Why Rajinikanth Rocks
t is not unknown for fans to fast before a Rajini release, as prayer to the Gods for success of his film. But, perhaps, in a part of the world that puts its film stars on very high pedestals, that’s not unusual. Try this.
If you could possibly wangle a first-day-first-show ticket to a Rajini starrer, you will witness something you won’t see in a movie theatre, ever.
Rajinikanth gets his very own credits styling. The screen will say ‘Superstar’, then his name will follow: ‘Rajini’ in English and then in Tamil, glowing in platinum. By the time your eyes adjust to the glare, you realise that you might also lose your hearing. Every member of the theatre audience is standing up, chanting ‘Thalaivar! Thalaivar!’ (which means ‘boss’ in Tamil). Then he will make his entrance: First you see the underside of his shoe; then dried leaves and debris will fly out of the way when the foot comes to earth. Then the camera moves above ground and pauses, looking up, as a supplicant would to the saviour. That’s when the noise in the theatre reaches a crescendo and… the credits pause. And you see, at the foot of the screen, the regional distributor, the multiplex manager, and a few other dignitaries, resplendent in crisp white veshtis, are standing with a priest, who begins to chant prayers. Which end with the men in veshtis holding out their right hands and performing an aarti by burning camphor on their palms.
Then the crowd will settle down and the film will continue. Chances are, you’ll see the signature moves: The finger pointing skyward, deft handiwork with the sunglasses (in older movies, you’d have seen the cigarette toss; he doesn’t smoke on screen now, though). You’ll see gravity-defying jumps and hordes of bad guys being done in. Through it all, nothing will dislodge the Superstar’s smile and sunglasses.
Rajinikanth’s story is straight out of the movies: Boy from the wrong side of the tracks makes it big. Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, he had a wild childhood and even wilder youth where his pranks got him into all kinds of trouble: He was thrashed by the cops for chasing girls and beaten by restaurant workers for trying to pass off an old six rupee bill for a table full of food that he and his gang had demolished. The tale of how he moved from bus conductor to stage to screen is too well know to retell. Suffice it to say that for all his hell-raising, there was a talent which his friends recognised and people noticed first on stage. His wild ways were temporarily tamed when playwright and director ‘Topi’ Muniappa offered him a chance to act in mythological moral plays. The story goes that he played the villainous Duryodhana so well, he was applauded by old men when he was ripping off Draupadi’s sarees.
Hindi cinema, which was yet to become Bollywood, was, like much of Indian cinema, entangled in social themes. South Indian cinema, especially, was dealing with morality issues, which was fantastic for a performer like Rajinikanth, because he played the villain with much glee (shades of this are visible even in his blockbuster hit Chandramukhi, where his demented, ‘Laka, laka, laka, laka’ still sends shivers down one’s spine). 16 Vayathinile (At the Age of 16) paved the way for unkempt villains who had a singularly disgusting laugh. Mithun Chakraborty ruled 80s Hindi cinema with the same brand of impossible heroics and made-for-the-front-row lines, and inspired similar devotion from his fans. But it took Rajinikanth to not just find the formula of punch-line-laden, impossible-action-packed movie persona, but to make it work for over three decades. And counting.
That he was talented was evident to the director K. Balachander, who offered him a 15-minute role as a drunkard in Apoorva Raagangal (Rare Melodies), a Kamal Haasan starrer. Rajini made an impact as the man who muddies the love story by announcing a prior claim to the affections of the heroine just before she admits her love to the hero.