A gas tanker topples in the middle of the city and explodes. The first group of firemen who reach the site to prevent a disaster dies. Among them is a firefighter who was to retire the next day. The conflagration threatens to turn into an inferno, but one man dressed in camouflage uniform and his lips set in grim determination under his signature black moustache is the only one who stands between apocalypse and safety. Muscular, tall and energetic, the idol of the Malayalam and Tamil cinema, is the firefighter for whom being a hero is just another day’s work in his latest Fireman. He looks thirtyish, and little has changed in his charismatic persona since Muhammad Kutty Ismail Paniparambil aka Mammootty first became a legend as a CBI officer in the 1988 hit Oru CBI Diary Kurippu. The veteran of over 400 films, who turned 63 last year, shot for 30 nights non-stop for Fireman, often starting at 6 pm and ending at 5 am. The trinity in the southern celluloid firmament, Mammootty, Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi, and the two ‘A’s of Bollywood, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, are showing no signs of hanging up their boots. Age no bar, only staying power matters. Mammootty has started the shoot for Bhaskar the Rascal with Nayanthara. Ajay plans to wrap up the shooting of Shivaay by mid-2015 and release it around the Republic Day in 2016, the same time as Akshay’s Airlift.
Rajinikanth as usual is taciturn on any new projects and Chiranjeevi plans to make a stellar comeback in Tollywood with his 150th film.
In an industry where careers are made and unmade every other Friday, it’s no small feat to remain at the top of one’s game for decades. Like Rajinikanth’s famous line in Annamalai ‘Naan Solradaiyum Seiven, Soladadeiyum Seiven’ (I’ll do what I say, I’ll also do what I don’t say), the super five do what everyone believes—superstars never fade away. Though his last film Lingaa flopped, Rajini’s deity status hasn’t suffered a single dent. “His films have always had very high success rate. People who are usually associated with them have mostly gained. It’s unfair to hold him responsible for the losses in Lingaa,” read a statement from the Tamil Film Producers’ Council.
K S Ravi Kumar, director of Lingaa and whose association with Rajini goes back to Muthu, says the former bus conductor’s superstar status is thanks to his dedication, sincerity and hard work. “We are great friends but on the sets, he is a totally different person, truly committed to his work, punctual, ensuring his dialogues reach him beforehand,” he shares.
Director-comedian Manobala, who plays the comic train driver in Lingaa and whose association with Rajinikanth dates back to when the latter had not even made his debut, analyses what makes Rajini a demi-god. “It’s the energy he exudes on screen, which draws audience to him. This has not diminished over the years. It is the same charisma that draws directors to him,” he says. Manobala directed Rajini in Oorkavalan.
Most of his contemporaries have exited the arc lights long time ago (save for good friend Ulaga Nayakan Kamal Hassan), while Rajini is still playing hero to the generations of actresses. In Sivaji, he romanced the gorgeous Shriya Saran; in Endhiran, it was Aishwarya Rai and in Lingaa, he had two beautiful ladies vying for his attention. Sonakshi Sinha was one of them and had felt nervous acting with him. When she expressed her concern, the superstar laughed, “You are my friend’s daughter, I should be more nervous than you.” “That broke the ice between us,” says Sonakshi.
Even Bollywood pays homage to his stardom. In Chennai Express, Shah Rukh Khan devoted the song Lungi Dance to the Thalaivar, and how can one forget ‘Chitti’s’ timely help to King Khan in Ra.One? Shah Rukh even defended Lingaa’s failure, saying the superstar was on another level altogether and hence one had to be careful before commenting on him. In a recent interview, Govinda, who has tried to copy Rajinikanth in most of his films, said he “believed in the Rajinikanth brand of entertainment”.
While this brand of entertainment galvanises the audience and other stars, another break-danced his way into their hearts, becoming a ‘megastar’. Though his father was a police constable and he had no film connections to speak of, Chiranjeevi created his own film dynasty and at one time even beat Amitabh Bachchan in the remuneration stakes. Director Puri Jagannath says Bachchan has agreed to play a guest role in Chiru’s 150th film if he directs the megastar. Seven years ago, Tollywood’s undisputed king quit films for politics. Now with his political career headed south where he belongs, the former Union minister is back to doing what he does best —donning the greasepaint for his 150th film. The announcement garnered huge response from the fans as well as the media, and multiple theories have since surfaced about the film.
Despite Jagannath’s claim, industry insiders reveal that Vinayak, who directed him in 2003 hit Tagore, is likely to helm the film. “Chiranjeevi is still going through scripts as the project is extremely close to his heart,” says a source close to the actor, who was last seen in Shankar Dada Zindabad in 2007.
The seven-year absence has only made most hearts grow fonder. Radhika, who had paired with the megastar in 17 films in the 1980s, says: “I’m sure Chiru will return with the same impact. He still radiates charm. He is the same humble person, warm and hard working.” Another person who is enthusiastic about his return is Srinu Vaitla, who directed him in the 2005 film Andavivaadu. “That his 150th film is generating so much hype is testament to his stardom,” he says. Chiranjeevi says as of now, his son Ramcharan Tej will produce the film and it will be an out-and-out entertainer “showcasing me at my best”. He is already on the go—checking into a spa in Kerala, hitting the gym and following a strict diet. Rajesh Khanna and Sanjeev Kumar could have pulled it off in the 1970s with their paunches, but today’s gym generation demands their idols have Sylvester Stallone’s physique and Keanu Reeve’s Matrix moves.
This sentiment is evident in Fireman. Mammootty, or Mammukka as he is fondly called, is ever ready to experiment with new roles. A fireman is not exactly as glamorous as a cop like Singham, evident when Mammootty asks schoolchildren how many want to become firefighters. Mammootty, who won two National Awards for playing polar opposites (tyrannical master and a low-caste) in two films released the same year, got rave reviews for Fireman. Says Aparna Gopinath, who starred opposite him in Munnariyippu: “Mammootty’s success can be attributed to his fearlessness to go the next level. Most of us are scared to try experimental roles, but he refused to give in to such thinking very early in his career.” The five-time National Award winner “has the capability of looking at a film from the point of view of the audience, the actor as well as the camera,” adds Aparna. Actor-director Joy Mathew agrees. “Mammootty knows where the camera is positioned all the time,” he says, adding, “His technical knowledge is amazing—what type of lenses that are used, wide-angle, zoom, and high speed or not. And he knows where to stand and give his dialogues.”
When Joy was doing a fight sequence with Mammootty in Rajadhi Raja, it was the superstar who showed Joy how to block a hit and shift the gun from one hand to the other. “You can clear any doubt you might have on the sets with him,” says Joy. “And this is not only about acting. If you want to know the meaning of some Malayalam word, or discuss art, literature or politics, he is ready to do so.”
On the sets, Mammootty can be full of playful mischief and laughter as Aparna found out. She was on a fast during the shoot of Munnariyippu, and Mammootty placed his hand under her nose and said “chicken”, knowing very well that the actress is a foodie. “He has the heart of an 18-year-old,” recalls the actress. The farmer’s son from Kottayam, Mammootty’s uncredited debut in 1971’s Anubhavangal Paalichakal had only one scene in the film.
Being an actor and an action hero, according to cinema purists, are opposite roles. But Bollywood’s sabse bada khiladi Akshya Kumar has won the Filmfare award twice. He has received rave reviews for his versatility as an actor adept at doing drama, romance and comedy. Romantic film Namastey London and drama films such as Waqt: The Race Against Time and Patiala House, and comic acts in Mujhse Shaadi Karogi and Singh Is Kinng were lapped up by the audience. Housefull 2 and Rowdy Rathore grossed over Rs 1 billion. In February 2013, the net box-office collection of the khiladi’s films had crossed Rs 20 billion—making Akshay the first and the only Bollywood actor to hold such a record. A sixth-degree Black Belt in Kuyukai Gōjū-ryū karate and almost 100 films old, Akshay does his own stunts. In the latest hit Baby, he kicked ass.
Looking back on his career, he says: “My lows have always been a high for me. I have worked on my own terms and have gone with positivity to the sets. I may have grown in terms of the number of films but I am the same person who started his career with Saugandh. No one knew me then, since I did not belong to this industry. But I fought my way through.” The Padma Shri awardee ventured into television with the popular reality show Fear Factor–Khatron Ke Khiladi and hosted MasterChef India, seasons 1 & 2.
Staying in the game is Bollywood’s other action hero legend, Ajay Devgn. With his brooding looks, trim frame and ubiquitous cigarette, Devgn too has won two Filmfare awards. For an action star, perhaps getting off the block may not have been difficult having the famed action director Veeru Devgan for a father. His entry scene in Phool Aur Kante with gun in hand as he stood balanced between two motorbike riders still remains a class act. (He won the Filmfare Award for the Best Debut Actor for that one). Says director Rohit Shetty whose association with Devgn has stood the test of time and who made his directorial debut Zameen with Ajay to delivering a hit like Singham: “I don’t think anyone can take Ajay’s place. He is one of the finest actors today.” Prakash Jha, who directed Ajay in films like Gangaajal, Apaharan and Satyagraha, says: “I wouldn’t be bold enough to call these films turning points. But each of these gave Ajay a chance to hone his talent.”
Kareena Kapoor, who has acted with Devgn in films like Golmaal, Omkara and Singham Returns, recalls: “My relationship with Ajay goes back to the sets of Shaktiman. Karishma was the heroine and the shooting was in Manali. I visited the sets when I was 10 and I am sure he does not remember that. I am romancing him in my sixth film now. He’s a better actor now and a great person.”
To stay on top of the game, taking their health seriously is the magic mantra. Rajinikanth, who reportedly gave up smoking and drinking after a lung infection, shares health tips with Shatrughan Sinha. The fact that his daughter Soundarya, who starts her day with a mix of apples, beetroots and carrots and is a firm believer in the benefits of exercise, helps too. About Akshay, his co-star Sonakshi says, “He is so particular about his fitness and eating habits. I realised that if you have to work hard, one must have a disciplined life.” The same goes for Mammootty. “He will avoid fried eggs. On rare occasions, he will have red meat,” says actor Jagadish.
Another reason why their superstar mantle is still intact is that they no longer feel the need to guard it, rather they are confident enough to let go and remain in the background, play mentor, or don the producer-director’s hat. Akshay has diversified into production with two banners—one for masala movies and another for small budget and out-of-the-box films. “You cannot put a value to a Shah Rukh Khan or a Salman Khan. That is why actors have turned producers,” he says. Devgn turned producer with Raju Chacha in 2000 and debuted as a director in 2008 with U Me Aur Hum. He has produced films like All the Best, Bol Bachchan, Golmaal franchise, Son of Sardaar, Action Jackson and Singham series and is set to launch Shivalaya Entertainment (based in Los Angeles), to promote independent films focused on the international market. Not many know that Mammootty has given opportunities to many writers as well as associate directors to become directors. “Lal Jose got his first break in Oru Maravathoor Kanavu (1998) in which Mammootty was the hero,” says Jagadish. “Aashiq Abu’s first film Daddy Cool (2009) also had Mammootty as the hero. When he feels somebody has calibre, Mammootty says, ‘Why don’t you direct? I will give you the dates’.”
In showbiz, where fame is fickle, these superstars have stayed numero uno for the last few decades. What keeps them going? Big B says, “It’s unbelievable that somebody of Rajinikanth’s stature continues to reinvent and prove to the world that he has something new to offer.” And yet, Big B counselled Rajini when he said he was bored. “Just continue doing what you are doing irrespective of the fact that it’s boring to you.”
No matter, the show goes on and the stars keep shining.
with Samhati Mohapatra, Shama Bhagat, Suhas Yellapantula and Shevlin Sebastian