Stargazing Rajnikant
November 2010
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Respect. OK?

Byline: Bhardwaj Rangan
Photographs: Hanif Kureshi

A God in the South, an outlandish curiosity in the North. Find out why Rajnikanth is still the biggest superstar in Indian cinema today.
Stargazing Rajnikant

The formidable and intellectually appealing exercise of demystifying the success of a superstar is, in reality, fraught with futility – as if trying to explain exactly why the traditionally bland palates of the British were tickled by sizzling platefuls of Tandoori Chicken.

So why is a star a star? The reason is usually a mystical and propitious convergence of need, taste, branding and marketing, choice of films and roles, word of mouth, and a few hundred other obscure factors. Take Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s first superstar in the masala hero mould. For years, we’ve been supping on the urban legend that Bachchan’s personification of the angry young man spoke loud and clear to a nation disillusioned by a callous and corrupt establishment, and that’s why he became a superstar. But how does the robust clown of Amar Akbar Anthony fit into this paradigm? Or the brooding romantic of Kabhi Kabhie? Or the timid English professor of Chupke Chupke? Or the hedonistic gangster (and hearty simpleton) ofDon? Can we pinpoint with certainty which facets of the actor appealed most to the audience of the 1970s that birthed this superstar?

Stargazing Rajnikant

All we can say is that the actor appealed to audiences and that’s the conclusion too, even before beginning the admittedly theoretical task of unravelling the appeal of Rajinikanth – the superstar from Tamil Nadu whose reign has far outstripped that of Bachchan’s. Despite the fact that Tamil language films typically receive little attention outside the state, at least in comparison to the nationwide noise Bollywood productions make. And if adulation is taken into account, Rajinikanth is far and away the bigger superstar. Where Bachchan’s fans demonstrate their loyalty by simply queuing up at the box office for his latest release, Rajinikanth’s legions of admirers from fan clubs gather around giant cut-outs of the star, like devotees before a god. They bathe their idol with litres of milk, and firecrackers are set off in theatres to celebrate the arrival of their god’s latest avatar.

What explains his longevity? Or the hysteria he still whips up? And more curiously, what explains the national media’s inquisition into the Rajini phenomenon each time he has a film ready for release? The latter is the most interesting development in the far-reaching and fabulous career of the former bus conductor known as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. That Rajinikanth has long been the cynosure of Tamil eyes needs no recounting – a star of supreme stature in the Tamil-speaking pockets of the universe. But now, his films are dubbed in Hindi and national publications are deluged with editorials trying to make sense of the Rajini phenomenon, if only to convince themselves that the colonisation of a national mind space by a southern star cannot occur without a semblance of logical reason.

And as is so often the case when attempting to explain the inexplicable, it’s the clichés that come to the fore – the twirling of the sunglasses, the flipping of the cigarette, the gesticulations enhanced by whiplash sound effects. And the outlandishly exaggerated action sequences rivalled only by the outlandishly exaggerated punch dialogues, like the one from Sivaji (The Boss) where he tells a villain, who jeers that he’s all alone and outnumbered, that only a swine needs the comfort of numbers, not lions like him.(Kanna, panninga dhaan koottama varum. Singam single-aa dhaan varum.)

Stargazing Rajnikant

These clichés are probably the primary appeal of Rajinikanth to a modern-day northern viewer only acquainted with the actor’s more recent films, made fashionable by media hype. To them, he is a cartoon character of flesh and blood, a fount of thigh slapping humour so bad it’s good. The Rajinikanth who made a mild splash as a leading man in the Hindi cinema of the 1980s lies forgotten. He is now an outré embodiment of the worst (and therefore most entertaining) excesses of Bollywood before it came to be known as Bollywood, namely the “illogical” masala movies of the 1970s. And his films are viewed – with ironic and amused detachment and perhaps even mild condescension – as the desi equivalent of campy grindhouse flicks.

Audiences from Tamil Nadu, however, have a more complex history with the star, which harks back not just to the actor’s introduction in the 1970s but even earlier, to the 1950s. This was when the line through the dichotomous domains of “acting” versus “performing” was first drawn, by the duo of Sivaji Ganesan (an actor, who played characters) and MGR (a performer, who embodied archetypes). The former was idolised by those who viewed cinema as envelope-pushing art, the latter by those who saw cinema as performative entertainment. These two stars so firmly fine-tuned the concept of the “class hero” and the “mass hero” that succeeding generations of leading men could aspire to one or the other but never both. Rajinikanth, in the years before his persona congealed into a signature shape, roamed freely between performance and acting, even if he never was much of an actor in the naturalistic sense of the word. His dialogue delivery was too speedy, with little patience for pauses and inflections, and he had a way of infusing stylised gestures into every move he made, even if it was a mere look.

Stargazing Rajnikant

But the directors of his early films took note of his swarthy looks, his quicksilver mannerisms, and the remarkable way he carried himself – strong, savage, silent. Though Rajinikanth today is best known as the star who, sometime in the 1990s, morphed into some sort of mythological figure, his earliest films are his finest, where his acting limitations are amply compensated for by the expressiveness of his performances. Gradually – and perhaps inevitably – the pressures of success made inroads into these idiosyncrasies, and the roles increasingly came to depend on the iconographic elements of the actor that played to the gallery. A good number of his films were adaptations of Bachchan’s slapstick masalas, though it’s worth noting thatSharaabi was never remade. (It wouldn’t do, after all, to present the people’s hero as a perpetual inebriate.) But Rajinikanth defined and deified himself along the lines of MGR, as a hero of the masses, one among them, their one-shot route to deliverance.

An actor is locked by necessity, within the confines of his role and within the constraints of hewing to reality. A performer, however, is free to break the “fourth wall” between screen and audience. An actor is bound by the complex psychology that defines and outlines the character. A performer, on the other hand, is an inheritor of the archetypal mythological dimensions of role-playing. An actor attracts an audience of a certain age and maturity, but a performer reaches young and old, educated and illiterate, sophisticated and straightforward. An actor is trapped by the nuances of culture, while a performer needs no translation – he is universal. The surprise is not why Muthu was such a hit in Japan. The question is why earlier Rajinikanth movies weren’t. The question is what took Rajinikanth so long to achieve acceptance in cultures that had long delighted in the slapstick masala routines of Jackie Chan, a star very much in the crowd-pleasing performer mould like Rajinikanth.

Stargazing Rajnikant

Having opted to settle into the populist mode in other words, giving audiences what they want – Rajinikanth built around him an old-fashioned aura of star mystique. He almost never grants interviews to the media, and this results in furious speculation about his forthcoming projects, almost entirely predicated on guesswork. He phases out films carefully, and the long interval between releases keeps his audiences hungry. He limits his exposure to the public in the interim, never appearing in advertisements and only rarely at celebrity functions. And he has, like MGR, carefully constructed for himself a do-gooder persona that’s appealing and comforting across all spectrums. To older fans, he is the son they would like, respectful and loving. To younger fans, he is the friend, philosopher, guide. And to women, he is their protector, the vanquisher of vice.

Now may be the time to ask why heroes who came after Rajinikanth, heroes who religiously modelled themselves in a similarly stylish masala mass-hero mould, have failed to achieve a commensurate level of success. Who knows? The essence of a superstar isn’t a formula that can be bottled and bartered. The only foe capable of quelling Rajinikanth is time, and that’s all the more reason to savour Endhiran (The Robot), which is surely among this 60-year-old performer’s last movies as leading man. Then again, witnessing his late-career resurgence, who can really tell?