Will Kabali be actor Rajinikanth’s new touchstone?

Updated on Jul 08, 2016 05:23 PM IST

Rajinikanth’s next film Kabali releases on July 1 coming as it does after two back to back failure for the star. Much is expected from the film. The fans want their Thalaivar back. Critics hope for the star’s re-invention. Will Rajinikanth bounce back?

Rajinikanth plays an ageing Chennai don in Kabali.
Rajinikanth plays an ageing Chennai don in Kabali.
ByPrathibha Parameswaran, Chennai

For a star of his stature, the real Rajinikanth is surprisingly aloof. He is nothing like the top movie stars who love to show up at parties or on red carpets at award functions. All efforts by the media to get him before an impending film release almost always end in disappointment.

Yet he remains Thalaivar (Tamil for leader, as he is fondly called) who fans adore – someone who appears in public without make-up or a wig, a bald, ageing star who isn’t accompanied by a dozen bouncers everywhere, an actor who doesn’t put up an act when the cameras are off. This improbable but firm connection makes his fans watch out for him when he is ill, swarm to temples before his movie releases and expect only that the superstar retain his larger-than-life avatar.

Read: Rajinikanth’s Kabali to hit the marquee on July 1

Producers also remain in awe of how Thalaivar’s star power translates into money power. Hansraj Saxena, the former COO of Sun Pictures who was the executive producer of Rajinikanth’s last hit film Enthiran, said, “He gives you a 40-day schedule, the money just comes in. You also get all the cooperation from the other artistes. Even if he spares just 15 days for you to shoot a film – you know for sure as a producer that you can walk away with Rs 150 crore. Which other artiste can do that?”

Enthiran in 2010 was Rajinikanth’s last big hit.

However, the superstar’s dream journey seems to have halted after Enthiran in 2010. His last two films – Kochadaiiyaan (2014) and Lingaa (2014) – have been commercial failures. A Rajinikanth film is a prestigious project for all involved and a flop has ripples across the industry, sometimes even affecting the trade of other films. Theatre owners briefly stalled the release of actor Vishal’s Paayum Puli, produced by Vendhar Movies, as they had not been compensated for the losses incurred after screening Lingaa. (Vendhar Movies had acquired the Tamil Nadu distribution rights for Lingaa as well, and hence the tussle.) The matter was later settled with the intervention of the Tamil Nadu Film Producers Council.

Read: Kabali trailer | Superstar Rajinikanth is a fiery don

Speculation is now rife that the superstar might have lost his edge. The usual formulaic masala plots no longer seem to hold the audience’s interest. Sreedhar

Pillai, a Tamil film industry analyst, said, “Rajinikanth can be presented only in a certain way because that is what the audience expect from him. All his experimentation will have to be within this perimeter.”

However, Rajini’s associates say they are not apprehensive of future projects. “He has given over 125 hits, a few flops along the way do not affect his image at all. Gold is always gold, brand Rajini is not tarnished,” dismissed Raju Mahalingam, Creative Head and COO of Lyca Productions, who is producing the Enthiran sequel film 2.0.

The double debacle

Rajinikanth’s new film this year Kabali comes after two financially unviable projects that cost the actor more than a few good reviews.

Kochadaiiyaan was an ambitious film with a budget of over Rs 140 crore helmed by the superstar’s daughter Soundarya Rajinikanth. It deployed motion capture technology for the first time in India. After over three years in the making, when it finally arrived on screen, Rajinikanth’s animated version failed to impress. There were exclamations of disappointment with the quality of animation and storyline.

Read: Kabali new poster | Rajinikanth as an ageing don who don’t give up

The mega bucks spent held little appeal to audiences used to a generous dose of punchy dialogues and Rajini-isms. The film bombed after recovering only about Rs 100 crore. In the following months, the makers struggled to settle dues owed to financiers like Exim Bank and Chennai-based firm, Ad Bureau.

“Choosing a movie like Kochadaiiyaan after Enthiran was taking a step back. The superstar could have done something more worthy of his image,” said Enthiran’s production controller, Vimal G Manikandan.

Many have defended Kochadaiiyaan saying that it cannot be counted as a normal feature film as it was an animation experiment.
Many have defended Kochadaiiyaan saying that it cannot be counted as a normal feature film as it was an animation experiment.

Lingaa was made by the same team that had delivered hits like Muthu and Padaiyappa, but it struggled with a dated plot and a screenplay that didn’t engross. Critics also panned the film for its length.

Many distributors under Marina Pictures’ R Singaravadivelan rallied for a refund from the filmmakers, claiming a whopping loss of 70% of their investment, to the tune of over Rs 33 crore in all. Distributors outside the state also reported losses of Rs 20 crore, though no demands for compensations arose from them. Lingaa was said to have been made at a budget of close Rs 80 crore and was distributed outside Chennai for Rs 72 crore. The film recovered only Rs 32 crore according to the protesting distributors.

Read: Rajinikanth can’t be blamed for Lingaa losses, says TN producers’ body

Discussions between Lingaa’s filmmakers and distributors were mediated by Kalaipuli S Thanu, who heads the Tamil Nadu Film Producers Council. “Lingaa did a business of Rs 35 crore in Tamil Nadu alone in a very short time. The movie was unfortunately distributed by a set of newbies who did not understand the movie business,” Thanu maintained. Though initially hesitant, Lingaa’s producer Rockline Venkatesh and Rajinikanth ended up pooling Rs 5 crores each to partially compensate the film’s losses.

Thanu is quick to come to the superstar’s defense when questioned about the recent flops. After all, he is producing Kabali. “Kochadaiiyaan cannot be counted as a normal feature film, it was an animation experiment,” he said, hinting that the failures have had no bearing on Rajini’s image.

Here comes Kabali

Kabali is undoubtedly the most anticipated film of 2016: There is a lot riding on the Rajinikanth phenomenon once again.

And the actor seems to have realised the need to reinvent his image.

Watch Kabali trailer here:

His character’s likeness to his real age is evident in the teaser trailer. There’s also a younger version that appears fleetingly, sweeping his hair back in the actor’s signature style. It seems to be working so far – the teaser got five million hits on YouTube on its first day alone. With over 20 million hits so far, it has already broken records of Bollywood hits such as PK, Dhoom: 3 and Salman Khan’s upcoming Sultan.

“Going by the trailer, I don’t think there will be any nervousness for anyone pertaining to what the opening will be for the movie,” predicted Swaroop Reddy of Sathyam Cinemas. “It has sort of set a benchmark for what to expect from the film. I think it’s a sure-shot blockbuster.”

Read: Lingaa review | How much of ‘Rajinikanth mannerisms’ can one take?

Bollywood actor Radhika Apte plays the female lead in the movie that’s said to be an action and family entertainer. Dhansikaa, John Vijay, Dinesh Ravi and Kalaiarasan play supporting roles.

At 65, Rajinikanth still commands the largest theatrical opening in Tamil Nadu and in the rest of India for a Tamil film star. Given the overwhelming response to the trailer, exhibitors are all set to capitalise on Rajinikanth’s star power by allotting the maximum number of screens which, sources indicate, may touch 4,000 worldwide. “Most Rajini films release without competition for at least a couple of weeks,” added Reddy.

Lingaa was said to have been made at a budget of close Rs 80 crore. However, the film could recover only Rs 32 crore.
Lingaa was said to have been made at a budget of close Rs 80 crore. However, the film could recover only Rs 32 crore.

The superstar’s move to work with a relatively new director this time around did surprise many. Pa Ranjith earlier directed Attakathi, a box office success starring Dinesh Ravi, made on a shoestring budget. His 2014 Karthi-starrer Madras explored the issues of Dalits living in north Chennai. Though it was an average grosser, critics commended Ranjith’s filmmaking style.

Read: After Delhi’s Nehru stadium, Rajini’s 2.o team shoots at a Chennai mall

Kabali’s producer Thanu betrays no signs of anxiety as the project gears up for a July release. “It’s a big-budget Rajini film,” is all he said when asked about the movie’s budget; industry sources estimate it to be around Rs 110 crore. Thanu shrugs off reports suggesting that the new movie has already done business of over Rs 200 crore. “I have only sold the distribution right for the US, Australia and Malaysia so far,” he said. “I won’t be making any deals with distributors in India until after the audio launch.” Kabali’s dubbed versions in Malay, Hindi and Telugu will release with the original Tamil one.

Interestingly, Lingaa’s producer Rockline Venkatesh is the front-runner to acquire Kabali’s distribution rights for Karnataka. “I am excited about Kabali. The movie may well make more than Rs 200 crore at the box office,” he said.

Watch the trailer of Lingaa here:

According to Thanu, the music rights of a superstar film often fetch four times more revenue than entire movies of other top actors. And Rajinikanth still holds sway as far as his film’s music trade goes. “The fans of Rajinikanth far outnumber the fans of any music composer. Although the branding of the music composer does matter, the most important consideration will be Rajinikanth himself,” underscored Swaroop Reddy. He is also the director of Think Music Private Limited, a subsidiary of SPI Cinemas, which has acquired Kabali’s music rights for the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi versions.

Read: Akshay’s ugly avatar | Check out Dr Richard from Rajinikanth’s 2.o

Going by available data, Enthiran’s music sales are still a record in Rajinikanth’s career. “Enthiran’s music rights were sold for Rs 10 crore in all. The Tamil version alone garnered Rs 6 crore,” revealed Hansraj Saxena, who was with Sun Pictures at the time. Kochadaiiyaan’s musical rights are said to have fetched around Rs 6 crore while Lingaa was picked up by Eros for Rs 4.5 crore. Although a clear figure is not available as far as Kabali goes, its makers concede that it has done well. This is despite the slump in the music business in the absence of CD and DVD sales.

What does the future hold for a superstar?

After Kabali, Rajinikanth’s career will hug conventional shores again with Enthiran’s sequel, helmed by S Shankar. The project kicked off in December last year. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar was roped in to play the villain, while Amy Jackson is the heroine. AR Rahman will score the music. 2.0’s budget is supposed to be the highest yet in the Indian film industry with a staggering Rs 350 crore being pumped into the project.

“It has something for all kinds of audiences. You will see that Shankar has all the potential of a Hollywood producer once the movie releases,” said producer Raju Mahalingam.

Watch Kochadaiiyaan trailer here:

No other Tamil film has ever been able to surpass the Rs 400 crore collected by Enthiran, and naturally many in the film trade are apprehensive of such a mighty investment. Given director Shankar’s penchant for over-shooting his budgets and the expensive marketing required to promote such a film globally, many have raised doubts about the project’s financial viability. While Enthiran was produced by Sun Pictures and had all of Sun Network’s resources at its disposal for promotions, the makers of the sequel may have to expend a large sum for the same.

Mahalingam, however is confident of realising a profit out of the venture. “The Internet and social media were not very strong when the first part released. Also, with the combined brand value of Rajinikanth, Akshay Kumar, Shankar and Rahman, we think the project will be a great success. Being primarily a mobile company, we also have many ways of distributing the music of the film. We are also looking at taking the film into the China market in a very big way,” he said. Lyca is planning to release the film’s first look around September 2016 and the film post the summer of 2017.

So, what worked for Enthiran?

Fresh from the success of the National Film Award-winning hit Sivaji (2007), Rajinikanth and Shankar came together with almost the same team to the sets of Enthiran. According to Hansraj Saxena, what went right for the film was Rajini’s star power combined with aggressive marketing.

Read: Shankar’s Enthiran sequel with Rajinikanth called 2.o

“We sold the rights to each territory and spared no efforts in marketing it through our media channels. From the day of the audio release, you need to hype it up and make it stay in the audience’s minds,” Saxena spelled out. “Enthiran did a business of about Rs 400 crore, and this record still stands. We sold the Hindi rights for Rs 36 crore and it went on to collect over Rs 50 plus crores. The film did a business of about Rs 80 crore in Hindi alone.” He admitted, though, that it was an uphill task to keep Enthiran’s expenses under check.

The strategy was to rake in the moolah from areas that showed greater promise. “No producer makes money from multiplexes. They take up 60% of the revenue, whereas the B and C centres are the theatres that generate money,” explained Saxena.

Kabali’s stakes are high in terms of both budget and pride, and the industry is keeping its fingers crossed that its beloved king will be third time lucky. By now, those betting on Rajini have realised that it sometimes takes more than just a superstar to deliver a hit.

But it sure looks like a few flops are not about to stop the Rajinikanth juggernaut.

By arrangement with GRIST Media.

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