Sensation

The Last Indian Superstar

Lakshmi Chaudhry has worked at or written for almost every liberal rag in the United States, from the Village Voice to Salon.com to the Nation. She currently lives in Bangalore where she's working on getting a life.
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The secret of Rajini’s mass appeal is that he’s a true celluloid hero, not a multiplex megabrand like Shah Rukh or the latter-day Amitabh.

The media hullabaloo surrounding a new Rajinikanth movie inevitably follows the same pattern. Endhiran, aka Robot, is no different. Breathless paeans to his awesome star power? Check. Wide-eyed enumeration of his brand value and net worth? De rigeur bemusement at his balding, dark-skinned appeal? Snickering stories of adoring fans acting suitably deranged? Check, check, check. The media hype surrounding Rajinikanth is every bit as phenomenal as the man himself. Yet much of it dances around the obvious: what is the great secret of his inexplicable allure? And carefully ignores the inconvenient: Rajinikanth may well be our last true superstar.

On the cover of Rajinikanth’s sole biography, The Name is Rajinikanth, is a giant mugshot of the man sporting a blond wig and pair of enormous sunglasses. He looks, to my untutored eye, ridiculous. Yet when I show it to my maid, Mary, she squeals in delight: “Suparr! Akka, sooo suparr!” We stare at each other across a vast gulf of incomprehension, which in online discussions leads to the inevitable recriminations. Writers offer various theories—or debunk the same—to explain the mystery. Outraged admirers dare disrespectful journalists to visit Chennai to be torn limb to limb. Meanwhile, the Rajini juggernaut rolls along, impervious, unstoppable, and, as ever, inscrutable.

The reasons offered by fans for the magical mystery of Rajini-mania are sound, but for the most part unsatisfactory. Mary cites his ‘nallu swabhavam’ (good character), a reason also touted by my multinational exec brother in Chennai and the suave, young, New York-educated chef of a chi-chi restaurant. Okay, so he’s a good guy, perhaps legendarily so, but nice is nice, and it doth not a demigod make. The other favoured explanation belabours his indomitable style. Everything is cool about our Rajini, from his aerobic cigarettes to the bullet-spitting tip of his robotic forefinger. But style can only take a star so far. Just ask Mithun Chakraborty or Rajini-wannabe Vijayakanth, neither of whom ascended to the shtyle maanan’s stratospheric heights.

To unravel Rajinikanth’s tautological fabulousness, it’s perhaps best to begin at the beginning—that is, the 1950s—when the post-Independence Tamil film industry is the duopoly of two megastars, Shivaji Ganesan and MGR. The latter, a swashbuckling low-caste saviour, is the creation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, which scripts, produces and finances movies as a highly effective form of propaganda. “MGR is the explicitly political hero and Shivaji the more lovable middle class hero. Each has his own appeal, and offers a useful contrast to the other,” says film critic Gopalan Ravindran. By the 1970s, however, industry insiders are scrambling for replacements.

Enter a young ex-bus conductor named Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, who makes an on-screen splash as a charismatic villain pitted against a rising Kamal Haasan in Apoorva Ragangal (1975). Kamal, with his histrionic repertoire and middle class background, is a cinch for the Shivaji spot. Rajini is left to fill the gargantuan shoes available to him, those of the god-like MGR. To replace him—no mean feat—the newcomer has to recreate the swaggering underclass machismo and mesmerising screen presence, but now repackaged to suit the needs of a disillusioned post-Emergency audience. His acting prowess or range is irrelevant to the task at hand. Rajini, much like Amitabh Bachchan up north, takes his success where he finds it: as a brooding angry young man acting out a populist revenge fantasy. And in a neat dovetailing of their parallel trajectories, Rajinikanth will cement his superstar status in 1980 with Billa, a remake of Bachchan’s megahit Don.

“Celebrity is created in the nexus between the individual’s talent and ambition, the film industry’s needs, and the fans who consume this politics of celebrity-making,” says Ravindran. 

Rajinikanth is the right man in the right place at the right time—and his entire career will be defined by that moment of serendipity. It’s no coincidence that Rajinikanth has since inherited MGR’s old fan nickname, Thalaivar (leader), albeit without the political baggage. In an important sense, he is predetermined to be an icon of divine populism, the shape of his celebrity defined by the space he is tasked to fill.

Much is made of the religious fervour Rajini inspires. Images of his low-caste devotees performing milk abhishekam (consecration) of his giant cut-outs, often presented as damning evidence of Tamilian insanity. To be fair, Tamils have a long, rich tradition of hero worship, dating back to the second century AD. The countryside is dotted with thousands of natu kal (hero stones) that memorialise those who sacrificed their lives to protect the village. Just as common are shrines to warrior gods, gigantic mustachioed figures, armed with an axe or a sword, sitting astride a horse. “Great stars like MGR, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan take the place of the folk deities of yesteryears. These folk heroes are very human—they drink, they kill, they eat meat. But they are also gods. So all the rituals related to a folk hero are now performed for the star,” observes film historian Theodore Bhaskaran.

Rajini’s audience doesn’t confuse him with Ayyanar or Madurai Veeran. But to the fan bathing his image in milk or beer, village heroes, warrior gods and superstars exist in the same continuum of folk tradition. The fantastic synthesis of the human and divine is ever-present in our folk narratives: of gods who disguise themselves as men, and mere mortals who attain sacred powers. It’s the reason why we don’t need to invent cartoon superheroes like Superman or Batman. Our most beloved celluloid heroes are ordinary men with extraordinary qualities; they possess the rare ability to be at once familiar and exceptional, and always authentic. “Rajinikanth always plays roles of ordinary people who discover there is something extraordinary about them. There’s a rooted commitment to ordinary life in all his movies,” says cultural anthropologist Anand Pandian. Or as sociologist Shiv Visvanathan puts it, “The miracle of Rajinikanth is that he’s the guy next door who could be the god next door.”

Rajinikanth is a quintessentially Tamil hero, and much of his awesome star power is rooted in a local narrative of populist heroism—a quality most often used to dismiss him as a ‘Madrasi’ icon. This ‘rootedness’, however, is a basic requirement for all superstars. A cinematic demigod must embody some important cultural category of divinity. Back when Bollywood was merely the Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan attained celestial heights with Deewar and Zanjeer playing the celluloid avatar of Karna, betrayed by societal norms, filled with righteous moral anger, and caught on the wrong side of the battle between good and evil. At his peak, Amitabh Bachchan was a coolie, smuggler, village yokel, but also an avenging warrior god, his divinity conveyed by his commanding height, voice and presence. He embodied a heroic archetype instantly familiar to any village kid in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. There are many successful stars, some wealthier than others, but as Visvanathan argues, the difference between material success and celestial status is “the ability to tap into deeper, more primordial narratives in an immediate, intuitive, proletarian sense”. Our greatest superstars become folk heroes, and the most successful movies attain the enduring power of folklore.

In a TV debate titled Battle of the Superstars, the anchor framed the discussion in the following terms: “One, a giant star in Tamil Nadu, whose films make his fans go crazy, the other perhaps the biggest superstar ever seen in India—Amitabh Bachchan. Today’s top brand is known as the Shahenshah of Bollywood, and has perhaps turned his entire family into one huge saleable brand.” The comparison, while unfair, is also illuminating: Rajini has remained a “giant star” while Bachchan is now a “brand”. In other words, Bachchan is no longer a hero in any meaningful sense. Asked about Rajini-mania in a recent interview, Bachchan said, “Stars in the South have such an extreme fan following. I really think it is the nature of those fans.” Long forgotten are his own glory days when people felt so personally connected to him that they offered to sacrifice their arm or leg to save his life.

The Indian superhero is by definition populist: our gods take human form to battle evil and rescue the oppressed, or at least affirm their worth. To be a celluloid deity, an actor’s on-screen and off-screen performances must mesh seamlessly into a singular image of heroic divinity. Bachchan ruled supreme as long as his off-screen persona—long kept under wraps thanks to his relentless feuding with the press—remained in the background. His decision to enter politics as a close friend of the ruling Gandhi dynasty proved to be his downfall. Implicated in the Bofors corruption scandal, his upper class connections became impossible to ignore. His on-screen legitimacy declined precipitously, and his 1988 return to acting ended in a string of resounding flops. Despite his various comebacks, Bachchan has never recaptured that open-hearted adulation he once inspired. Stripped of his on-screen populism, his lofty reserve smacks increasingly of arrogance. Or as a once loyal fan puts it, “Who does he think he is, Bheeshma Pitamaha?” 

Rajinikanth, in comparison, has remained Rajini. Every little known fact of his real world life feeds perfectly into his public image—his lowly roots, miraculous rise to extraordinary success, conquest of upper-caste echelons of Chennai, reputation for charity, preoccupation with spirituality, and above all, his legendary humility. Contrived or not, in each of his public appearances, Rajini exudes a matter-of-fact intimacy. With his balding head, grey hair, cotton kurta, and insouciant lack of affectation, he may well be the genial old man you run into at the corner paan shop. 

“Rajini looks more real, more authentic, more possible than any other star. One thing he creates when he speaks is a sense of friendship, a real connection with the viewer,” observes Visvanathan. “And yet that ordinariness itself is a miracle. He doesn’t need to project a divine aura. He’s made simplicity divine.”

A young man standing in line for Endhiran tells me, “It’s not about the movie, it’s not about the story, it’s about Him.” The noise in the Bangalore theatre rises to a crescendo as the camera pans toward its first glimpse of Rajinikanth’s face. He’s sporting a shaggy beard and glasses, and jabbing with a screwdriver at a mechanical robot. Yet the crowd goes wild. It’s Him! No present-day Bollywood star commands that level of excitement by his mere presence, either in Bangalore or Lucknow. Like Amitabh Bachchan, they are no longer heroes but brands that are marketed to a multiplex audience looking for a bit of slick entertainment to go with their big bag of popcorn.

In Bollywood and the national media that covers it, the term ‘superstar’ has become synonymous with market value. Back in 2007, Shah Rukh Khan proved he’s a bigger star than Amitabh Bachchan simply because he was paid far more to host Kaun Banega Crorepati. That he subsequently failed to connect with a mass audience barely dented his image. Who cares as long as he’s making the big bucks elsewhere? Khan is a superstar because he is very, very rich. Endless endorsement deals increase his net worth and bolster that ultimate marketing goal: ubiquity. It’s why our latest crop of stars incessantly tweet, blog and preen for the cameras to remain in the public eye.

Khan’s most recent PR coup is a daily television series showcasing his uber-wealthy lifestyle. Yet, the images of SRK’s lavish digs don’t undermine his appeal because he is a brand, and brands are aspirational. When a bleached Shah Rukh Khan hawks Fair & Handsome for men, he’s saying: you too can look as fabulous as me. Rajini, on the other hand, mocks his own darkness by slathering whitening cream on his face in an absurd attempt to get the girl, as he sings, “I had a dark complexion then/ Now I am awesomely white!” Heroes don’t aspire, they affirm their own worth, and by extension the worth of those who identify with them. Rajini, unsurprisingly, has never endorsed a single product, and is notoriously selective in his media appearances. He didn’t participate in the marketing blitz for Endhiran, leaving his Bollywood counterpart, Aishwarya Rai, to dutifully sing his praises in his absence.

The only product Rajini sells is himself, and he’s very good at it. Noting his rank as the second highest paid actor in Asia, business newspaper Mint observed, ‘Much of the money that Rajinikanth and his films make is earned in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Unlike with Chan, there are no dollar paycheques, unlike with Karan Johar, there are as yet no large NRI audiences, though this is changing. Instead, the money is earned in small South Indian theatres, where millions pay as little as Rs 10 to watch and rewatch his movies. Upon this humble, broad base has a fortune been built.’ 

Here then is the true mystery that bewilders journalists sitting in Delhi and Mumbai: how can such a downmarket brand be such a big superstar? Where is the glitzy designer packaging, NRI appeal and high-value endorsements, the required accoutrements of true star power? The idea that someone can become a celluloid god by mere virtue of a mass adoring audience now seems astonishing.

In a revealing summation of Amitabh Bachchan’s latest incarnation, film critic Rachel Dwyer writes, ‘The recent phase of Bachchan’s career has occurred in parallel with a wider cultural reassessment of Indian cinema, long loved by its fans but viewed by the elite as an embarrassment, to being recognised internationally as the only global cinema after Hollywood, and as India’s major form of soft power.... Amitabh Bachchan, the senior statesman of Hindi cinema, is the only individual who can fill the role as brand ambassador for the new India on the world stage where his dignity and cosmopolitan outlook are universally admired.’ The new Bachchan caters to those mortified elites and middle class aspirants who dream of joining their ranks. This Big B wears designer suits, recites poetry in Paris, and does a Dustin Hoffman in Paa, a far cry from the old ‘embarrassing’ Amitji who dressed up in drag and played to the front stalls.

The Bollywood star today is a multiplex hero who represents an aspirational version of Indianness. Behold the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, global Indian! Global and therefore also generic, stripped of all cultural identifiers except a vaguely Punjabi affect and routine homilies about Indian pride. He carries no sense of ‘place’, and neither do his movies, much like the sanitised malls they play in. Bollywood’s notion of Indianness is every bit as derivative and manufactured as its name; an identity created to match some imagined Western criteria of ‘cool’. It’s the fatal consequence of the industry’s desire to outgrow its parochial Hindi belt roots. The reality is that the new Bollywood superstar—be it SRK or AB 3.0—is an artificial PR construct with no real organic connection to the India he claims to represent; that is, the vast expanse that lies outside the urban multiplex beltway.

Rajini is cocooned from the ‘multiplex effect’ precisely because he works in Tamil cinema, which is made of, for and by Tamilians, and aimed at the broadest possible regional audience. For all its Hollywood special effects, Endhiran is located almost entirely in Chennai, and has all the markers of a signature Shankar flick. This typical Tamil movie is now being praised by critics as an Indian cinematic triumph. 

The irony, of course, is that a number of Rajini fans are disappointed despite all the Hollywood cred. Those acrobatic feats aren’t quite as thrilling when performed by a robot, and when unaccompanied by his trademark one-liners. “It was very good, but it wasn’t a Rajini movie,” says a slightly crestfallen fan on his way out of a hall.

The rest of India may be jumping on the Rajini bandwagon, but the Tamil industry is already moving on, toward a darker, ethno-realist genre. Rajinikanth’s heir, if he exists, may well be Salman Khan if Bollywood draws the right lesson from the spectacular success of Dabangg. The retro masala flick revived a number of old Hindi film tropes, including an unashamedly rustic hero named Chulbul Pandey, snappy dialogue and stylised fight scenes—and earned Khan his new moniker: ‘Bollywood’s answer to Rajinikanth.’ The movie did well across all markets, from malls in Mumbai to villages in Bihar, evoking a wave of nostalgia among moviegoers and critics alike. Nostalgia for a rooted authenticity that the faux sophistication of Karan Johar knock-offs can never possess. Yes, our folk heroes may be lewd, crude and over-the-top, but they are also who we are, exuberantly so. Just like Rajinikanth.