It was a few days into June in the year 2007 in Mumbai. Those were heady days for the Indian economy with frenetic activity in retail, real estate and in fact almost all spheres in India. Malls and multiplexes within them were cool in those days. In the midst of that, I saw some huge excitement around the release of a Tamil film in Mumbai, probably for the first time. FM Radio stations were talking non-stop about the film, adding to the build-up. The film was Sivaji – The Boss, directed by Shankar and the reason for the excitement was Rajinikanth, who by then had transcended the southern borders and was a phenomenon across the country in what I would say the phase 4 of his still running career.
The film got a huge theatrical release even in Mumbai. When I went to watch the film over the weekend at the nearby multiplex, there were kids, teenagers, young couples, middle-aged folks and senior citizens of all hue, who had thronged to watch the film. The buzz was palpable and unprecedented. I have not seen any other Indian actor who commands such a following across age groups, class divides, genders, and in short across anything, till today.
I don’t think anyone would have foretold such a rise for Rajinikanth way back in 1975 when he literally “entered” the world of films with Apoorva Raagangal, pushing a huge gate in his entry scene. That scene in a sense remains metaphorical of his career in films. He had to push hard against the prevailing stereotypes for an actor to establish himself in phase 1 of his career where he was doing supporting roles, many of them alongside Kamal Hassan, who was already an established star. Much credit is due to director K Balachandar who saw something in him which others didn’t and mentored him as he evolved into a bankable hero. In this period, what made him stand him apart was not so much his acting prowess but his screen presence and mannerisms which came to be branded as “Rajini style” in the years to come.
The same “Rajini style” packaged with some raw energy on screen carried him through as he became a sole hero in films in what would be the phase 2 in his career. Even as he started delivering hits as a hero, there were still questions around his acting skills. Comparisons naturally ensued. If it was MGR Vs Sivaji in the previous era, it was Kamal Vs Rajini in that era. In those pre-social media times, there were endless arguments on who was better, with the Kamal camp emphasising his versatile acting talent while the Rajini camp was pitching for his wider appeal among masses. But given an opportunity by way of meaty roles, Rajini did prove himself as a consummate actor in films like Mullum Malarum, Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai, Engeyo Ketta Kural, Thillu Mullu to mention a few.
Yet, Kamal, the “Class actor” Vs Rajini, the “Mass hero” debate went on unabated. After every film release of either of these stars, I remember our group of film buffs at engineering college re-opening the debate and ending it without a conclusion. There were no hashtags way back then to monitor the trends and announce victories.
It’s in the mid ‘90s post Baasha, however, that something changed. Rajini’s appeal then started transcending all boundaries. Young and the old, privileged and not so privileged, urban and the rural, educated and not educated, men and women, software geeks and accounting professionals – he endeared himself to one and all. Soon, Kamal Vs Rajini debates ceased to exist. Rajini films were simply too entertaining and he became that mass entertainer. Most of Rajini’s films then followed a standard template of “riches to rags to riches” hero, and in real life, from one phase to another, his career graph went only one way – up.
Watch: Rajinikanth in Baasha
From then on, what happened to him and his career are stuff that dreams are made of. Looking back, here was a guy who was defying all established norms and conventions for a Tamil film hero. Rajinikanth was not conventionally “good looking”. He was not fair skinned or even brown skinned – again a much needed specification for heroes at that time. His grip on the Tamil language and dialogue delivery were not up to the mark. He had not come from the “stage” background which was very common for most actors in those days. He did not possess the best dancing skills either. And finally in terms of histrionic skills, there were better heroes around. In short, he did not fit into the established grammar of a hero. Yet, he became the reigning Superstar of Tamil cinema. In all of these phases, he had the backing of talented screen writers and directors who knew how to package Rajinikanth on the big screen.
All the so called inadequacies didn’t prevent him from making a lasting impact on the audience. For sure, he picked up on his acting skills as time passed by. He made up for the lack of everything else with his sheer screen presence. He turned his dialogue delivery style into his own with his baritone voice. On screen, he was always a man of high energy. And there was an element of style in his movements which people simply loved. By his own admission, more than his strengths, he was aware of his shortcomings and decided to work within them. And more importantly like MGR, Rajini had the pulse of his fans. He was very choosy about the subjects he did and the filmmakers he worked with. While he was hands off in the making of his films, in this phase, Rajini always had the final say on what made it to the final cut.
This phase 3 of Rajinikanth’s career is interesting in more ways than one. Before, commercial films were labelled “masala films”, a category in which Rajini ruled. With his films like Baasha, Muthu and Padayappa, Rajini now created the “Mass” film category and owned it for a long time. Mass films came with “mass scenes” which became iconic. Normal lines when mouthed by Rajini repeatedly in a film became punch dialogues. Today, almost all stars across languages have made mass scenes and punch dialogues necessities in their films.
It is this mass adulation of whatever Rajini did, that pitchforked him to become the phenomenon he is today. Beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu or even south India, his films are eagerly awaited even in non-Tamil speaking states of India. Not to forget the surprising admiration he earned in Japan after Muthu. It can be safely said that Rajinikanth is the biggest entertainer Tamil cinema has ever seen till today and he continues to be so.
At 70, Rajinikanth is at the December of his career. However he is not done yet. The opening his film Kabali got, is the envy of many young stars. Even today, the expectations and the frenzy his new film release generates across all age groups are unmatched. The last few of his films might not have matched his all-time hits of the past due to poor storylines and screenplay but, Rajini gave a good account for himself with his performances.
It’s only apt that the Government of India chose to honour Rajinikanth with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award now as he completes 45 years of stardom in cinema, that too without a break. Notwithstanding the timing of the award which has set some tongues wagging, Rajinikanth the phenomenon truly deserved the Dadasaheb Phalke award or rather as the memes would go – Dadasaheb Phalke award truly deserved the Rajinikanth! After all, he is indeed Destiny’s own child, isn’t it?
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.