After watching Kabali first day first show, my ears haven’t stopped ringing since.
As a north Indian from Delhi without much interest in movies or stars, I had always looked at the consuming passion of Rajinikanth fans for the superstar with suspicion. What’s the big deal? We have Amitabh Bachchan and he is unarguably a class apart, but I have never heard of thousands of people lighting candles in front of his house or shaving off their heads when he falls sick.
From 6 AM to 1 PM, I witnessed the phenomenon of Rajinikanth first hand, for the very first time. I came out with a full-blown, smack-you-on-the-head culture shock.
The Chaotic Jubilation Through My Eyes
I was there to document the opening of Kabali, Rajinikanth movie at Aurora Talkies, a single screen old-school people’s theatre in the Tamil-dominated Matunga area of Mumbai. The disorientation I felt from this sudden explosion of a culture I was new to left me wandering silently from one place to another, observing, wondering and double-taking. Did I just see a fan dressed up AS Rajinikanth AS Kabali to simply catch the first show at 6 AM?
It poured down from the skies, and the fans didn’t stop dancing to deafening dhols. In fact, the dancing never stopped. A new set of fans would just replace the previous one and the next show played. The energy was surreal, magnetic and inexplicable at the same time. I heard a boy saying he didn’t mind falling sick for his Thalaivar; he would do anything for him, even give up his life. There were fans in veshtis and shades, fans in Rajinikanth Fan Group t-shirts made specially for the release of Kabali, fans with Rajinikanth masks, and fans who simply showed up and gave their everything for their star: by dancing, screaming, praying, watching and loving every second of it.
Nearby at a mandir for Lord Shiva, a cutout of him was offered milk and prayers, which was promptly followed by a dancing procession/bike rally back to the theatre. The same process of breaking the coconut, doing an aarti and pouring milk was performed for fans and media alike near the 66-feet tall cutout of Thalaivar- outlined in white and blue mirchi lights. Why 66? Because he is 66 years of age. I’m sure his fans would have thought of the logistical consequence of the increasing height of the cut-out each year, but I’m not sure they see it as a problem.
Kabali: Where Language Doesn’t Matter Because You Can’t Hear the Dialogues, Anyway
If there’s a place in Mumbai to watch a Thaliavar movie, it’s Aurora in Matunga. It’s where the true fans show up, and make every effort the star put into the movie worth it. Each time during the nearly three-hour-long movie, Rajini entered the frame or spoke or simply buttoned his suit blazer, the hall would erupt into a joyous cacophony of screams, whistles, dancing, hoots and cheers.
I don’t even understand Tamil and forty minutes after watching the movie with begrudging reservations at not seeing the big deal, I found myself screaming when that man walked to the rock intro of Neruppa Da. I possibly missed the entireties of to-be legendary dialogues, but the point is, I didn’t really. The movie has a solid plot, with basic characters but it’s really centred only around Rajinikanth. All you need to do is give in his aura (which his fans contribute to greatly), and he’ll draw you in.
Being a part of this anthropological experience has been the closest I have come to putting my finger on what it is about the man, and I’m not very close at all. What I now know is, it’s everything about him: right from how he was a bus conductor, and his route driver paid to start his career, to the immaculate way he carries the most gorgeous, bespoke three-piece suits, to how he has, in a sense, consciously moulded himself to become the larger-than-life personality his fans want him to be.
While I am yet to completely give into the madness of his fandom, I was certainly welcomed with open arms by the multicultural following he has garnered for himself.
With their screams and hollers ringing in my ears still, I have finally hit upon an epiphany. Maybe I’m not supposed to understand Rajinikanth, maybe I don’t need a Tamilian friend to introduce me to him with subtitles.
Maybe the man, the actor, the super star and beyond can only be experienced as the idée fixe that he is for millions of his fans, and you will be carried with the wave.
Or maybe it’s just delirium.
(The story is from The Quint's archives and is being republished on the occasion of Rajinikanth being conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award)