Did you know that passengers would let buses go empty and wait for the one where Rajinikanth was on duty as the superstar, who was then a bus conductor, amazed people by issuing tickets and returning the change in his trademark style?
Critic Naman Ramachandran’s biography on Rajinikanth recounts the actor’s career in meticulous detail, tracing his incredible cinematic journey from his very first film “Apoorva Ragangal” in 1975 to memorable forays into Bollywood like Andhaa Kanoon and Hum, from landmark films like Billa, Thalapathi and Annamalai to the mega successes of Baasha, Muthu, Padayappa, Sivaji and Enthiran.
Along the way, “Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography” provides rare insights into his personal life, from his childhood days to his times of struggle — when he was still Shivaji Rao Gaekwad — and then his eventual stardom: revealing how a legend was born.
During his days of struggle, Rajini worked briefly at Mysore Machinery in Bangalore before getting a job of loading sacks of rice into trucks at 10 paise per bag. He then sat for an examination and obtained a bus conductor’s licence from the Bangalore Transport Service.
He joined service on March 19, 1970, along with driver Raja Badhar.
“The driver-conductor pair was thrown together a lot, working the gruelling early morning shift that began at 6 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m.,” the book, published by Penguin, says.
“There was no one faster than him in issuing tickets,” remembers Badhar.
“He would give out tickets with a flourish, return change in style. It was all about style. Passengers would look on in amazement. He would always flick back his forelock in those days, that’s why he is bald today,” says the driver.
“Passengers would let earlier buses go empty and wait for the bus where the entertaining conductor was on duty and crowd in. Shivaji definitely knew how to work a crowd and play to the gallery even then,” he recalls.
Rajinikanth is, arguably, the biggest superstar cinema-crazy India has ever seen. His stylised dialogues and screen mannerisms are legion, and his guy next door-cum-superhero image has found a hysterically appreciative following among millions of moviegoers.
The superstar remembers clearly his time of flux before he joined the BTS in the book.
“I’m an ordinary person. Before I was a bus conductor, I was an office boy, a coolie, a carpenter,” he recalls. It was at the BTS that Shivaji met the person who he describes today as his best friend — Raja Badhar.
After duty, he and Badhar would go to their respective homes and rest for a while. The actor would make his way over to Badhar’s home in Hanumanthnagar every evening and they would go to rehearse for the plays they acted in from time to time which were organised under the aegis of the BTS Association.
Rehearsals were in a hall next to the Chamrajpet police station and would go on from 5 p.m. till 8 p.m. After that, they would walk over to the market in Kalasipalyam and have a few drinks.
“He would drink arrack and I would drink beer,” recalls Badhar. After drinking they would walk back and eat dinner at their respective homes.
The long conversations that the friends had were almost exclusively about cinema. They would watch almost every film that released each week, with Rajinikanth continuing to enjoy Shivaji Ganesan, Rajkumar and MGR starrers. After watching the movies, he would enact scenes in the manner of these stars.
Paying tribute to the late Ganesan, Rajinikanth says, “I watched him, I imitated him. He is the reason I am in the cinema industry.”
He also acknowledges the role theatre played in shaping his acting career. “The stage is my mother,” he says.
“When I was a conductor, after I’d acted in more than 25 plays, my friends, the drivers and other conductors asked me why I shouldn’t go into cinema. You’ll become a famous villain, they said. They gave me a boost.
“But I didn’t know what to do, as I’ve never liked to ask anyone for any favours. And what would I say to anyone, as I’m not good-looking. With what background could I ask anybody for a chance? If I would tell them that I’m a conductor, please give me a chance, would they,” the book quotes him.
Badhar and Rajinikanth’s other friends advised him to enrol in the newly formed Madras Film Institute. It was sound advice as Chennai (then Madras) was the epicentre of the South Indian film industry then.
At the time, Rajinikanth knew only a smattering of Tamil, having picked up a few words from watching movies and from friends.
“He asked me for my permission to join the institute,” says Rajini’s elder brother Satyanarayana.
“I told him not to worry about the family. He should come up in life with his acting. And with the blessing of Lord Raghavendra, we decided to send him.”
Thus, Rajinikanth, then Shivaji Rao, decided to join the Madras Film Institute, taking casual leave and later unauthorised leave from the BTS, not wanting to lose the security blanket of a government job should he not make it in the world of cinema.
K. Balachander did not cast about long for a screen name for Shivaji Rao; he chose a character name from his own film, Major Chandrakanth. A.V.M. Rajan had played a character named Rajinikanth in the film, and Balachander christened Shivaji Rao with this name.
And thus was born Rajinikanth, soon to be a household name. The name literally means ‘colour of night’; it was a comment on the colour of Shivaji Rao’s skin.