Tamil superstar Rajnikanth tasted unprecedented box-office success with his latest science fiction film, Endhiran (The Robot). Playing a serious research professor who has no time even for his ravishingly beautiful girlfriend, essayed by Aishwarya Rai, he creates an android robot that is a carbon copy of him. Rajnikanth, flush with money and public accolade, has now decided to get even more ambitious. His next movie, Rana, whose shooting will begin shortly, will see him in a triple role, a notch more adventurous than his Endhiran, where he portrayed a human being and a robot.
Although the star has been a critic’s nightmare for many years, his popular appeal has been only soaring. He is undoubtedly a phenomenon that is hard to explain through rational reasoning or logic. He has followers whose numbers are far, far higher than even Bollywood icon, Amitabh Bachchan’s, and Rajnikanth’s fan clubs are significantly more than even those of the late M.G. Ramachandran, a onetime Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who as an actor effectively used cinema as a platform to propagate his political philosophy of Dravidianism or support for the low-caste Hindus.
Though, Ramachandran or MGR, as he was usually called, endeared in a majorly way to the masses of his native Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian State, Rajnikanth’s allure appears far more spectacular. Every time, a film of his opens, the celebration is frenzied. Giant wooden cutouts of the 60-plus actor are anointed with hundreds of litres of milk and honey, and adorned with fresh flower garlands. Pujas are performed and crackers burst, and the first show begins at 12 midnight of the opening day. There is a mad scramble for tickets, chaos and confusion, but sheer joy and solidarity.
Rajnikanth is revered beyond reproach, and he is a friend especially to the poor. Every poor rickshaw driver or bus conductor or vegetable vendor or coolie looks up to him for inspiration. The desire in them to transform themselves into Rajnikanth is obsessive to the point of madness. So, if a character that the star portrays in a movie dies, the theatre concerned will not survive. It will be burnt down or damaged. So complete, compelling and compulsive is the love for the man, who is now balding and quite unattractive to look at.
The downtrodden masses see in his a remarkable success story, a fairy tale, in fact. Born as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bengaluru (Formerly Bangalore) to Marathi parents, Rajnikanth lost his mother when he was barely five, and spent much of his boyhood working as a coolie and later as a bus conductor in that city. Later, a friend and co-worker helped Rajnikanth get admission in the Madras Film Institute in the early 1970s. He got his first break in 1975 with a K. Balachander film, Apoorva Raagangal. It was only J. Mahendran’s 1978 Mullum Malarum that gave him the star tag.
Yet, years later, when P. Vasu made Kuselan in 2008, which was Rajnikanth’s own story, it crashed at the box-office. So too some of his earlier works like Baba. But failures never seemed to diminish the brightness of his halo, and one reason for this is his magnanimity. Every time, a movie did not do well, he offset the losses of his producers, distributors and exhibitors by paying them from his personal funds. So, they were always willing to accommodate him.
There is another reason for Rajnikanth’s immense popularity. He is extraordinarily modest and utterly unpretentious. He does not care how he looks off the screen: all that he wears is a simple dhoti and shirt, and never hides his bald pate. This is in direct contrast to most cinema stars in India: will an Amitabh Bachchan or Kamal Hassan (another Tamil hero) ever be seen in such unflattering light? Most actors are obsessed with how they look. They have to be impeccably turned out at all times, and Rajnikanth’s humility and his ordinary appearance have helped him be one among the crowd. His admirers and others find it easy to identify with their “hero”, and this is a significant reason why Rajnikanth, despite average skills, has been able to rule the silver screen for years.
There is yet another factor working for Rajnikanth. While MGR was the face of Tamil Nadu Dravidian political ideology – which was founded and penned and propagated by the present Chief Minister of the State, M.K. Karunanidhi, and an earlier Chief Minister of the State, the late C.N. Annadurai – Rajnikanth symbolises the current disillusionment of the masses with political governance. He is disappointed with the prevailing institutional and democratic solutions, and tries to find answers outside the system. Yes, on the screen.
And, what is more, off-screen, he exhibits the disappointment by his steadfast refusal to join politics. He has for many years resisted the temptation to join a political party unlike many others of his ilk, like some Bollywood stars -- Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Shatrughan Sinha and so on.
With his off-screen image flawless, Rajnikanth has been making serious efforts to get rid of a tag that has stuck to him: all style and no substance. Some have called him a clown, but perhaps a beloved clown, who has learnt to camouflage his professional weakness through gimmicks. A trendy one is the way he flicks his cigarette in the air to catch it with his mouth, and tricks like these have grabbed the heart and imagination of the front-benchers.
Admittedly, Rajnikanth is trying to come out of that. In his latest work, Endhiran, reportedly made at Rs 150 crores (or more?), the costliest ever in Tamil cinema, Rajnikanth, wiser after the crippling losses some of his earlier films like Baba suffered, appears, at least partly, without much of his trademark gimmickry, something that made him much less of an actor than what he probably was. As scientist Vaseegaran -- engaged in a decade-long struggle to create an android robot that will not only look exactly like him, but also feel the most basic human emotions, such as love, anger and revenge -- Rajnikanth impresses to a degree. There is a lot more expectation from his next, Rana.