Metrolife: Rajini no longer hit machine?

Metrolife: Rajini no longer hit machine?

Rajini plays a golden-hearted Mumbai slumlord in Kaala.

It was a jab at Bollywood. So much so that many of the national dailies made a mention of it. It was 2007 and the Indian film industry was witnessing a big tussle. Hindi cinema’s biggest star Amitabh Bachchan’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and Tamil superstar Rajinikanth’s Sivaji hit the screens the same day. For a film buff, it was a mad Friday!

Three days into their release, the collections were out in the open. And the SMS joke wasn’t far removed from reality: The all-India cycle, scooter and car parking collections at theatres screening Sivaji had exceeded the box office collections of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom!

For fans in the new millennium, Sivaji, directed by S Shankar, was a perfect example of the Rajinikanth phenomenon. The pre-release atmosphere was marked by massive hype. Then came the terrific opening and to wrap it up, a reiteration that he was the undisputed king of the box office.

Fast-forward a decade, and the scene has undergone a change. The nervousness of the distributors and the poor pre-booking response have made more news than the film. Kaala, yet another Rajinikanth attempt to succeed since the gargantuan hit Enthiran, back in 2010, is doing muted business.

A Rajinikanth film is compared to a festival. But in the last five years, this festival seems to have lost its fervour.

For his die-hard fans, it is an unthinkable phase. But for industry watchers, this is just another case of reality biting back. The king has to fall one day, to either rise or make way for the next worthy successor. These aren’t good times for Rajinikanth. Reports suggest Kaala scripted the lowest opening ever for a Rajinikanth film in Tamil Nadu and the Pa Ranjith directorial hasn’t received a great response in Andhra and up North.

The first sign of trouble in ‘Planet Superstar’ was felt when Rana, to be helmed by K S Ravikumar, was shelved thanks to Rajinikanth’s health problems. When Ravikumar’s Lingaa flopped, it was seen as an odd failure. Kochadaiyaan frustrated fans further, but the motion-capture animated film was looked upon as an experiment. Alarm bells, however, began ringing loudly with the lukewarm response to Kabali.

Perhaps to understand the downslide, it is important to analyse Sivaji’s terrific success. Shankar’s first film with the Superstar saw a dearth of logic. However, to handle Rajinikanth is a trick and he aced it. Be it the stylised fight scenes, trademark punch dialogues, timely comedy tracks or the love story, Sivaji sustained ‘mass’ elements. Filmmakers have found it tough to match the entertainment quotient offered by Sivaji. It was ‘masala’ movie-making at its best.

In the past, films like Padaiyappa, Arunachalam and Annamalai balanced romance and personal revenge, and worked well at the box office. But of late, the common theme in Rajinikanth’s films has changed. Baradwaj Rangan, a national-award winning film critic and author, explains this.

“From something personal, the canvas of his stories has expanded. Now, he is seen taking revenge on behalf of the masses, the people. I think this is planned, because he does so few films and spends so much time deciding on them. If the poor box-office show for Kaala is true, then are people responding to him or the movie? Maybe people aren’t buying (into) Rajinikanth the way they used to. Or maybe they would rather see him in a lighter role,” he says.

Swaroop Swaminathan, journalist and ardent film lover, feels Rajinikanth must continue to experiment. “A king can remain a king if he adapts to the changing world. People accepted Enthiran because he tried something different,” he says.

Rajinikanth’s performance in Kaala is heartening. Even today, none can come close to him in style and screen presence. The intensity in his eyes remains intact. But at heart, Kaala is still a Ranjith film. So why has it become tough to make a proper ‘superstar’ film? Have his political ambitions influenced his choice of scripts? Going by the response to his recent films, Rajini loyalists seem to have found him less interesting in roles where he is only ‘human’ and a mass leader striving to solve people’s problems (Lingaa and Kabali).

Bouncing back from a lean patch isn’t new for Rajinikanth. After Baba (2002) turned out to be a damp squib, he tasted humungous success with Chandramukhi (2004). Next up are 2.0 and an untitled apolitical thriller. The former is by Shankar, a maverick director, while the latter is by Karthik Subbaraj, who could well be the future of commercial Indian cinema. Will the king rise again?