My first acquaintance with Rajinikanth was entirely second-hand. I encountered him in my short-pants years at school, in the rapture transmitted by classmates poorer in every conceivable way except in their relationship with cinema. My father was particular that I learn to read and write in the classical Dravidian language of Tamizh (Tamil). I went thus to school with the children of waiters, peons, autorickshaw drivers, factory workers and casual labourers.
They filed into every one of the schools I went to with careful faces leading their careful feet. They turned human, eyes shining from remembered dazzle, only when they began to speak of songs they liked, or fights they remembered every move from, or little turns of phrase they had secreted. Or after days of not-feeling-well-miss were confidentially revealed to be spent at theatres in the Cantonment that played Tamizh films. I can never convey to anybody the impossible pangs of yearning that seized me as I listened to these tales.
I can pinpoint the exact moment the world changed - when their conversations seemed to switch from EmJyaaR (M.G. Ramachandran) or Sivaji to Rejjini - sometime in September 1979. Soon there was no escaping him. The boys could imitate his mannerisms with sundry accessories or moves they must have practiced for endless hours. The girls would produce his inflections, the way he dwelt on some words, hurrying through others.
Tamizh cinema was verboten in the ideologically perfect world my father had fashioned for us. But it would filter through in this way, and in songs that fell like missiles out of the sky because some strangers had strapped speakers to their small festivities. I didn't notice it then, but my entire repertoire of boyhood noise was fashioned thus: stray phrases and gestures of operatic brio culled from songs written for Rajinikanth.
I have lost track of the number of times I have sat up in adult surprise on sprees of historically-minded film-watching, because some song brought back an entire week of some misspent summer vacation. Afternoon of baroque automobile noises organised around the phrase 'Manmathan Vanthaanaa!' (The God of Love has arrived!, from Ninaithale Inikkum); or of prancing behind my friends Maruti and Justie as they raised sticks in benediction upon a world too busy to notice, intoning, "My Name is Billa", and the monologue of manly achievement that follows: "Vaazhkai ellam, naanum paakkatha aal illai pokatha oor illa aiyya. Naan nandriyum sollamatten aiyya" (In life, there isn't a man or a place/ I haven't seen/I don't even stop to say thanks).
The first few Rajini films I got to watch were through Doordarshan. I went thus from received rapture to recoil. I remember watching a Kannada movie Galate Samsara (Quarrelling Families), an ornery tale of two couples trying to arrive at connubial bliss. Rajinikanth brought to the screen what seemed like a seething volcanic crackle. Some part of it came from the way his torso seemed to fit itself, through a transparent shirt, to the heroine's body; some from the contempt with which he tore into other males on the cast. It was more than I had the stomach for.
My other initial encounters with the actor - the Kannada film Katha Sangama and the Tamizh film Pathinaru Vayathinile - were similarly marked by recoil. I remember feeling something between terror and fascination as I watched these films.
This was not, however, the only mode in which I got to know Rajinikanth. I changed schools in early adolescence. My new friends were artistes who could quote large stretches of dialogue from memory. They could tease out detail and meaning into scenes with the same ease that they brought to flubbing maths and science.
Television also offered little snippets of song and dance. Some, such as the title number in Thillu Mullu or Ennamma Kannu (Mr Bharath) were five-minute exercises in a jauntiness that nobody ever matched till Prabhudeva and Dhanush eons later. My friends and I were connoisseurs of Rajini's 'feeling' songs, such as Oora Therinjikittan (Padikathavan). Even as the words were jeremiads about failing human relations, there was that quick alternation of grins and grimaces across his face, an appropriate amusement at his own foolishness.Much of this fondness sprang from the signals that the tossing his hair seemed to send out. Picture then my disappointment, years later, when I found that the real Rajinikanth was visibly bald. The woman friend who made this disclosure could only sing his praises for him not retreating behind Karakul cap and dark glasses, for flaunting his non-starry self in real life. But I was inconsolable. It had seemed as real as the Taj Mahal.
It would take me a while to notice and appreciate the relish he brought to those early predatory roles, and to notice that the same relish went into his other roles, his mouth drawing trapezium shapes in the air to show, as it were, the deformations that desire could cause. My discomfort began to be replaced by curiosity only when I watched him in Mani Ratnam's Thalapathi, bringing to the role the game insouciance of a Chinese gymnast who's been told he shouldn't make a perfect 10 today. This was the film where I finally thrilled to the man and what he brought to the roles he took on.
At first glance, there cannot be a foolhardier project than that of 'explaining' Rajinikanth. This, after all, is a landscape littered with rusting hulks and other reminders that prior attempts have ended in unlovely crash-landings. There is the usual misreading, which slots him as dark Dravidian demigod from a darker subcontinent, rich in the hope that alliteration can replace answers to the questions you might ask. Those who have chased after the man or his films to produce biographies have produced no more than a dust-storm of gently falling footnotes. The good Manu Joseph himself has damned all these attempts as folly born out of the idiot faith that analysis from outside must always lead to answers. There is even some management handbook which we must perhaps classify as an attempt at the Rajinikanth joke, an actual humourlessness born of the desire to render absurd that which we cannot explain.
Why did Rajini begin to matter so much to the people I once knew? What was the meaning of that relish which people today miscall style? It is perhaps true that Rajini began to occupy the all-important locus, in Tamizh Nadu, of under-caste hero. The brand of fantasy identified with MGR was sometimes a mobilisation towards an achievable political utopia centred around ideas of justice. Rajini's popularity seems to coincide with a loss of faith in that Tamizh utopia, and a turn towards escapist fantasy.
This common-sense understanding does not explain other shifts that began to consolidate around Rajinikanth. The moment of his arrival, at the waning of one generation of superstars, casts him as some sort of emissary for desire, along with several other actors. The early Rajini, in the various forms of raillery and banter that he offers, seems to make the best response to that demand, to negotiate for his audiences an easier relationship with desire and pleasure than those that were then allowed.The anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown wrote extensively about joking relationships, structures of some small cruelty by which one is permitted to tease and make fun, and the other must take no offence. They allow those with little choice to ask searching questions of that which makes them powerless.
The extravagances that make up the later Rajini's persona are perhaps the means by which his Tamizh audience probes the various arrivals of an English-speaking modernity, and begins to seek restitution for how this arrival dispossesses them.
The Rajini jokes, then, are an answering grimace in an exchange marked by mutual bewilderment. Those of us who fail to explain Rajinikanth must, nevertheless, fail better as we smuggle our pleasure or translate our questions across these strictly drawn lines.
The writer is a poet, journalist, and translator. He teaches English at St Joseph's College, Bangalore.
From HT Brunch, December 15
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