Indian politics may have just come to terms with the might of regional powers, but in the more pervasive domain of popular culture, regional superstars still seem to be overshadowed by ‘national’ ones. It is only with the release of the Tamil film Sivaji: The Boss starring the inimitable Rajinikanth last week and the accompanying dhamaka about him being the highest paid actor in India — getting in the region of Rs 20 crore for his latest film — that seems to have got the Southern icon noticed by pan-India. In other words, with subjective parameters like popularity, star quality and acting skills not providing the final word regarding who’s India’s biggest star, objective ones involving box office earnings, actor’s fees and budgets are considered more dependable to arrive at a verdict.
The fact that Sivaji Rao Gaekwad a.k.a. Rajinikanth has a wide and ‘deep’ fan following rivalling — or as some would have it, topping — that of Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan is indicative of how big he is as a cultural phenomenon. If Bachchan and Khan can muster up a fan following not only among Indians and the NRI communities across the world but also among non-Indians in West Asian countries and beyond, Rajnikanth has his fair share of fanatics in countries like Japan, Malaysia and in the Gulf. The fact that something — the persona of Rajinikanth — can be a huge mainstream hit among South Indians across the planet while presenting itself as an exotic cult hit in far-flung places like Delhi and Tokyo shouldn’t be that perplexing at all. If one changes the perspective, the same argument holds for Bollywood and the rest of the world which seems to be waking up to the latter’s song’n’dance prowess.
It’s not surprising that homegrown cinema is so popular in South India. To think that only Hindi moviedom, by dint of the pan-Indian language advantage, is the only big boy in town is being shortsighted. But the two-way highway that would put Mollywood on a par with Hollywood (read: South Indian movies and North Indian movies; ‘regional’ pop culture and ‘Indian’ pop culture) is yet to be constructed. Most Indians (South Indians included) know their Zanjeer; most Indians (North Indians included) don’t know their Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri. Perhaps, buoyed by the knowledge that South Indian stars like Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi can pull in more money than their ‘northern’ counterparts, the rest of India will wake up to the charms of the aesthetics of South Indian cinema. Not that Rajinikanth or Mollywood has been complaining.