People think that celebrity kids are snobbish. That’s not true, says Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth Dhanush. Then, she treats us to her favourite Rajini joke…
There are loud whistles and cheers as Rajinikanth knots a white handkerchief around his neck to the rising crescendo of drums. With his characteristic swagger, he straightens the collar of his shirt and breaks into a sprightly dance number.
The audience inside Chennai’s famous Albert Theatre goes berserk. Not for the first time at this premiere show of Thalapathi, the hall erupts into deafening applause. Some people in the audience rise to dance with their hero, others fling coins at the screen. Many have come with their hair styled into samurai buns, just the way Rajinikanth wears his in a romantic song in this Mani Ratnam-directed modern adaptation of the Mahabharata.
The year is 1991. Sitting in the VIP enclosure, next to the superstar himself, is a wide-eyed nine-year-old girl witnessing this frenzy for the first time. Outside the theatre earlier, Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth had watched hordes of fans burst crackers and perform aartis before her father’s giant posters.
“Initially I was startled by all the noise,” she recalls. “But soon I began to enjoy it. It was like a festival.” It was also the first time Aishwaryaa realised the magnitude of her father’s superstardom. “It was the first time that I had watched Appa’s film in a theatre. Before that we used to attend preview shows. But after Thalapathi, we started watching first-day first-shows of all his films.”
Twenty-five years later, the magical popularity of Thalaivar (leader) — as Rajinikanth is fondly called by fans — has only grown. The hysteria that surrounded the release of the 65-year-old actor’s film Kabali in July is testimony to his cult status. Many companies in Chennai and Bengaluru gave their employees the day off to watch the film. By the first week of August, the movie had done business worth Rs 670 crore worldwide.
“There is a lot of excitement and tension in the house before every film release,” says Aishwaryaa, “Irrespective of how many films he has acted in [154 in a four-decade long career], for Appa, every release is as if it were his first.”
UNDER THE LIMELIGHT
We’re at the Chennai office of Wunderbar Films, the production company that Aishwaryaa co-founded with her husband, actor Dhanush, in 2010. Aishwaryaa’s cream-and-pink office is small and cosy. A laughing Buddha sits next to a painting of Sai Baba on her desk. There is another small statue of the Maharashtrian saint on her bookshelf in a corner. The window behind her seat offers a good view of the rain-drenched city, its tint lending jewel tones to the greenery and blue skies outside.
Aishwaryaa, 34, has just wrapped up a three-hour photo shoot for Brunch. Dressed in an orange sweatshirt and black jeans, she is now seated behind her desk and talking about why she never wanted to be an actor. Her hair is pulled back into a loose half pony and her face is wiped clean of all make up.
“I wanted to be a script writer and a director,” she says of the dream she realised in 2012 with her directorial debut 3, a thriller starring her husband Dhanush and actor Shruti Hassan. “The only time I act is when I have to explain a scene to my artistes, otherwise I am very self-conscious in front of the camera. Even for a simple photo, I go stiff and act like Chandler from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.”
The two-film-old director has now also turned writer. Her memoir, Standing on an Apple Box, will be released next week. The book, she says, was born out of her love for writing and a desire to rectify the myths people have about the lives of celebrity kids. “It is a common perception that we’re snobbish, and get things easy. It is not like that.”
THE 10/10 KIDS
Mornings in the Rajinikanth household began with the chants of Venkateswara Suprabhatham (a Sanskrit hymn) that played nonstop while the girls got ready for school. In the afternoon, they had tuition, followed by tennis, veena, and dance classes. By 8pm, they were in bed.
“Our mother kept our days so jam-packed that we had no time to think about anything else. Maybe she did that consciously so that we didn’t feel that Appa was not around,” says Aishwaryaa. “We saw very little of him because he was very busy, doing seven to eight movies a year. Our memories of time spent with him as kids are richer in quality than quantity.”
It was the rare family trips abroad that she most looked forward to. “That was the only time we could do ordinary things with him like walk around on the streets or go to a grocery store.”
Aishwaryaa credits her mother, Latha Rajinikanth, for not letting their father’s fame go to their heads. Their photographs were never released to the press and the fact that Aishwaryaa and her younger sister, Soundarya, studied in the school run by their mother (The Ashram) also helped. Far from being treated differently, she says, the two of them had to be on their best behaviour.
“We were quite boring,” says Aishwaryaa. “We never got the chance to do anything mischievous because our mother always knew what we were up to. We travelled to school in a car with an escort. There was no space to be naughty.”
THE DOWNSIDES OF FAME
Being a superstar’s child meant not having the little freedoms most people take for granted. “I was never allowed to stay overnight at any friend’s house. When I got into a prestigious law college, I wasn’t allowed to go because my mother didn’t want me to study outside the city.”
In her memoir, she writes of the time she wanted to go to a discotheque on her 18th birthday and her father offered to take her himself. When the family and friends (packed into eight cars) arrived at the disco, cops had to be called to control the crowds. Fifteen minutes later, when the clock struck 12, her father wished her a happy birthday. Then he said, “Shall we leave? You wanted to see a disco…I have shown you one. Let’s leave now.”
But being famous did not stop Aishwaryaa from forging strong friendships. In her memoir, she writes of picnics at “beaches, parks and temples”, of the first friends she made at her maternal grandparents’ flat in Bengaluru (playing “robber police, lock and key and an invented game called pole to pole”), and of two childhood friends who are now her 3am buddies.
There is also a mention of how she once snuck out for a ride along the Marina Beach in a girlfriend’s open-top car (her first “in an open vehicle on a public road”). Much later, she learnt how to drive on the sly. Not so boring after all.
LIFE COMES A FULL CIRCLE
Aishwaryaa was 21 when she met Dhanush while attending a screening of his film, aptly-titled, Kadhal Konden (I Fell in Love). They were married within a year. “My parents are very conservative. They didn’t want gossip about us to be splashed in tabloids. They were like, ‘if you think you guys are meant for each other then get married’. There was no choice of ‘take your time, date for a while, figure it out’,” she says.
Now that she is a filmmaker married to an actor, and responsible for raising two little boys (10 and six) in the shadow of their father’s and grandfather’s popularity, Aishwaryaa says she can better understand her parents. “The rules which I thought were unreasonably strict make sense to me now. Today, even I wouldn’t let my son stay overnight at a friend’s place.”
Her boys are fans of their father’s and grandfather’s cinema and keeping them grounded, she says, takes effort. “I try to explain to my sons that acting is a job. Dhanush and my dad have earned a lot of love, and it is not something to take advantage of. So when they start making statements like ‘You know who my dad is or my granddad is’, I tell them off,” she laughs.
And she keeps them away from the media so that they don’t draw attention every time they step out. “I send my kids to the temple, to the beach, with friends and cousins to do the ordinary things that all children must do.”
MY DADDY, THE SUPERSTAR
She’s just as protective of her father. “When we’re travelling for work, I am like his bodyguard.” Her father, she says, values her opinion on professional matters and spends his free time with his grandchildren. “I guess, at some level, he missed out on us growing up. So he enjoys watching his grandkids grow up around him.”
Although Aishwaryaa will be producing the sequel to his recent blockbuster Kabali, she says she has no desire to direct her father. “It would be too much pressure, first of all. I don’t think he would be comfortable either.”
Thalaivar is as much an enigma on-screen (no one can explain why a balding, 65-year-old actor commands such devotion) as he is off it (he doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t endorse brands, in even in this day and age he doesn’t promote his films. Yet his popularity is the stuff of dreams). Some attribute it to his larger-than-life onscreen persona, and his rags-to-riches story (born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, he was a bus conductor to begin with). But Aishwaryaa believes the biggest secret of his stardom is his humility and simplicity. “He keeps it real in real life. And he keeps to himself,” she says.
Rajinikanth’s fans are everywhere: from Tamil Nadu to Japan, and Kollywood to Bollywood. They warrant a separate story in themselves. Many of his fan clubs (estimated to be over 1,50,000) do community work (blood donation drives, public kitchens, etc) and hold prayer ceremonies on the actor’s birthday and before the release of his films.
Aishwaryaa is not often bothered by her father’s fans, but does get annoyed when they get pushy. “Those are the ones who have already come up to you, said hello, taken a picture, but keep clicking more from a distance, or bring other people over for photos,” she explains.
So privacy, obviously, is the first casualty, but surely there have to be some perks to having a famous last name? Aishwaryaa pauses to think before she answers. “I would say the biggest advantage is the unconditional love we get wherever we go. My father’s fans look at me as if I am their own daughter. Whatever I do is encouraged. If I am making a movie or writing a book, there’s so much support.” She quickly adds, “Though I won’t get the chance to make a movie just because I am his daughter, because that involves people investing their money in me.”
LONG LIVE RAJINI JOKES
The conversation turns to Rajini jokes and the corners of Aishwaryaa’s mouth begin to twitch. “He hears them, smiles and moves on,” she laughs. And which is her favourite? “There was one recently about demonetisation: When Rajinikanth goes to the bank to deposit money, the banks need to show him their ID.”
Brunch with the stars: The interview that almost didn’t happen
The day I was to fly to Chennai to interview Aishwaryaa R Dhanush also happened to be the day the Universe decided to test my capacity to be surprised. I was at the airport by 7.30am for my 8.30 flight, only to discover that due to fog it had been postponed by an hour. Then another. And another. And my return flight in the evening had been cancelled. The plane finally took off at 1pm. My interview was scheduled for 2.
It was raining when I got to Chennai around 4 and it took another 45 minutes to get to the interview venue. There were more surprises in store once I got there, but those were of the pleasant sort. The photo shoot was just getting over and had gone well. My interview was rescheduled. Aishwaryaa turned out to be a refreshingly candid interviewee -- intelligent, self aware, witty, and prettier than her pictures. To be honest, she had me at the Chandler-Monica engagement picture reference while talking about her awkwardness in front of the camera.
My office had kindly re-booked my return flight for 10.30pm. I got there only to find it had been delayed by an hour. And then some more. But I was past caring. I had my interview. All’s well that ends well, right? *does the Chandler Bing dance*
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From HT Brunch, December 11, 2016
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