The Enduring Legend of Rajini

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Lingaa is a rollercoaster that hurtles to a stop, leaving fans craving bigger thrills, but there is no end in sight for the cult of Rajinikanth
Who is Rajinikanth? The question dangled like a marionette before digital eyes, waiting to be choreographed, toyed with, ripped to shreds. Posed earlier this year on Quora, an online platform that crowdsources answers, it inspired responses ranging from the pedantic to the parodic. Why ask a question that could crash the website’s servers, quipped a contributor with a mustachioed baby for a profile picture, echoing a Chuck Norris meme. Someone else copy- pasted a rudimentary biography in good faith even as jokes thick with the superior scorn of cultural pundits flew like so many goons thwacked by the action king. One thing was clear. Everyone knew Rajinikanth; no one knew Rajinikanth.

Rajinikanth’s rise to stardom is a paranormal event in the history of Tamil cinema, like crop circles or strange radio noise. Sum up his exaggerated mannerisms, defying not just the laws of physics —and at the age of 64, biology—but also the industry’s comfortable assumptions of rosy beauty and accurate diction, and you still can’t put a finger on why people love Rajinikanth. “Someday, some astrologer or scientist will find out why he became a star. And the world will make sense again,” jokes an actor who has enjoyed a ringside view of Rajnikanth’s dizzying career. Early on, his former mentor, K Balachander, the ailing filmmaker who launched him in Apoorva Ragangal (‘Rare Ragas’, 1975), was stumped by the Rajinikanth phenomenon. A stickler for diction and modulation, he had demanded perfection from his actors, onstage and in cinema. Until Rajinikanth came along. “I could never make him follow my rules. His was a peculiar type of dialogue delivery. It went against the grammar as I saw it,” Balachander, who directed him in nine Tamil films, said. “He broke my rules and made some new ones. And I happened to get the credit. I just exposed his facets as much as I could to the world. He went beyond that and became something else, a star of his own making.” Balachander knew the actor’s limitations and gave him short dialogues that he could deliver with panache through gritted teeth, as was his style. He employed sharp close- ups, exploiting Rajini’s speed, his abrupt movements and his irreverent style to sow the seeds of an image-building exercise that has lasted 40 years.

An ageing Rajinikanth, saddled with this image, is a lone star who cannot, at any cost, go gently into the night, leaving a generation of fans groping in the dark. Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a coolie and a bus conductor in a previous life in Bangalore, is arguably the brightest star in the Indian cinematic firmament today. But watching the first show of Lingaa at a multiplex in Bangalore, I get the sense of a rollercoaster hurtling to a stop even as his fans—mostly men under 35—hanker for bigger thrills. The film opens with Rajinikanth as the eponymous thief, flicking not just jewellery but an entire scene from How to Steal a Million, an Audrey Hepburn heist comedy from 1966. He slurs a ridiculous excuse for his wayward acts: his grandfather Lingeshwaran, played by a Rajinikanth whose wardrobe can put Arpita Khan’s trousseau to shame, used up his royal wealth to build a dam for the people of his village, depriving his son of an inheritance. Now the grandson, on the run from police, finds himself in Solaiyur, where a saga of good and evil is about to unravel, just as it did 75 years ago. A revealing flashback— its ghastly anachronisms will do the rounds of Twitter for weeks to come— persuades Lingaa not to exact the precious revenge of a wronged successor. He goes on to thwart an act of terrorism in the village while saving the bridge and his girl, all in one fell swoop from a hot air balloon. The audience, by now, is visibly vexed at Rajini’s arm’s-length romances with leading ladies less than half his age. The villains, a Tamil-speaking Englishman and a Hindi-spouting politician, are caricatures, and Lingaa, with all his makeup, is a travesty to the angsty Surya of Thalapathi and the Baasha whose angelic smile as he is tied to a pole and flogged in public view evoked Biblical imagery.

Perhaps it is the vicarious fantasy of this larger-than-life existence that appeals to fans, says Sadanand Menon, a film writer and journalist. “Enthiran (2010) could have been his swan song. Even then, his image was so big that his character had to multiply himself a thousand times to satisfy consumer demand. Now, filmmakers are left with no choice but to simply pluck him out of reality. In the past, he has played characters who were poor or who dealt with caste issues. The last 10 films or so, he has bid goodbye to all that. It is about pure entertainment now,” Menon says. The film itself has receded to the background, and the star now occupies centrestage.

There is something intangible about Rajini and the way he makes everything seem right with the world that sets him apart from the rest, say fans. “He truly entertains; his charisma and swagger make you look past logic, reason and substance. The real question is, why do so many people suspend disbelief for Rajinikanth like they do for no one else? And that is a question that has no answer,” says Kaushik Nadadhur, a Bangalore- based software engineer and a film buff.

The answer, not to be found in the trademark swish of his towel, is woven into the skein of ideals that Rajinikanth wears about him in real life. Conspicuously absent from Lingaa are the superstar’s preposterous punch lines and mannerisms—except for three scenes where he twists a lock of his hair in contemplation—that are said to make or break the prospects of a film. But director KS Ravikumar is unfazed. “We felt it was not needed. More than an actor, he is a good human being. Slowly people have realised that. The character of Lingaa, who gives away his riches to the people, wouldn’t have suited any other actor. Rajini sir has earned an image like that,” he says. “Lingaa, in that sense, is almost a living character.”

Rajinikanth the man has remained unchanged in the past 20 years that he has known him, Ravikumar says. In 1994, at a private screening of Sakthivel, the director’s ninth Tamil film, in Chennai’s AVM Studios, a lone man sat silhouetted against the screen. It was Rajini. He did not speak till the film was over. And then he grabbed Ravikumar by the hand and asked him, “How did you wrap this film up in 23 days? You are a rakshasan (demon).” The two soon teamed up for Muthu (1995), a commentary on the Zamindari system peppered liberally with political lines. Ravikumar would stretch the political subtext in Lingaa where Rajini’s sidekicks beseech him to go to Parliament or to become “a PM, a CM or a governor”.

Ahead of directing Rajinikanth in Sivaji (2007), Shanmugam Shankar, one of India’s leading filmmakers, nervously asked Ravikumar what ‘type’ of a man the superstar was. “I laughed. He is like a child. He has a golden heart, I told him,” Ravikumar says. The formidable aura of a superstar, contrasted with his offscreen personality as an average Joe who appears unkempt, leads a Spartan life and makes spiritual sojourns to the Himalayas, has grown into a full-blown sensation spanning a cross-section of viewers. “People want real heroes they can look up to. Rajini sir is the only one who doesn’t act offscreen,” says Abirami Ramanathan, managing director of Abirami Mega Mall in Purasawalkam, Chennai, and a film distributor. “He is the James Bond of Tamil Nadu, doing impossible things, but he is also sending a moral message through his pictures, whether it is faith in God or respect towards one’s mother.”

When Ramanathan co-produced Bloodstone, a low-budget 1988 Hollywood film, Rajinikanth was excited about reaching a wider audience even if he only spoke halting English. “His English was not so good and we hired a tutor for him from the American consulate. He learnt in just six or seven days,” Ramanathan says. “He didn’t worry about how he would look onscreen speaking English.”

“He has influenced people to be good and to do better,” says R Rajaji Maran, 46, an auto driver from Mylapore, Chennai, who gave up smoking when Rajinikanth stopped flicking cigarettes onscreen. “So many of us learnt family values after watching Rajini sir’s movies. We do not perform the ritual of paal abhishekam (a milk bath performed on cutouts of popular stars across south India); we organise free lunches for the needy instead.” Would Maran, who supports a family of four, including his two teenage daughters, like to see his idol play a father? “If he plays older roles, he may not draw young audiences,” he worries. According to Ramanathan, viewers between the ages of 15 and 30 form the largest theatre-going segment. Families may go out to watch a film over the weekend, but they are largely devoted to TV, he says.

A Rajinikanth film is entertaining because he loves acting and gets immersed in the role, says SP Muthuraman, a filmmaker who directed the superstar in 25 films. “He has to digest the subject first. Until he is clear about the character, he will keep asking questions. After that, performance is easy,” he says. The Rajini-Muthuraman duo tasted commercial success with hits like Murattu Kaalai (‘Rogue Bull’, 1980) and Nallavanukku Nallavan (‘Good Man for Good Man’, 1984), but when they occasionally veered off the beaten track, the results sparkled. Their first collaboration, Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri (‘Bhuvana is a Question Mark’, 1977), was a signpost in Rajinikanth’s career, marking his transition from a vulgar villain to a hero. In Netrikkan (‘The Third Eye’, 1981), Rajinikanth would essay the dual roles of a rapist father and his son who redeems him. “People who say Rajinikanth’s repertoire is narrow haven’t watched films like Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai (‘From Six to Sixty’, 1979) and Engeyo Ketta Kural (‘A Voice Heard Somewhere’, 1982). These were family films loaded with sentiment. And they won him a female audience,” Muthuraman says.

In a misogynistic industry where the hero is rarely matched by a woman of equal calibre, Rajinikanth, in the 1999 blockbuster Padayappa, ensured that Ramya Krishnan’s vengeful Nilambari would remain unforgettable. “He essentially sketched out her character,” says Ravikumar, who directed the film. “She remains unrelenting till her last breath. When I agreed to the story, he told me he had taken it to other directors who advised him against going with it. I believed in him and he believed in the story and that is all that mattered.”

“Rajinikanth was happy to see his co-stars come up. When we were shooting Guru Sishyan (1988), he gave up some fight scenes for his co-star Prabhu. Who does that?” Muthuraman asks. “The reason he is a superstar is because of his humanity. Victory did not come easy to him,” says the filmmaker, whose Manithan (‘The Human’, 1987), was inspired by Rajinikanth.

Rajini is the rightful heir to MGR’s righteous cinematic legacy. But he also represents a dangerous dream, says Menon. “Without being overtly political like MGR, he hints at a supra-politics that is above democracy. His characters are often victims of the system and they supersede structure to deliver justice in their own way. In his films there is a sense of hankering for a political monolith,” he says.

The convoluted politics of Rajinikanth and his popularity must be viewed in the context of Tamil Nadu’s history, says K Hariharan, a filmmaker and a professor. “MGR had championed the so-called utopia for the Tamil people and the people felt grossly betrayed when Dravidian leaders capitulated to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. This paved the way for Rajinikanth to emerge as the countercultural alternative. He was an MGR icon turned upside down. Whatever MGR was, Rajinikanth was not,” Hariharan says. Where MGR has been fair and curly-haired, Rajini was dark and uncouth; he smoked, drank and swore, and the audience loved it. “Had any other male star of some repute hit the screens at the time, he would have emerged an icon,” he says. As Rajini became the antithesis to MGR, another Balachander protégé, the much- heralded Kamal Hassan, staked claim to Sivaji Ganesan’s throne. Between 1976 and 1986, each of them made a hundred films. After sharing screen space in several films, they had made a calculated decision not to act together again. “They made a deal that every time a producer signed one of them, he would have to sign the other the next time around. Rajini and Kamal were post- colonial heroes, exalted to stardom by fans who got from them the emotional software to transit from the Dravidian era to the modern age,” Hariharan says.

Neither of them was a completely self- made star, and this is why they never endorsed products, Hariharan says. “They knew these images were given to them by their fans. There was no way they are going to sell their respect and regard for a product; they would use their fan base only to endorse their own myth,” he says. Rajinikanth’s films in particular keep self-referencing his body of work in a way that is extremely mythological. He is his own whetstone and he has spawned a new heroism in Tamil cinema. “Because of Rajini, everybody who wants to become a mass hero today has to have an astonishingly larger-than-life image,” says Baradwaj Rangan, film critic for The Hindu newspaper. “His is a unique case. Hollywood action heroes like Sylvester Stallone are a joke today, but Rajini gives his fans what they want and he still has crores of rupees riding on him,” Rangan says. “He is the only superstar who comes without an expiry date.”

Rajinikanth was also the first dark- skinned hero with the confidence to romance a Sridevi or a Gautami. And he made a cult out of it, singing songs that celebrated his skin tone. “He was the cloud that rained on Tamil cinema, and after him, there was a rainbow of diversity,” says Arul Murugan, 26, a management student from Madurai and a fan of Rajinikanth’s son-in-law, actor Dhanush. “We all hope that Dhanush inherits superstar Rajini’s mantle.”

No matter how big a star, Rajini would bum a beedi off a lightman and stand up to greet anyone who was introduced to him. “He never forgot the old times,” says Kavithalayaa Krishnan, an actor who has worked under Balachander for over three decades. Krishnan met a gangly, young Shivaji Rao for the first time at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, where Balachander was shooting the opening scene of Apurva Ragangal. “We got introduced and he preferred to speak in Tamil rather than English. We shared a cigarette and I wished him good luck,” he says. After a fortuitous meeting a few months after, Krishnan would drop him on his two-wheeler to the Music Academy bus stop. “Years later, when he recognised me at a shoot, I was hesitant, but he said, ‘I never forget my khaki shirt and my friends. You bought me a cigarette and wished me luck on my first shoot, how can I forget that?’ My sister, who witnessed the scene, was in tears,” Krishnan says. “Rajini’s lack of pretensions is a key reason for his popularity.”

Muthuraman quotes a kural—a couplet by Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar—that he says best describes Rajinikanth’s celebrity: Ullathal poiyathu ozhugin ulagathar Ullathul ellam ulan (One who is sincere at heart will find a place in people’s hearts).