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Rajinikanth: Behind a blockbuster life

Shriya Mohan | Updated on July 28, 2021

Style on: At 70 Rajinikanth can still play a mean cop acting half his age, going about making minced meat of goons, as he does in Darbar

Vaasanthi’s latest biography pieces together Rajinikanth’s personal and political journey: From his beedi flipping stunts as a bus conductor to his fall from grace as a politician

* In him, the subaltern found their hero

* Dialogues and songs began to be crafted for Rajini, to suit his fast-speaking Tamil and his swift movements and penchant for super hero tactics

* At 70 he can still play a mean cop — commissioner of Mumbai Police, acting half his age, going about making minced meat of goons, as he does in Darbar, released last year. The film has the Japanese floored at the moment and has grossed ¥230 million so far

***

Are you a Rajini fan? Have you watched his hits at least 15 times? Have you stood in line to catch his first day first show screening at 4 am? Have you bathed his 80 ft cut-out poster in milk, garlanded it with rose petals and lit camphor to the sound of bells as you would in front of a deity? Have you thronged for hours outside his home in Poes Garden, to catch a glimpse of Tamil Nadu’s 70-year-old superstar who makes no effort to conceal his hairline or age? Have you climbed the 1,308 steps of the holy hills of Palani, on your knees, as a prayer for his recovery from ill health? Yes, knees. As if merely walking up isn’t arduous enough. For a true blood Rajini fan, these acts of devotion are merely a way of life. But when one makes it to the end of veteran journalist Vaasanthi’s recent biography, Rajinikanth: A life, published by Aleph, a question lingers: Is Thalaiva worthy of the collective obsession of his fans the world over? What gives?

Style all the way

Hero: The superstar has never bothered to conceal his age or his looks when he meets his fans   -  PTI

 

The book unfurls the journey of Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a Marathi boy who came from a poor family in Bangalore. He slept on footpaths, borrowed clothes from his friends and hunger gnawed his belly. But none of that cramped his sense of style. As a conductor for BTS Bangalore Transport Service on the 10A route, he earned his first fans. “The way he walked, moved, and tore out the tickets with a flourish, gave back the change with style, and brushed his hair with his fingers — the passengers noticed it all... It was rumoured that people waited to catch bus 10A in order to witness Shivaji’s antics,” writes Vaasanthi.

It was while flipping his sunglasses, twirling his cigarettes and mouthing popular Rajkumar dialogues, that he met Raj Bahadur, a passenger who became a dear friend who eventually egged him to apply to The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, Institute of Film Acting in Chennai. And it was there that he encountered director K Balachander, a guest lecturer at the institute, who discovered his “inexplicably arresting eyes” and decided to mould him. If the boy was going to become an actor, the name Shivaji wouldn’t work. To keep his identity distinctly separate from the towering Sivaji Ganesan, Balachander named him Rajinikanth, after a character from Major Chandrakanth (1996), a film he had directed. Stardom flowed like a gushing river.

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People’s hero

But dark skinned Rajinikanth and his implicit irreverence never clicked in the Kannada films. It was the Tamil audience that threw open their hearts, accepting him as their own. And here is where Vaasanthi digs deep for an interesting explanation.

Tamil Nadu’s social revolution, a self-respect movement, was led by Periyar in 1925 as a protest against the Tamil Brahmin supremacy. So effective was the churn that it led to the fall of the Congress and the rise of the Dravidian movement which birthed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), political parties that have been ruling the State for over 60 years. The non-Brahmins and lower castes gained a voice.

“It is in this atmosphere — the air filled with irreverence to caste and class hierarchy that Shivaji Rao Gaekwad entered Tamil films — with his anti-hero image, nonchalance, defiance of authority, and rakish smile,” writes Vaasanthi. In him, the subaltern found their hero.

Acting and the fame that came with it was a drug. Rajinikanth set himself a punishing schedule. From 1978 onwards for a few years, he worked in multiple shifts in multiple languages —Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi. He would shoot during the day and travel at night to make it to the location of the next day’s shoot. Dialogues and songs began to be crafted for Rajini, to suit his fast-speaking Tamil and his swift movements and penchant for super hero tactics.

Rajinikanth: A Life; Vaasanthi; Aleph Book Company;Non-fiction; ₹541

In Padayappa (1999), where he plays a rustic hero, Neelambari (played by the brilliant Ramya Krishnan) his jilted lover turned arch enemy, tells him: “You know why people like you so much? It is because even as you have aged, your beauty and style have remained the same.” Padayappa, swinging regally on a wooden swing, one foot over another, answers with a rush of “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and drawls, “I was born with it. It will never leave me.” Dialogues like these drove his fans crazy and lent to his superstar image.

When he was shooting Sivaji: The Boss (2007), his 100th film, Rajinikanth was reportedly paid ₹55 crore and was Asia’s highest paid actor after Jackie Chan. He still hovers among the top five. In 2018, cast as the lead actor in 2.0, the most expensive Indian film made till date produced on an estimated budget of ₹570 crore, Rajinikanth played the role of Chitti, a robot. From hero, villain, romantic, underdog to a comic, his long spanning career has seen him play every kind of role. At 70 he can still play a mean cop — commissioner of Mumbai Police, acting half his age, going about making minced meat of goons, as he does in Darbar, released last year. The film has the Japanese floored at the moment and has grossed ¥230 million so far.

The weight of hope

Vaasanthi’s biography is pieced together from in depth interviews with Rajinikanth’s close friends, mentors, industry insiders, critics and fans. Despite repeated attempts, she couldn’t get an interview with the superstar himself. That elusive interview might have given the book a sharper edge, devoid of which she often flounders, imagining what must’ve gone through the actor’s mind when the going gets tough. While her use of language is rather straightforward and simple to read, what’s exhausting is the chronology from childhood to an elderly man, almost an year by year account of the films he was in, which gets tiring and predictable.

Another element that appears unnecessary is the parallel story of Jayalalithaa that runs through half the book. The Poes Garden neighbours had a few ugly spats, and the book makes a mention of every single bouquet and brickbat exchanged between them. With two books on the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister under her belt, Vaasanthi is no doubt the Amma expert. But the significant portion devoted to her in the 280 odd page biography feels like padding in an otherwise lean story.

Where Vaasanthi really comes alive is in her detailed analysis of Rajinikanth’s tryst with politics. For many of his fans and followers, it is still unclear why, after dilly dallying for decades about forming a party, Thalaivar made a dramatic pullback last December, citing ill health. Why did he ignite the hope of millions, particularly those ardent supporters in his 50,000 fan clubs, who would give their lives to see him become Chief Minister?

Vaasanthi reveals that he simply lacked the spine.

The actor’s incoherent political strategy of “Anmiga arasiyal” or spiritual politics, his clueless response on many occasions when reporters asked him to spell his views on the effects of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the farmers’ problems, the LTTE’s struggle for a Tamil Elam, fishermen’s agony, honour killings, Chennai floods or Narendra Modi’s popularity, his inconsistent knee-jerk responses followed by retractions and corrections have time and again been an embarrassment to his fans and the political parties vying for his support.

He wasn’t left enough for the DMK, not right enough for the BJP and never warmed up to the AIADMK. And although time and again he declared that his conscience would prick him if he didn’t do something for the Tamil people, he never spelled out his plan. Perhaps all he had was cold feet and no plan.

What is most disappointing to see is that a man who rose from penury to such staggering heights of power and fame, to whom so many millions swore allegiance, seldom used his voice to speak up for the masses. Rajini, unfortunately, is the face of the elite who would rather not ruffle any feathers that might cost them their privilege. If only he were in reality a sliver of his on-screen persona, pulling back no punches. But he is simply an actor who will exit the stage when the camera stops rolling and the lights go out.

Published on July 28, 2021

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