparalleled. While Kamal Haasan sought to experiment with his screen roles, taking on a wide array of characters in the 1980s and 1990s and earning the reputation of a thinking man’s movie star, Rajini focused on developing a screen persona with wide mass appeal.Both succeeded in their chosen endeavours.
In the 1990s, Rajini became such a commercial force that nobody in the Tamil movie industry could do without him. In 1991, Mani Ratnam cast him in Thalapathi, who co-starred Malayalam superstar Mammootty.
In the wake of the success of Thalapathi, films such as Annamalai, Mannan, Valli (for which the actor wrote his first screenplay), Muthu, Yejaman, Veera and Baasha, hit the screens in quick succession, catapulting Rajinikanth to a zone that nobody in Indian cinema history had ever penetrated.
His career experienced somewhat of a slump at the turn of the millennium when Baba, scripted by him, failed to deliver the goods at the box office. The distributors were left in the red as a result and, in an unprecedented
move, Rajini decided to make good the losses. After a brief hiatus, Rajini bounced back with Chandramukhi in 2005 and Sivaji in 2007.
The first time that Rajinikanth was labelled a ‘Superstar’ was in mid-1978, the year of Bairavi. Distributor S Dhanu put up a 40-foot cutout of Rajini at Plaza theatre in Madras.
The civic authorities ordered the cutout to be pulled down on the grounds it could pose a safety hazard on the road. Dhanu reinforced the cutout and so it stood right there, staring down on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
The man in the cutout quickly seared himself into the collective consciousness of Tamil movie fans. And that is where he continues
to be to this day.
At the fag-end of 2014, on December 12, his 64 th birthday, the Rajini starrer Lingaa, co-starring Sonakshi Sinha and Anushka Shetty, went head to head with Aamir Khan’s PK.
Rajinikanth, a year shy of 70, continues to be a box-office gale force. Between 2016 and 2019, the megastar delivered a string of hits – Pa. Ranjith’s Kabali and Kaala, S. Shankar’s 2.0 and Kartik Subbaraj’s Petta, which, until Bigil came along, was the highest grossing Tamil film ever. The latest Rajinikanth starrer Darbar, directed by A.R. Murugadoss, is slated for release on January 10, 2020.