Decoding Rajinikanth

Cult entertainer

Decoding Rajinikanth

Superhero:  Rajinikanth in ‘Robot’

One will hardly see southern superstar Rajinikanth launch such a tirade on the silver-screen, even if he is battling ‘evil forces’ in all their dark colours. It is no surprise Rajinikanth is everyone’s toast yet again with his latest incredible dual role in Endhiran (The Robot) promising to break new grounds, not just at the box-office but even as a piece of Indian sci-fi cinema, which has launched the Kalanidhi Maran-owned Sun Pictures globally.

The transition from a Marathi-speaking Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, who grew up in Bangalore and against his parents’ wishes gave up his job as conductor in a government transport corporation to risk being in the unpredictable world of South Indian cinema in old Madras (now Chennai), has been a painful rags-to-riches story for the 60-nearing Rajinikanth.

Global icon
With nearly 160 films to his credit spanning over 35 years since the veteran Tamil film director K Balachander gave him a small role in Apoorva Raagangal (1975), Rajinikanth “continues that great tradition that binds reel-life with the larger than life-world as a popular hero,” says Harish Naraindas, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Cut back briefly to 1948, when an equally legendary film producer S S Vasan had made that wondrous Tamil classic film Chandralekha. Industry watchers here say that Vasan, an advertising genius too, got 603 prints of the film made, the largest for any film soon after India won Independence, and released it (even those days) in the US as Chandra with English sub-titles.

Chandralekha starring the swashbuckling Ranjan and the queenly TR Rajakumari, they say was a super-hit which revolutionised Tamil cinema. Perhaps, in the following decades, MGR could not go global in that wide sense, despite sharing perennial glory on a politically polarised platform with another legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan from the 1950s’ to the mid-1970s’, in an era of severe foreign exchange controls. “MGR struggled to get foreign exchange to make his blockbuster Ulagum Suttrum Valiban, shot extensively in Japan,” recalled a media expert, R Chandramouli.

Cut to 2010, the grand spectacle of Rajinikanth’s latest Endhiran (in three languages including Hindi and Telugu), being released in over 3000 theatres worldwide (the number of prints must be more if all the screens in the multiplexes are taken into consideration), is a testament to how Indian cinema has “truly come of age globally,” points out Professor Harish.

“Even ten years back, Indian film producers may not have thought of this scale, as there is a business logic to this new model aided by neo-liberal economic policies; when films are available on DVDs alongside Internet-based web interface, the first two weeks box-office collections make all the difference,” added Professor Harish. “Thus, Rajinikanth’s Endhiran symbolises the globalisation of a South Indian film icon, an MGR-II, who has got on to a world screen from a South-Asian screen,” reasoned the JNU professor.

Though something akin to this grand production style was attempted even in his earlier film, Shivaji: The Boss, the various strands that have gone into making this sensational phenomenon called ‘Rajinikanth’ are quite complex. His persona defied every conventional norm that was required for a successful film star, which itself explains Rajinikanth’s undiminished popularity, says another film critic who did not wish to be named.

Style guru
While his contemporary, Kamal Hassan, is the acknowledged ‘great actor’, Rajinikanth is hailed the ‘style mannan (king of styles)’, someone the masses could readily identify with, as Rajini gains the shoes of the upper class, rising from a poor, semi-literate, rustic and rural  background.

“Being fair-complexioned continues to be the norm in cinema,” admitted K Balachander in a recent media interaction, adverting to Rajinikanth being dark-skinned naturally.  “But it was the fire in Rajini’s eyes that convinced me that he has a future as an actor,” added Balachander, comparing the Rajinikanth phenomenon with the Jackie Chan phenomenon, both driven by self-confidence, individualism and the enormous will to succeed.

Carving a niche for himself even in his early days in Tamil cinema, ironically playing villain roles, the way Rajinikanth would throw up and light a cigarette, a new rapidity in dialogue delivery, one-liners like Idu Epaddi Irukku (a teasing poser ‘how is this?’ in the film 16 Vayadhinile), his body language, “are all pointers to how he was obsessed with creating a  new trend in cinema,” added K Balachander, while explaining the reasons for his success.

“If one analyses his career graph closely, one can understand that the arrow always pointed upwards. There were no major jumps, no deep plummeting,” writes Dr Gayathri Sreekanth, in her well researched biography of the actor titled, The Name is Rajinikanth. “Only Rajinikanth could have done such a powerful role like the one in Endhiran, which unlike other Hollywood films of its genre, has nicely blended human emotions
like love with science fiction,” argued Stanley, assistant to renowned film director Mani Rathnam. “If in a conservative place like Dubai, people queue up early morning to see this film, then Rajinikanth is definitely God’s favourite child,” he added, explaining what continues to fascinate audiences about this unbroken Rajini magic.

“Rajnikanth’s dedication, compassion for the welfare of co-artistes and passion for cinema have been key factors for his success as a mass-entertainer,” stressed Sankar Narayan alias ‘Cable’ Sankar, an assistant director and a writer on film industry trends.
The great German Philosopher Nietzsche spoke of the 20th century as “the century of actors”. Rajinikanth has already carved his niche and will make place for himself in that list.

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