From a bus conductor to near-God status (not to forget, an Internet meme), Rajinikanth has evolved in ways that makes his story almost mythological. Is he even for real?
“What number 1 and number 2? I am the only one, the super one!” There’s smirky self-confidence in the voice of the man who fires that quotable punchline at a crowd eager to lap it up. That line is from S. Shankar’s dystopian 2.0, a follow-up to Enthiran and the man, in fact, is no man but a robot with a software update and a streak of red on his snazzy hairstyle. No prizes for guessing who that robot is. He’s the all-new Chitti and he is played by the good-ol’, one-size-fits-all Rajinikanth, who turns 68 today.
Also starring Akshay Kumar as Pakshirajan, an avowed save-the-birds campaigner turned deranged misanthrope who unleashes an ornithological tsunami in his war against cellphone-crazy humans, 2.0 is exactly the kind of blockbuster that Superstar Rajini’s devotees were waiting for. What makes the success of 2.0 sweeter is that it follows the below-par box-office showing of Kaala that opened in June. It’s rare for the elusive Tamil star to have two back-to-back releases the same year. Rarer still to have poor ticket sales as in the case with critically acclaimed Pa. Ranjith directorial Kaala.
Touted as India’s most expensive film costing over Rs 500 crore, 2.0’s global box-office taking of Rs 600 crore (as of today) reinforces Brand Rajini as one of India’s most bankable movie icons. “I will set your screen on fire,” Chitti says in 2.0, rolling into a giant ball to take on birdman Pakshirajan. He has made good on that promise, going by the film’s unstoppable reign at the box-office.
For fans, a Rajini film isn’t just a film. It’s an event. It’s like a festival, something worth celebrating. The ageing star, anointed to the lofty status usually reserved for gods and goddesses, is a cult, a part-fantasy, part-reality deity whose mythic and larger-than-life image defies all logic. You might find a lot of adjectives crammed in there, but hello, it’s Rajinikanth we are talking about whose very name has become a shorthand for cultural force. How did this former bus conductor become one of the greatest phenomenon Indian cinema has ever seen? “While others used the staircase, he used the elevator to stardom,” that’s how the veteran K. Balachander, who famously introduced this dark horse to Tamil cinema with Apoorva Raagangal, in 1975, described his protege’s rise.Apoorva Raagangal featured Kamal Haasan (resembling a young Sanjay Dutt) in the leading role, while the newcomer Shivaji Rao Gaekward, better known as Rajinikanth, had to make do with secondary billing. But despite limited screen time, this brooding young man was noticed by filmmakers, if not the public. In the initial years, he played a series of villainous roles including half a dozen sinister and vengeful characters, a chequered past that he hasn’t forgotten but it seems, his legions of fanatic enthusiasts somehow have.
Playing the abusive, long-lost husband to Srividya in Apoorva Raagangal who turns up more than halfway through the film, the unshaved and disheveled Rajinikanth made his first screen appearance suitably memorable. But the roles offered to him immediately after Apoorva Raagangal were mainly violent and negative ones. It was always Kamal Haasan who got the good-boy part. In 1976’s Moondru Mudichu, K. Balachander cast him in a love triangle along with Kamal Haasan and Sridevi. In one scene, Rajini’s jilted lover refuses to save his best friend (Haasan) from drowning. The twist ending sends Selvi (Sridevi), once the object of Rajini’s affections, into the arms of his father. She’s now his mother! Once again, he played a sadistic husband, this time to actress Sujatha in 1977’s Avargal, directed by K. Balachander. Next, a ruffian (or a rowdy, as he likes to describe himself in most of his masala actioners) in 16 Vayathinile (1977). Then came Aadu Puli Attam (1977), pitting him against Kamal Haasan. Reportedly, “This is Rajini style,” one of his signature dialogues, originated in Aadu Puli Attam.According to most accounts, Rajinikanth became a huge success towards the end of 1980s. A major turning point was when he discovered Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay, the angry young man of Zanjeer, Deewaar and Don. All these hits were refitted for Tamil cinema purposes, turning the once bad boy of Kollywood into an incorrigible mass hero. Rajinikanth also courted Bollywood and though many of these multi-starrers were successful (Andha Kanoon, Chalbaaz and Hum), he never found acceptance among Hindi audiences.
Note the links in the chain. From his modest origins and his years in the wilderness as a coolie and bus conductor to baddie roles to near-God status to an Internet meme and now talks of politics and you frequently get a sense that his story is so unbelievably mythic that if this Tamil cinema’s underdog wasn’t born, we wouldn’t have been able to invent him. Probably S. Shankar, with his technical wizardry, would. “This boy has fire in his eyes. He will be a phenomenon someday,” mentor K. Balachander’s had once predicted. How prophetic those words have turned out.
Today, while K. Balachander has long passed away, new-age filmmakers like S. Shankar and Pa. Ranjith are playing with the superstar’s image in ways that would make Balachander proud. While sticking to the megastar’s appeal as a messiah-like figure on whom the ordinary folks lean on for rescue, Shankar and Ranjith are infusing their films’ narrative with sci-fi, 3D, fifth dimension, Tamil identity and Dalit politics. We all know Rajinikanth-on-screen likes being on the side of the small guy. Call him a vigilante, an outlaw or Robin Hood, most of Rajini’s hits flout expectations that justice will be delivered through the right systems. He does it his way. Four decades and hundreds of films later, so gigantic is Rajinikanth’s persona that Shankar had to take him out of reality and place him into the realm of science. A scene in 2.0 shows minibots of Chitti let loose in a face-off with Pakshirajan. Thousands of Rajinikanths emerge, as though one isn’t enough to satisfy public demand. Incidentally, in Pa.Ranjith’s recent Kaala, keeping in with the Dharavi strongman’s promise, each one among the crowd puts on a Kaala mask in its sensational climax as they lock horns with land-grabbing politician Hari (Nana Patekar) and his army.