Moving beyond Rajini-isms: Can filmmakers still give fans endearing Superstar films?

With mega bucks riding on a Superstar film, the directors do not seem to want to take chances and just stick to a time-tested template.
Moving beyond Rajini-isms: Can filmmakers still give fans endearing Superstar films?
Moving beyond Rajini-isms: Can filmmakers still give fans endearing Superstar films?
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A few days ago, the trailer of Superstar Rajinikanth’s upcoming film Darbar hit our personal screens. It quickly garnered a few million hits. The 105-second clip had the usual Rajinikanth’s swag walk, fleeting glimpses of gravity defying action sequences, some mass lines, his ‘stylisms’, Rajini’s athletic dance steps, cheeky one-liners and other bits, reminding us of Rajinikanth’s earlier films. In short, setting expectations for a typical Superstar film full of “Rajini-isms”.

The same thing happened when the trailer of Rajini’s last film, Petta, was released as well. The trailer had the same ingredients mentioned above. And eventually the film directed by Karthik Subbaraj turned out be an ultimate fan boy ode to the Superstar. By Subbaraj’s own admission, the film was a tribute to the Superstar, who the director claimed was his childhood hero. Having seen Subbaraj’s earlier work, it was evident that Petta was a full-on Rajini film that happened to be directed by Subbaraj.

Most of Rajini’s films of the last decade, with the exception of Enthiran and 2.0, would fall in this variety, I would think. These two were essentially Shankar’s films with his grand vision where he leveraged the Rajinikanth persona to great effect. We did see more of Rajini but less of Rajini-isms.

Even a rooted and a sensitive filmmaker like Pa Ranjith ended up making a typical Superstar film in Kabali, just throwing in his touches here and there. In recent memory, if there was one south Indian film which had the biggest expectations before a release, it must be Kabali. The film ultimately couldn’t live up to the huge expectations. The audience got caught in the middle of Rajini and Pa Ranjith genres in the same film.

In his second outing with Kaala, Ranjith redeemed himself, but only partially. Kaala had a lot to say in terms of messaging, but in attempting that and still trying to do justice to the legend of Rajini, the film failed to hit the bull’s eye. The conundrum of whether it was a Pa Ranjith film or a Superstar film continued.

Lingaa, which came before Kabali and after Enthiran, was another story. The KS Ravikumar film tried to unabashedly pander to the legacy of Rajini’s earlier super hits like Baasha, Annamalai and Padayappa. Without a proper story or an engaging screenplay, just a mishmash of Rajini-isms were not enough to salvage the film. In an interview later, Ravikumar mentioned that for a filmmaker it was an arduous task now to meet the expectations of Rajini fans.

Now here’s the Rs 200 crore question. Are today’s filmmakers not capable of showcasing Rajinikanth beyond his usual Rajini-isms or is it that as fans we don’t have the appetite to see Rajini sans his usual “isms”? While working on Rajini films, filmmakers may like to put the onus on fans claiming that the fans don’t give them options. And at the same time, film goers may rue the fact that filmmakers are not going beyond the standard “Riches to Rags to Riches” Rajini template. And the truth, as in most things in life, may lie somewhere in the middle.

First up, as fans of Rajini, what kind of expectations do we have now from his films? Are our expectations limited to seeing Rajini in re-hashed old avatars only? Don’t we like to see our beloved actor in non-template roles? Rajini’s own experience early in his career may give an answer.

Riding high on his action hero image, when he was cast in a different role in Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai, Rajini himself was not sure if the film will work. It required the persuasive skills of veteran writer and producer Panju Arunachalam to get Rajini to go along with the film. The audience did accord their approval to Rajini in this down-to-earth avtar. The film turned out to be a super hit and ranks high among Rajini’s performances as an “actor” and is still talked about.

Coming to the recent past, the mega success of two Rajini films, namely Chandramukhi and Enthiran, are pointers to the audiences’ appetite. These were not the usual Rajini films. Both were adapted to suit the Rajini persona. With engaging screenplays and treatment, the films could transcend the Superstar formula and still do very well at the box-office, while also endearing themselves to fans. At the same time, films like Lingaa and Kabali in spite of ticking off most of the Superstar boxes did not endear themselves to the public due to a weak story line, ordinary screenplay and the very familiar treatment. These films might have got have huge openings, but which Rajini film doesn’t?

My own guess is that, with mega bucks riding on a Superstar film, the directors do not want to take chances and just want to stick to the time-tested template. But then, as we have seen in the recent past, even that doesn’t guarantee success. On the other hand, recent trends in Tamil cinema indicate that irrespective of the main star, people are open to good content backed themes and stories told in an engaging fashion. The huge success of Asuran and Kaithi bear testimony to this. So, if talented directors have confidence in their style of film-making and still tell different stories with the Superstar, in an engaging way, I am certain the watching public will respond positively. For this, the directors should resist getting “Rajinified” too much while signing the Superstar.

To be fair to the Superstar, at his age he still displays tremendous energy, carries off his roles with aplomb and has tremendous screen presence. His magic has not waned a bit over the years, notwithstanding his sagging voice and dialogue delivery. So, it is up to the filmmakers to tap into this potential and make films which will be memorable.

Coming back to the upcoming Darbar, the same question emerges. We all know the ability and past track record of its director, AR Murugadoss. In the last 20 years, his body of work as a director spanning over 15 odd films stands tall. He has established his credentials as a good director with a sense to tell stories around the common man’s problems in his own novel style. But, what is his approach to Darbar?

Is Darbar going to be a trademark Murugadoss film or once again a fan boy tribute to the Superstar? Thai piranthaal badhil kidaikkum! We are waiting.

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

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