Why do we watch Rajinikanth in a programme like Into The Wild by Bear Grylls? It’s largely to satiate the curiosity of how this endearing celebrity will react in potentially uncomfortable situations.
Does wildlife scare him? Does the wilderness excite him? What does he get anxious about? How does he respond to stress? How outdoorsy is he? And if like me, you grew up watching him be invincible in cinema, there’s another question: How does he react to being hurt? Of course, you could ask whether such curiosity over a celebrity, even if it’s natural, is healthy at all.
That’s a perfectly valid question, but for another day. Here, I’m just saying it exists. Such is the Rajinikanth phenomenon that even Discovery channel, despite the nature of this programme, can’t resist designing a mass introduction scene for him.
As Bear Grylls sets about introducing him, we see Rajinikanth, dressed for a trek, arriving on an ATV, as music and multiple slow-mo shots pay homage. This is followed by a short highlight reel from his films—I suppose, to familairise everyone about his existence (you can roll your eyes)—before we can see him step ‘into the wild’.
As they enter the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park, Grylls and Rajini begin warming up to each other by asking tentative questions.
“How did you get into the film industry?” “How did you begin doing this show?” Rajinikanth mentions K Balachander, shares that his original name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, that his family calls him Shivaji… It’s the sort of information we could blurt out half-asleep. The parts I liked in this show are those where this cinema superstar shows a bit of vulnerability. Like when Grylls says that the park has a lot of snakes and Rajini goes, “My god!”, his eyes betraying anxiety.
Or how about when he’s about to be harnessed across a rusty bridge, and he almost resignedly says, “Kadavul irukaar.” The superstar’s legs buckle as he’s rappelling up a ravine after collecting some river water. He’s suffered some cuts on his fingers, and he’s shaking and breathless. It’s hard not to wonder about the miracle of this fragile person being able to achieve such miraculous transformation when the camera is trained on him. You see a glimpse of this when Grylls tries to learn the actor’s famous sunglasses flipping gesture. Anxious and breathless till then, the moment he is handed the glasses, you get a hint of that transformation: of Shivaji instantly transforming into Rajinikanth.
This episode isn’t about the Bandipur Tiger Reserve; this isn’t about Bear Grylls; this isn’t about the arid jungle, or its barren river beds.
This is all about Rajinikanth; that’s all it strives to be. At one point, the actor, upon asked to help out Grylls with changing a tyre, says he’s never dealt with such a situation before. It gets you wondering about the lives such stars lead.
What’s their normal? What are they missing out on? The glint of excitement you constantly catch in Rajinikanth’s eyes betrays how eager he is to have such experiences, how the constraints of his life barely allow them. “Naan Discovery la laam varuven nu kanavula kooda nenachadhilla,” he says.
We needed more of that. Frankly, I wish there were a lot more of everything else too. The hour-long episode serves at best as a trailer. Rajinikanth doesn’t seem pushed to his limits, the tasks seem devoid of risk (despite their proclamations to the contrary), there aren’t too many takeaways about the man behind the superstar... This is an actor who proudly flaunts the real person he is, to the public. That he pronounces ‘first’ as ‘firsht’, or that trademark Rajini expression of enthusiasm—“a-hah”—aren’t exactly new to us. For lack of too much excitement within the episode, there, at least, needed to be more commentary from him, more conversation. Grylls seems satisfied with surface questions, and looks keener to make sure that the morale of the actor remains high, with generic words of encouragement.
The episode also allows for Rajinikanth to channel the inner politician in him by sharing some unsurprising, straighforward messages. He talks of his desire to link rivers; he encourages rainwater harvesting; he talks of unity in diversity, of how multiple religions co-exist ‘peacefully’ in the country. Such messaging feels a bit staged and chips away at the show’s purpose, especially given its limited runtime. I suppose it was always going to be this way, when a show like Into the Wild tries to accommodate a larger-than-life personality like Rajinikanth.
In between, actors like Kamal Haasan, Madhavan and Akshay Kumar pop in with generic encouragement for Rajinikanth, but even there, I caught myself wishing it would be a bit more than just diplomatic pats on the back. The most insight I got into Rajinikanth, into his walled world of fame, is a fleeting moment after he musters energy from his reserves to climb up the ravine. “A-hah!” he lets out a cackle. “I DID IT!” It’s fascinating to see a glimpse of that child-like excitement, honesty in expression, from a person trained to act for almost half a century. It, at once, also sheds light on the suffocating lives many celebrities perhaps lead. Many of us might have had these trekking experiences many times, but for Rajinikanth, as he says, “it is the firsht time.” I wanted so much more of this, but alas.
Streaming on: Discovery+