Rajinikanth wanted to be a villain and as one, he looked effortless on screen. He decidedly revelled in roles that had a shade of negativity. Infusing style with menace, Rajinikanth brought to his negative characters an elan not many villains of Tamil cinema could boast of. If only he had his way, Rajinikanth would have perhaps gone on to become Tamil cinema’s quintessential villain.
But, Tamil cinema had different plans for him.
Despite his admission that he preferred doing ‘commercial’ roles which eventually boxed him into a stereotype, Rajinikanth was a fine actor. He was as effortless playing a godman as he was in playing a raw, frightening villain. He could be a rustic village head as also the suave educated man. From comedy to melodrama, he was comfortable in many genres.
In the first few years of his career, Rajinikanth straddled a variety of characters that offered him scope to perform. To those who grew up watching his films in the 1980s – like I did – Rajinikanth remains an actor we will love and cherish, we will celebrate and remember. Here are a few such films.
1. 16 Vayathinile (1977): Rajinikanth did a slew of negative roles early in his career, and his role as ‘Parattai’ in 16 Vayathinile is easily among the best. A local ruffian lusting after Mayilu (played by Sridevi), Rajinikanth was effortlessly villainous playing a perfect foil to an innocent Chappani (Kamalhaasan).
Neither of the actors carried the burden of stardom in this movie, making it more special. Rajinikanth’s punch dialogue "Ithu eppadi irukku?" (How’s this?) remains a favourite among his fans.
2. Mullum Malarum (1978): In a year, Rajinikanth would play one of his career-best roles in Mullum Malarum directed by the legendary J Mahendran. The movie saw Rajinikanth’s raw calibre in all its glory. He played the role of an angry young man with a visceral hatred for the man (Sarath Babu) his beloved sister was in love with.
From the celebrated 'Raman Aandalum' song to the startling climax (where he does accept Sarath Babu but not because he had a change of heart, it is more because his sister comes back to him, assuaging his bruised ego), Mullum Malarum is Rajinikanth’s movie but one that shows him as a brilliant actor too.
3. Johnny (1980): Yet another Mahendran film in which Rajinikanth essayed two different roles – a small-time conman and a hardened criminal. It was another rare film where Rajinikanth was not the macho hero that he would later be. In Johnny, Rajinikanth would eloquently portray the role of a vulnerable human being struggling to reciprocate the heroine's (Sridevi) feelings for him – only because he is a conman not fit for a reputed singer like her.
Celebrated for the scene where Sridevi's character proposes to his, Johnny is yet another wonderful performance by the actor.
4. Thillu Mullu (1981): A remake of Hindi film Golmaal, Rajinikanth was apparently diffident doing Thillu Mullu only because it belonged to the genre of comedy, something he never knew would work for him. But K Balachander, the director who introduced him to cinema, was far more confident of his talent.
Thillu Mullu remains one of the most humorous films in Tamil cinema, evergreen in its own way with Rajinikanth breathing life into the character of Aiyampettai Arivudai Nambi Kaliyaperumal Chandran (and Indiran) with an outstanding performance.
5. Sri Raghavendrar (1985): Directed by S P Muthuraman, this devotional biographical film on Sri Raghavendrar could easily be Rajinikanth’s personal favourite. After doing a slew of negative and action oriented roles, in Sri Raghavendrar Rajinikanth is uncharacteristically calm and unperturbed, something that perhaps did not go well with the audiences.
In an event in 2011, Rajinikanth would go on to say that if there was one movie that his fans would love to revisit five decades later, it could be Sri Raghavendrar.
6. Buvana Oru Kelvikuri (1977): One of those few films where Rajinikanth's character dies in the end, after spending a life in ‘sacrifice’ marrying the woman Buvana (played by Sumithra) deserted by his friend, maintaining a platonic relationship with her and raising her son as his. Yet another film that is a testimony to Rajinikanth’s acting prowess.
7. Netrikann (1981): Rajinikanth’s penchant for playing villain (after transitioning to hero) found its expression in films like this, where he played both. In portraying entirely contrasting characters of Chakravarthi (the father - a flamboyant businessman lusting after women, even raping one) and Santhosh (the sober son trying to mend his father’s ways).
Till Enthiran in 2010, Rajinikanth would often continue to play such dual roles where one would offer him scope to play villain.
8. Engeyo Ketta Kural (1982): Rajinikanth plays Kumaran who remains sensitive and sympathetic (if not understanding) to his wife Ponni (Ambika) who leaves him for another man yet returns after ‘realising her mistake’.
Kumaran gets married to Ponni’s sister Kamatchi meanwhile but defies his father-in-law and others when he continues to treat Ponni sympathetically till her end.
9. Aval Appadithan (1978): A critically acclaimed movie, Aval Appadithan had Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth play friends who are poles apart in their treatment of women. If Kamal Haasan's character was a filmmaker doing a documentary on women’s issues, Rajinikanth's is a ‘prejudiced ‘a**’ who believes women ‘need to be enjoyed not analysed’.
A day after Manju (Sripriya) slaps him for misbehaving with her and makes him run away, he remains a nonchalant boss at office – even telling her not to sulk. “I behaved like I was supposed to when a woman is alone. You behaved like a self-respecting woman would in that situation. It's over,” he tells her. From a man begging Manju to not create a scene to the one telling her to forget the incident, Rajinikanth’s character portrays various shades of negativity with all its complexities in this much debated film.
10. Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai (1979): A melodrama that portrays the life of Santhanam (played by Rajinikanth) who was forced to become the breadwinner for the family when he's barely six. The film shows him selflessly toiling for his family, aspiring to give his siblings the life his father would have. While the siblings go on to make big in life, Santhanam continues to struggle and in the process, his wife is killed.
Finally, the siblings come back to him after Santhanam turns into an acclaimed novelist. He accepts them, with full knowledge of their behaviour.