I was a member of official Rajnikanth Fan Club in Japan, my membership number is 001. Why do I say I 'was' a member? Because the fan club has been in a state of coma for 7-8 years. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that none of Rajni sir's latest movies have been released on the big screen in Japan — that is, since Padayappa (1999, Japan release in 2001) — with the sole exception of Chandramukhi (2005, Japan release 2006 summer).
But things were very different in 1998. That was the year the Indian movie boom started in Japan with the release of Muthu, The Dancing Maharaja, which ran for more than 20 weeks. At the time, thousands of people who didn't usually go out for movies packed the theatres and every show was full. Muthu gained the reputation of being "the super entertaining movie of the century", as one commentator called it. Why isn't star rising anymore in the far east?
The fad passed in a couple of years. Since Muthu, around 20 Indian films —including Bollywood ones starring Shah Rukh Khan — have released here. But none of them has been a hit. Even when the crowds spoke glowingly of some of the movies, the distributors failed to see any business sense.
WHY RAJNI, WHY JAPAN
The Japanese moviegoer didn't fall in love with Rajnikanth at first sight. He was just another middle-aged man for this audience. But each of us thought: why is he such a superstar in South India? Why do his fans behave so ecstatically every time there's a release?
Then we watched Muthu and our thinking changed. His smiles, styles and screen presence were very attractive. Everyone who watched him in the theatre, couldn't forget the middle-aged man.
And so Muthu became more than a hit — it became a sort of a social phenomenon in Japan. Everyone was talking about it. First, actress Meena (she was played up on the posters, leaflets and publicity stills for Muthu) became popular for her very Indian beauty, an aesthetic the Japanese had not known till then. Her extraordinary beauty grabbed attention, especially of the women. Also, all Japanese stars are slight of build. But Meena was so charming despite her ample figure. So people first flocked to watch her.
Then the film's look attracted us. Muthu's story was simple and it used little technology — it was, in a way, an out-of-date style. But at that time, 'out-of-date' was the in thing in Japan. Even now, some Japanese films use the spare style, though less commonly. And I also think that there's something similar between the Japanese language and Thamizh mozhi.
After Muthu, many Indian stars were introduced in Japan. Some were much more good-looking. But none of them had the addictiveness of Rajni's style.
A FAN'S PROGRESS
At the time I saw Muthu, in October 1998, I was a victim of corporate downsizing. I was so blue that I'd isolated myself from society for over half a year. Then I heard about the film and went to watch it — and I felt better than I'd felt in a long time. I went to the theatre again. Not long after, I landed another job.
Every time I have watched a Rajnikanth film, I have got a positive vibe from it. In that sense, he's a guru to me. I visited Chennai when Baba released, Singapore when Chandramukhi came out, Kuala Lumpur for Sivaji, and Johor Bhar for Kuselan. And as luck would have it, I got several opportunities to meet my real guru.
Though his recent films haven't shown here, there are thousands fans who watch his later releases on DVDs brought abroad. But all of us are put off by the lack of Japanese subtitles.
If this state persists, Rajnikanth will remain the 'star of yesteryears' he seems to have become in Japan. I feel heartbroken. And every time I read about the "world release" of a new Rajni film, I feel sad that Japan is not in that "world".
Noriko Inagaki, 39, is the first member of the official Rajnikanth Fan Club in Tokyo.