Rajinikanth's career is in an interesting phase. The actor, who for long had been playing a paragon of virtue in his films, turned the corner and brought out the villain residing within him in Enthiran.
As someone who began his career playing negative roles and was, in fact, celebrated for them, Rajinikanth's transformation into Mr Good also meant that his fans got less of his histrionic talent. Films like Baasha where you got to see him in his badass avatar became too few and far between. Sivaji gave us a glimpse with the 'Mottaboss' character but it wasn't enough.
Though Rajini has always had a stupendous fanbase, he fell into an image trap that seriously restricted the kind of cinema that he could do. Discussions around his films were on the lines of 'Is this a Rajinikanth film?' rather than 'Is this a good film?' - which meant that directors and producers scrambled to fit the film into the actor when it should have been the other way round.
However, audiences have changed over the years. With the rise of the underdog hero in Kollywood, it became apparent that people appreciated shades of grey to the characters they watched on screen. The hero could swear, commit crimes, and even lose and they loved him all the same. Straightforward stories of Good Vs Evil became boring and breaking the template began to look more and more attractive with the rise of young filmmakers.
One such filmmaker was Pa Ranjith who stormed to fame with Madras. Anyone who has listened to Ranjith's speeches or caught the subtext in his films would know that he is deeply aware of the politics of representation in cinema and is keen to use the medium to change narratives in popular culture.
And there was Rajinikanth, in desperate need of a director who would utilise him effectively without disappointing his fans. His last film Lingaa with KS Ravikumar received a lukewarm response from the audience and was declared a flop. It had precious little to offer in terms of novelty and told a conventional story that was earnest in playing to the gallery.
Kabali, Ranjith's partnership with Rajinikanth, was a victory for both. For the filmmaker, Rajini was the perfect vehicle to take his politics to the masses. For the actor, the film was an opportunity to break out of the many stereotypes he'd been selling for so long. Kabali was far from a perfect film but the mania that it unleashed was unprecedented.
Though Rajini plays the hero in Kabali, it's unlike any character he has done in a long time. This was a film where the actor played his age and embraced emotions that he has not portrayed thus far - old love, a theme Kollywood has not explored much, became precious to the youth-centric audience which was mesmerized by Mayanadhi. He was stylish but he was also a man with vulnerabilities. Kabali was human and not a demi-god as Rajini usually is in his films.
And buoyed by the success of Kabali, the duo has now come together again for Kaala in which Rajinikanth plays a don, this time fighting for the rights of the Tamils in the big, bad city of Mumbai. Kamal has done it wonderfully in Nayagan and one can't wait to see where Ranjith-Rajini will go with it. From the looks of the poster, Rajini's character will not only be cool but also complex.
Rajini's other project with Shankar's 2.0 is also much awaited - in the last film, Chitti who made for such an awesome villain-robot had reformed and dismantled himself in remorse. Akshay Kumar is said to be playing the villain in 2.0 but one hopes that Shankar would have retained some of Rajini's bad-boyness in the sequel.
Rajini's reinvention comes as a relief to his fans who were worried that the Superstar had become too big for any filmmaker to experiment with him. Now that Rajini knows that the audience will accept him even if he moves away from the template as long as the film is in capable hands, we might finally see more of the Superstar's capabilities. And that can only be a cause for celebration.