Rajinikanth: The Magical Actor Before the Mass Superstar
A look at Rajinikanth the actor before he became the branded superstar.
Ten years ago, a couple of my friends and I organised a one day Rajinikanth film festival at Alliance Française de Bombay, a half a kilometre walk from the Churchgate station. I didn’t do much legwork, happy to play the enthusiastic cheerleader from the sidelines and enjoy the Rajini marathon. But it was also a naïve era before OTTs, before Chennai Express, Lungi Dance and “Thalaiva”, abominations created by gentrification of the Rajini fandom post 2005.
At that time, sourcing Tamil films for a quick fest put up by a bunch of fans and amateurs was a challenge. For the line up, we had to choose, one, from a gargantuan filmography and, two, a set of three films (one day fest!) that will show off his range for a non-South, uppity South Bombay audience brought up on NFDC cinema. The second part we did not know at that time. We settled for Bharathiraja’s 16 Vayathinile (1977, Rajini’s third year into acting), SP Muthuraman’s Murattu Kaalai (1980), the year of the birth of a new Rajini and Suresh Krissna’s Baashha (1995), his iconic star turn.
The results were mixed. 16 Vayathinile was widely appreciated and the people who watched the film saw a Rajinikanth they had never seen before. Murattu Kaalai garnered only tired post-lunch frowns and it was, by then, a dated film though a seminal one in Rajinikanth’s career (ask M Sasikumar who made Subramaniapuram, events of the film set in 1980). Baashha, screened in Bombay in 2011, did not summon the same enthusiasm it usually does among people of Tamil Nadu when Manickam’s younger brother interrogates,” Who are you? What were you doing in Bombay?” What were we doing in Bombay? Admittedly, a day in the career of Rajinikanth – who received the Dadasaheb Phalke award at the 67th National Film Awards on Monday – was not enough for an examination of a behemoth career made of natural born talent, style and persona.
Today’s stars of commercial cinema, at least in Tamil, go the opposite route. They establish themselves as stars with a checklist of mass cinema – most of them codified by people like SP Muthuraman and Panchu Arunachalam with liberal borrowings – and then begin to reinvent themselves within the confines by working with new age, off kilter filmmakers. This gives room for conversations like will Master be a Vijay film or a Lokesh film? Will Valimai be an H Vinoth film or an Ajith film. What about Nelson Dilipkumar?
When Rajini came along, even for an outsider, he established himself on his own terms. This is what Rajini looks like. This is what Rajini speaks like. This is what Rajini moves like. Now, can we make a mass star out of him? He had to learn Tamil but, as an actor-star, he came fully formed.
Looking back, it is astonishing how the image of Rajinikanth came as a windfall against the lacquer of Kamal Haasan, already a star in Malayalam cinema and rising in Tamil, a cinematic workhorse with fingerprints everywhere. K Balachander – to whom Rajinikanth dedicated his latest award – offered Shivaji Rao Gaekwad three screen names for Apoorva Raagangal: Chandrakant, Srikanth and Rajinikanth, all characters from Balachander’s play and feature film, Major Chandrakanth. We know what Gaekwad chose, and it belonged to the character with vices, the role played by AVM Rajan in the film.
The name brought with it both the baggage and the roles that would establish Rajinikanth as an actor par excellence. Following his turn as an absent lover in his debut, he did an anthology in Kannada, Puttanna Kanagal’s Katha Sangama. He played a village wastrel, disarmingly hilarious but with carnal itch for the lewd who rapes a blind wife. Bharathiraja, assistant on the sets of Katha Sangama, saw the same scheming eye in Rajini’s smouldering looks and drew him as the bigger villainy figure in his directorial debut 16 Vayathinile.
Balachander by then had already cottoned on to a similar force within, casting him as the grey counterpoint to the hero in Moondru Mudichu and Avargal. In both these films and Rudraiah’s Aval Appadithan, there is a certain easy physicality that only Rajinikanth could bring to Tamil cinema then.
He could be a rapist, an abusive husband or open male chauvinist but the man possesses a body and face that could move in lithe, systematic fashion as if he can create his own slow motion. In a terrace scene in Moondru Mudichu when Kamal’s Balaji is trying too hard to get Selvi (Sridevi) to go out with him to the temple and a hotel on her birthday we see Rajini’s Prasad simply going about daily chores. Balaji is gingerly waiting outside Selvi’s door while Prasad walks and talks like the open space is all his to muster. Rajinikanth’s aura makes into a frame before Rajini does and this was 1976, decades before midnight or 4 AM shows with journalists from Mumbai and Delhi flying to Chennai to cover the release of his films.
That’s the charisma that people like SP Muthuraman, Panchu Arunachalam and Mahendran noticed. Muthuraman’s Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri had a melodramatic Rajini play a nice guy that shocked people into submission. It was soon followed by Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum, Johnny and several collaborations with Muthuraman in the early 1980s. Rajini made people disbelieve in archetypes. He could be the everyman doing extraordinary things on screen and it’s not about beating the shit out of ten guys. It is in bringing a sophistication to something folksy like Kali in Mullum Malarum, enunciating “Enna ma” to a sister with affection and command in equal measure.
One can go through the career graph of an actor like it is their diary but to fully glean the influence and power of an identity, one must have either lived through the times or at least share the same block of earth as that of the actor.
For those lands hold the key to unlock the essence of a pop culture phenom that flows in the veins of its people. Rajini in the late 70s and early 80s was a breath of fresh air, a man from the streets – a bus conductor for example – who showed the people that he could bring panache without any high brow aestheticism. He didn’t have to be the upper class communist or a musician or a ventriloquist or a feminist. He just had to be, he was Johnny the fan in the audience, not the one on stage. But with just as much zest. It made the women swoon and men swimming in the ocean of heterosexuality profess their love for him. It does confound me that Kamal with his body of work and fascinating career was pipped to the award by Rajini. That doesn’t mean the superstar is any less deserving. Maybe it will help that handful of audience from ten years ago in that little film festival to see the actor behind the star who has a storied history long before he was corporatised as a brand for the pan-India audience.
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