As Kabali shines in theatres across India, we explore the Rajini phenomenon and ask what makes Rajinikanth “Thalaivar”.
He was writing a Python script diligently. He tested it with multiple scenarios. There were a couple that failed. Nothing less than perfection would be accepted here. He made some changes to the script and made the code do all that was necessary.
This is a typical scene of someone working on a challenging project in a Bengaluru-based multinational software sweatshop, you’d think.
It’s a fan of Rajinikanth – Blasphemy! it’s always Thalaivar, or Superstar - working on a script that automatically checks a ticket booking website to get notified when theatres declare themselves available.
He has booked tickets for himself and his friends despite predictions that they wouldn’t be able to watch Kabali, Rajinikanth’s latest flick, first day, first show.
A WhatsApp message followed. It went, “poDa… aanDavane namma pakkam irukkaan” (Ha! Don’t worry. God himself is on our side).
For non-Tamil-speaking folk, let me contextualise that message. A slightly grey-bearded but black-haired Rajinikanth - cigar in hand, looking at the camera with a smirk - delivers that punch dialogue in his blockbuster cult hit Padaiyappa when a sidekick says Rajini’s enemies have the whole political establishment on their side.
Elsewhere there’s a group of daily wage labourers, auto drivers and cab drivers who have eked out some money to get a huge Rajini cutout made and to buy litres of milk.
To pour it on Rajini’s cutout, of course. Although Aamir Khan has had problems with pouring milk on idols, this is one milk abhishekam he wouldn’t dare openly gripe about.
What explains a daily wage labourer going all euphoric about a man saying “Naa oru thadava sonna….nooru thadava sonna maadiri” (If I’ve said it once, it is like I’ve said it 100 times).
What does that even mean!
What explains a perfectly normal, calculative investment banker’s brain going haywire at the sight of a bald but obviously wig-supplemented, very ordinary-looking, grandpa-aged antithesis of a Greek God walking on screen with his hands in the pocket?
Answering it is fraught with peril. First, there are experts galore who have been writing columns ‘deconstructing the Rajini phenomenon’ to cash in on the mania around the release of his every film. Every insight on this phenomenon runs a high probability of being redundant.
Second, it is much like explaining an insider’s cultural idiom to an outsider. For example, you’d tie yourself in knots if you tried to explain the term “dharma” accurately to a mind from a non-dharmic weltanschauung. But it has to be done.
A product of space and time
Tamil Nadu underwent an upheaval in the mid-twentieth century. A movement based on linguistic pride and rabble-rousing atheism danced all over the socio-cultural life of a deeply religious people and trounced the latter in the public sphere. Religious messaging had run its course in the popular mind and was now slowly being replaced by secular social messaging. Fewer gods were being admired in exterior popular consciousness.
But the human mind’s love for heroes never wanes.
Nature, as we all know, abhors a vacuum. This vacuum was filled, with stupendous success, political power and social assertion by a very powerful weapon - popular culture. It was a potent force in perpetuating socio-political themes bred on a heady cocktail of linguistic exceptionalism and a cultural superiority complex that played Dr Jekyll to a perceived victimhood complex’s Mr Hyde.
Where there is a need for heroes, there is myth-making. MG Ramachandran (MGR) used this to prodigious success. One never knew where the on-screen do-gooder who fought ruthless oligarchs ended and where the off-screen bleeding heart politician began. MGR was acting but also wasn’t acting. He was acting to his own script while breezing through many movie scripts on the way. It wasn’t about the art anymore, but about where the medium led. Rajini inherited this atmosphere and happened to Tamil Nadu just when the time was ripe for picking the next generation of hero-worshippers.
The bait and switch
It is now part of a legend that Rajinikanth started out portraying negative roles before graduating to a full-fledged hero. Aided by novel characterisation by some off-the-beaten-track directors and his own stylish flair, Rajini brought a chilling flamboyance to the bad guy. Simultaneously, a new generation of young men had arrived as an audience. These men were born into a less naive world and felt suffocated by the diabetic sweetness in the yesteryear hero. The flashy bad guy with his trendy mannerisms who was supposed to be hated was getting the claps and whistles. This was the bait.
Then came the switch. After a few good character roles and a few meaty protagonist roles, Rajinikanth fell upon the star formula – that which MGR had used. Rajini, however, sculpted this hero in his own way with grey shades. Rajini’s hero could be a man who was a law unto himself, who did things not entirely legal, but did all of it for the greater common good. No wonder that many such movies of his were adaptations of Amitabh Bachchan’s hits. The crowning glory of this bad good guy formulaic path was Baashha, which was Bachchan’s Hum on steroids.
The switch to superstar from the stylish bad guy was complete. He had created a whole industry around himself by packaging idiosyncrasies, the biggest - his superstar-era hits were built around a “good rich man turned good poor man due to bad guys, rises again to become the good rich man”. Poor Rajini would become rich Rajini in the space of one song. Not for the on-screen Rajini the details of how hard it is to become a rich man from a poor man. The fans did not care either.
The man, the myth
“Rajinikanth used to entertain people with his mannerisms even as a bus conductor.”
“He still stays in his bus-conductor-era friend’s humble home when he visits Bengaluru and roams with him on his scooter.”
“He likes street food. So he goes in disguise and eats street food.”
“He still drives around in an old Ambassador.”
“He helped this actor repay his loans.”
“He chose that comedian to star with him since that comedian’s market was down.”
You keep hearing these nuggets every now and then from many.
You will find stars who are liked for their acting prowess, dancing ability, daredevil stunts or good looks. Unlike them, the unique marvel about Rajinikanth is the dynamic between the man he is and the myth his movies disseminate. One feeds off the other.
On reel, he gives out clichéd messages about hard work, dedication, loyalty, good conduct and philosophy. People get enamoured and worship him as though he revealed this wisdom. People who see the real Rajini off-screen come to admire the man he is, for the effortlessness and acceptance of reality he embodies and begin liking his movies.
Much like MGR, the point where Rajini the screen myth ends and where Rajini the irresistibly humble superstar begins is blurred. Both entities segue into each other, creating a certain continuity in the fan’s mind where they accept Rajini as an ageing grandfather off-screen, but also whistles at his wig-enhanced personality wooing a young heroine, beating up ten bad guys. Straddling between those two extremes without making it jarring for his audience has been Rajinikanth’s biggest victory.
The internet sensation
Earlier superstars had a great advantage. They had a captive audience – an audience whose only entertainment was cinema. This created undisputed superstars. In post-reforms India, there are twenty different things you can do in one hour to keep yourself entertained. But unlike other superstars who’ve either faded away or accepted a lesser pedestal, what remains unchanged even in the internet era is the Rajini craze. While half of this craze is fueled by mild condescension-filled amusement among non-Tamils, especially North Indian people who couldn’t have enough of Rajini jokes or outlandish stunts, there has also been a push back from the millennial Tamil youngsters with an “It’s cool to leave logic out when it’s Rajinikanth” attitude. Then there’s the other matter of folks born in the 1970s and 1980s sticking to him as though he is a link to their own youth.
Given the audience fragmentation and digestion of metrosexual mores in pop culture, Rajinikanth may be the last ‘son of the soil’ superstar who commands the fanatical admiration of three generations of fans across every divide.
Thanks to the friend who wrote that Python script, the first day, first show of Kabali awaits.
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