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In the last many years post Sivaji – The Boss, if directors and writers have been struggling to make a “Superstar” film that is universally appealing to all his fans, with the exception of Enthiran, blame it on Annamalai, which was made 30 years ago. In my opinion, it is from Annamalai that the ‘Superstar padam universe’, if I may so term it, germinated. Looking back, there is no doubt that Annamalai turned out to be a landmark film in Rajinikanth’s filmography in more ways than one. Ask any fan what his favourite Rajini film is, chances are Annamalai will certainly be a top response.

In Tamil cinema, we always had this two-horse race – MGR-Sivaji and then later Kamal-Rajini. The 1980s was the peak of the Kamal-Rajini rivalry with both having a clear fan base and a constituency to cater to. If Kamal positioned himself as the classy, romantic hero who can charm and act equally well, Rajini pitched himself as the angry young man initially of Tamil and later south Indian cinema whose masala films entertained the masses. Though filmgoers would watch all films, there was little overlap in terms of the loyal fan base between Kamal and Rajini. Kamal vs Rajini debates were endless.

Towards the end of the 80s, Kamal started making his choices count, particularly with Nayagan. He almost stopped doing run-of-the-mill films and in the years that followed, also started involving himself in the making of the film actively alongside acting. Some of his best and commercially hit films in his oeuvre came in this period. On the other hand, though Rajini had his share of hits in this period, he was, in my opinion, stagnating.

Rajini’s films in the run-up to Annamalai in 1992 were Dharma Durai, Naatukku Nallavan and Thalapathi in 1991 and Mannan in 1992. Of these, probably Dharma Durai, Thalapathi and Mannan can be called hits while Naatukku Nallavan flopped. The Superstar was also dabbling in Hindi films with modest success in this period. This is the background in which he signed Annamalai for his guru K Balachander’s banner for a remake of the Hindi film Khudgarz.

With every passing anniversary of the film, we have become familiar with the many stories related to its making. Such as how it was supposed to be directed by Visu initially but he opted out due to creative differences or later by Vasanth, who also backed out due to reasons unknown, and how Balachander eventually got his protégé Suresh Krishnaa to helm the film. How the film went on the floors without a completed script in hand and was made mostly on the go. How Suresh Krishnaa and Rajini approached the film with their own share of circumspection towards each other and so on.

The film, however, went on to become a super-duper hit. But more than that, it paved the way for many interesting things in Tamil cinema. The big success of Annamalai meant that Rajini would start concentrating on Tamil films increasingly. He signed fewer Hindi films and eventually stopped completely except for dubbed films like Sivaji, Enthiran or 2.0.

Following in the steps of his good friend Kamal, Rajini also started becoming choosier in the directors he worked with and, of course, with scripts. This also meant that the number of Rajini releases came down from an average of four in a year to two and then one, and at times, just one in three years.

Annamalai also kickstarted the very productive ‘riches to rags to riches’ Rajini film template. From Yajaman, Baasha, Muthu, Arunachalam, Padayappa, Sivaji, Lingaa to Kabali, this template was flogged repeatedly – mostly to success – by Rajini and his directors/writers.

Alongside this template, Annamalai also set the trend for the other SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures, to borrow from corporate lingo) that completed the Superstar padam universe. The flashing ‘Superstar Rajni’ title card, the title theme music, the monosyllabic title alluding mostly to Lord Shiva – Arunachalam, Padayappa, Lingaa, Sivaji, Kochadaiyaan, Kabali, for example, the motivational solo song for Rajini sung by SPB, the ‘paambu’ type comedy sequence (common in KS Ravikumar’s films), the now popular slow-motion Rajini walk with his team in tow, the screeching and stopping of big identical cars, and of course the Rajini punch dialogue.

That these Rajini padam SOPs from Annamalai were adopted in due course by other stars like Vijay and even in other languages like Salman Khan in Hindi, Mohanlal/Mammootty in Malayalam and Chiranjeevi/Balakrishna in Telugu and is still going strong with new-age actors like Yash in Kannada is a clear vindication of their appeal and sustainability.

Above all, Annamalai put an end to the Kamal vs Rajini divide, in the sense that Rajini started endearing himself to an audience cutting across all demographic and psychographic divides. The films that came after Annamalai accelerated this process. If IT companies in Bengaluru started giving their employees a day off on a Rajini film release day, in rural TN it was almost like a thiruvizha (festival). While the star’s style and mannerisms were lapped up, his acting skills were equally lauded. From a masala action hero, Rajini’s transformation to ‘mass’ hero was complete. Notwithstanding the collateral damage of confining him in a ‘mass trap’ forever.

As much as Suresh Krishnaa and Rajinikanth deserve praise for Annamalai, its writer Shanmugasundaram must also be given credit for adapting the storyline skilfully and getting the screenplay and dialogues right for the Tamil audience. Thirty years since, “Mala da, Annamala…” still has an unmatchable swag to it.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business and films.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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