Southern Supernova

His latest Rs 1.25 billion blockbuster is ready for release, shooting for the next film starts this month. What makes India’s highest paid star filmdom’s greatest enigma?

Published: 04th May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd May 2014 01:52 PM   |  A+A-

Rajini.jpg Come May 9, more gigantic Rajinikanth cut-outs would dominate the skyline of Tamil Nadu, many would be bathed in milk, fans would tonsure their heads to propitiate the gods to deliver another hit, and fork out thousands of rupees for the first ticket for the first show. The joke goes that once he kicked a man, who then became the first man to land on the moon. The former chain-smoking bus conductor, India’s greatest superstar other than the Big B and spiritual seeker, Rajinikanth has many firsts to his credit—his new blockbuster Kochadaiiyaan, which cost Rs. 1.25 billion to make, is India’s first motion capture photo-realistic 3D animated movie. The director is his 29-year-old daughter Soundarya. There may be some truth in the joke that Rajinikanth can run faster than his legs. The Rajini time travel mystique does not end with Kochadaiiyaan. Soundarya and father will go back in time to make the sequel to the film Rana. Then there is Lingaa, the details of which are shrouded in secrecy. Except that filming would start in Mysore in early May; the director is K S Ravikumar; music is by A R Rahman and the pulchritudinous leading ladies are Anushka Shetty and Sonakshi Sinha. The family man likes to keep it in the family. Lingaa after all is the name of his grandson, by his daughter Aishwarya and her husband Dhanush of Kolaveri fame.

His wife Latha—who makes it a point to see every Rajini release on the first day—has also sung for Kochadaiiyaan, a semi-classical song, Menappenin Sathyam.

Director Balaji Mohan, the undisputed leader of the new wave in Tamil cinema, and whose latest film Vaayai Moodi Pesavum has set the cash registers ringing, says that his growing up years were largely defined by the actor’s  films. He would watch only Rajini movies. “For many decades now people have been trying to decode the phenomenon. However, no one has been able to figure that out. I think he is a great human being and that reflects when you see him on screen,” he says.

dewtfrtg.JPGIt also reflects in his relationships and the respect both his fans and colleagues view him with. Amitabh Bachchan will be lending his famous baritone to Rajini for the Hindi version of Kochadaiiyaan. Shah Rukh Khan was floored by his hospitality when he was promoting Chennai Express and would even agree to changes in his film at Rajini’s suggestions. His female co-stars adore his simplicity and courteousness. Politicians from Narendra Modi to Narasimha Rao have wooed him—but Rajini has kept his counsel; except for his wife saying that Modi is a part of their family. Rajini is intensely politically aware—he was the first voter to exercise his franchise in his constituency at the Stella Maris polling station in Chennai—but in spite of politicians of all hues courting him through the years, the superstar, who has 70,000 registered fan clubs all over Tamil Nadu prefers to stay an affable but enigmatic outsider, whose many facets are revealed under the spotlights.

From the beginning of his career, the man has bucked the trend only to create another. In his 1975 debut Tamil film, Apoorva Ragangal, which explored complex gender relationships as he played the abusive husband to Srividya, his disheveled and diseased appearance would not have suggested to even the most optimistic in the film industry that the sneering dark-skinned young man from an obscure village on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border would one day reach vertiginous heights of fame and stardom. But the police constable’s son, former coolie and bus conductor Sivaji Rao Gaikwad did make it.

The superstar’s total film tally is 170 across various film industries such as Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, and English. He acted in only one English film titled Bloodstone, which was a disappointment at the box office. Rajini commands anywhere between `30-40 crore for a film.

fdfrwdf.JPGFilm critic Randor Guy says Rajini is top of the galaxy, with M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and MGR. “Rajinikanth has that one quality which has made him so successful in his career—charisma. Rama Naicker (Periyar) had it too,” mentions Guy.

Sonakashi plays the love interest in Lingaa to the king Rajinikanth in one time period, while Anuskha plays the lover of the son Rajinikanth a generation later. Incidentally, like Sonakshi’s father Shatrughnan Sinha, Rajini too started out as a villain; though he stays away from politics. Roles where he played the sadistic husband in Avargal, the duplicitous character in Moondru Mudichu or the debauched village goon in Bharathiraja’s 16 Vayadhinile established him as a powerful presence in the Southern screen. His mentor K Balachander, who launched his film career, had called Rajini the actor to watch out for, because he had “fire in his eyes”.

But the road to super stardom was paved with 13 flops. To become a star, Rajini knew that he needed to shed the villain’s cloak. Like Prakash Mehra turned things round for Bachchan, director S P Muthuraman did the honours for Rajini in Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri. Says the veteran, “The film changed the way the audience looked at Rajini, they recognised the actor in him. It was a double googly with Rajini turning good and Sivakumar who always played positive characters turning bad.” He continues, “The way he carried himself, the way he spoke convinced me that he was indeed hero material. In the 10-minute talk I had with Rajini, he comprehended the role perfectly. This was also the first film where the famous punch line made an entry.”

The actor is famous for his mannerisms—flicking his cigarette straight to his mouth, and delivering punchlines that became dialogues on their own: ‘En vazni, thani vazni, seendaathe! (My path, the only path, do not dare to come in between) and “Idhu eppadi irukku?” which was repeated as “Howeezzit?” in another movie are quoted by fans ad nauseum. Remembers actress Khushboo, who was a popular on-screen partner in the 1990s in movies such as Annamalai and Pandian, “That’s the way he is. That’s the way he walks —fast. And that’s the way he smokes. It was never a cultivated trait. He was moody too.”

cascdc.JPGBut moodiness hasn’t stopped Rajinikanth’s great sense of comic timing—like Amitabh Bachchan’s drunken scenes, Rajinikanth’s frequent encounters with snakes in numerous films never fail to make his fans laugh. In Endhiraan, Rajini the robot created by Rajini the scientist tells his heroine, “The only two worthwhile creations in the world are you and me.”

But moodiness hasn’t stopped Rajinikanth’s great sense of comic timing—like Amitabh Bachchan’s drunken scenes, Rajinikanth’s frequent encounters with snakes in numerous films never fail to make his fans laugh. In Endhiraan, Rajini the robot created by Rajini the scientist tells his heroine, “The only two worthwhile creations in the world are you and me.” 

Every new film of his only strengthens Brand Rajini. His previous superhit, Enthiraan (Robot) for which he was reportedly paid `240 crore by the director, made him India’s highest paid actor. But the billions haven’t swayed the superstar. Rajini’s co-stars describe him as someone who puts them at ease, introducing himself to them in the studio. Remembers yesteryears heroine Rati Agnihotri, who acted opposite Rajinikanth in films like John Johnny Janardhan and Mera Intequam. “I didn’t know or understand Tamil. I couldn’t dance as well as people expect a ‘Rajnikanth heroine’ to. But he never let me feel like I wasn’t up to his standards. As a matter of fact, he never brought up his iconic status which is what makes him the superstar he is.”

During breaks, even now the actor can be seen often getting a shuteye on the sets, his eyes covered with a wet piece of cloth to cool them after the heat of the arc lights, his head resting in the crook of his arm. Actress Khushboo remembers Rajinikanth sitting on a chair outside his makeup van reading a book with just a fan on, waiting to be called on the sets any time. He often drives himself to the sets.

Says Randor Guy: “It was a mammoth struggle for Rajini to succeed in the industry. His Tamil accent was lousy, he could not dance, he was dark-skinned to boot. And yet, in spite of this all, he went on to become one of the biggest stars cinema has ever seen.” The first advice Balachander gave Rajini was, “Learn Tamil.”

dwdef.JPGDirector Suresh Krishna knows all too well about the Rajini craze, or rather, his own craze for Baasha in which Rajini played an auto rickshaw driver-turned-Robin Hood don who lives in a palatial house with a great black dog. It has James Bond effects— the film’s title song Style Style Thaan starts with Rajinikanth holding a gun, in the manner of James Bond. It has immortal lines like “Naan oru thadava sonna, nooru thadava sonna maadiri” (If I say something even once, it’s as though I’ve said it a hundred times) that fans quote even 20 years since it has been released. Says Krishna laughingly, “So many questions are posed to me about the film and about working with Rajini that I even wrote a book on it titled My Days with Baasha”. Author and Rajini fan P C Bala has brought out a book Grand Brand Rajini, which talks about brand management with the superstar as an example. He elaborates, “The Apple brand and Rajini are very similar. Both were rebels, extremely stylish, have a cult following and have been a great financial success. Rajini talks less, and is an astute listener.”

A Cult is Born

Rajinikanth’s cult following took its time growing in the North, until the wisecracking superman with the heart, Chitti in Ra.One who avenges the death of his friend played by Shah Rukh and the lovable dual role in Robot made him a household name all over India. The Rajinikanth phenomenon is unrivalled and unexpected; the jokes embellished his superman status— ‘If Dracula bites Rajinikanth, then Dracula becomes Rajini’s follower; Ghosts sit around campfire and tell Rajinikanth stories; Rajinikanth already went to Moon and Mars, that’s why there are no signs of life; Rajinikanth can watch the radio; There is no April 1 in Rajini calendar, because no one can fool him and Gmail’s email address is are some of the laughs going around; there is even an app for Rajinikanth jokes. His Bollywood career started in the 1980s with Andhaa Kanoon, a superhit in which he played the vengeful hero Vijay Kumar Singh. But Billa marked the beginning of the Rajini cult. An almost exact copy of Bachchan’s Don, it was a bigger box office hit than the original. In Tollywood, too, Rajini is a superstar after Peddarayudu (a remake of Tamil hit Nattammai) broke all previous records in 1995. Padayappa was another hit, which busted the bank in the UK and the US. Rajinikanth had also by then become a trendsetter overseas, after the song he hummed in Muthu (1995), Thillana Thillana, became the most popular foreign soundtrack in Japan. Recalls Randor Guy, “A girl from Japan came to me for help as she wanted to make a documentary on the hit song.”

A Star Next Door

dcvdvdv.JPGRajinikanth is a hit machine with whom female superstars vie to act with, but he is never uncomfortable playing opposite talented actresses, who have powerful roles. In Padayappa, the vindictive, obsessive Neelambari played by Ramya Krishnan challenges Rajini at every turn. Recalls Ramya: “Nobody would have played such a negative role opposite Rajini. If I had a choice, I would have never agreed to play Neelambari,” she says. However, it did not just earn her appreciation from both fans and critics, Rajinikanth himself lavished praises on her. “After the movie completed 100 days, he gave me a gift as a token of appreciation for my work,” Ramya recollects and adds, “Like every other actor, I look forward to acting with him again.”

In spite of macho on-screen dialogues like “Nallavana erukallam annal romba nallavana erukakudathu” (You can be a good person. But you shouldn’t be a very good person) in Dharmadurai; “Naan solrathaiyum seiven, sollathathiyum seiven” (I’ll do what I say. I’ll also do what I don’t say) in Annamalai, Deepa Sahi found him painfully shy. His other co-star in Hum Shilpa Shirodkar-Ranjit, a newcomer at that time, says that he was “so humble and so much fun”. She recalls that while shooting in Mauritius, the crew would head out to casinos or clubs in the evening, but I wouldn’t. So, Rajini would make it a point to have breakfast with me,” she recalls.

Yesteryear Kannada heroine Bharati Vishnuvardhan, and Rajini’s co-star in Uttar Dakshin remembers his scrupulous professionalism. “When Uttar Dakshin was being made, we were the only two actors who reached the sets punctually. Rajini came across as a very down-to-earth, family-oriented person. My husband Vishnuvardhan and he had acted in many films together.”

Rajini’s discipline and punctuality did not go unnoticed in Bollywood. Says director Pankaj Parashar who directed the superstar in the 1989 hit Chaalbaaz: “He would be present on the set 15 minutes before call time, with make-up and costume on. Even though he is a superstar in the South, he didn’t ask me about the length of his role or to give him an extra song. That says a lot about how secure he is as an actor.” Their long drives together in Chennai, an extremely late night dinner at a five-star restaurant and Rajini sharing his premium whiskey with the crew are memories Parashar cherishes about Rajni.

The Inner Rajini

Yet the man who plays multiple roles on screen is very different in private. Gone are the dashing wigs, the cocky moustache, the signature sunglasses and the devil may care smile that always stay in place even after a whirlwind decimation of villains and what emerges at home is a soft spoken, swarthy bald man in a white shirt and dhoti, always happiest in the bosom of his family. In an industry where photo-ops of film stars and directors making offerings at various temples appear so often in the media, Rajinikanth chooses to keep his devotion private. Parashar remembers the superstar taking off to Rishikesh to spend time in a remote temple even at the height of his career.

Says actor-comedian Vivek whose scenes with Rajini in Sivaji evoked much laughter, “We were shooting for Sivaji which is when he gave me a book to read titled Living with Himalayan Masters. It was an eye-opener.” Being with Rajini was like talking to a good friend, Vivek remembers. One time in Lonavala, they went for a drive, shared a cigarette (he has given up smoking), drank tea and when Rajini’s presence was discovered, a huge crowd surrounded them and the chai wallah refused to accept money for the tea.  Perhaps, the man, who as a coolie would carry heavy sacks on his shoulder for just 50 paise feels that life can change, and men shouldn’t. At the height of his career in the 1990s, Rajinikanth had wanted to pack up and leave for good. He was tired of the war paint and the lights. But Muthuraman persuaded him stay. In March, at the launch of Kochadaiiyaan’s trailer Amitabh Bachchan recalled that Rajini was bored with films even while he was filming for Robot. That time, it was AB’s turn to persuade Rajini to go on. Rajinikanth has often maintained that it is his religious upbringing in Sri Ramakrishna Mission that is responsible for keeping him level-headed. Latha has started a school for the poor and the family runs charitable trusts.

But the star, who meditates for hours and practices yoga has become a god to his people. Perhaps it is what bothers him. And, perhaps, bores him too.

(Inputs from Karishma Upadhyay and Janani Sampath )

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