Naman Ramachandran’s biography of Rajinikanth partly clears the enigma around him

The first time I saw a Rajinikanth flick, it was on a faded print that I had loaned from the neighbourhood video library for Rs. 10 for a night. The film was Andha Kanoon where Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini kept him company. Rajinikanth was said to be big in the South, but it was his first foray into Hindi cinema. For us Delhiites, the only Rajini who rang a bell was a teleserial of that name where Priya Tendulkar played the lead. Rajinikanth, though adequate in the film, was clearly overshadowed by Bachchan who had a special appearance. It was only a few years later that he came to have some following in the Hindi-speaking belt. Even then, in films like Bhagwan Dada, John Jani Janardhan and, later, Insaaf Kaun Karega and Chaalbaaz, he played second fiddle. Of course, he charmed us all with his gimmicks, his unique mannerisms and the rest. But when cinegoers in the North read about all the hysteria a Rajinikanth film generated in the South, they often wondered, what the fuss was all about.

Rajinikanth himself did not help matters by being constantly elusive for the media. I cannot recall any Hindi film glossy which featured him on the cover some 25 years ago or had long exclusive interviews with him. For Hindi film fans, he remained an enigma. In recent years, the oft-maligned electronic media, with its persuasive reporting, helped remove some of the cobwebs about the superstar with images of fans prostrating before him.

It was against this background that I picked up Naman Ramachandran’s, Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography. Finally, it was time to join the dots and find out why the superstar had only limited success in Hindi films even as he notched up heady triumphs in Tamil cinema. And, what was the man behind the reel hero like? First things first. I heaved a sigh of relief when I found that none other than the eminently likeable Dipa Sahi (his co-star of that enormous hit, Hum) shared the ignorance of Hindi filmgoers. “I didn’t know before about him, because in the ‘90s the North and South were very divided….One never knew about the mainstream cinema there….I had no clue that he was the Superstar and his market price was around three times what Mr. Bachchan’s market price was,” Dipa says in the book. The film came some eight years after Andha Kanoon. So, Naman had succeeded in removing some of the cobwebs.

In the book, he goes on to clear some more ignorance about Rajinikanth. For instance, his film Gangwaa that did not exactly set the Ganga on fire, was a remake of the Tamil film Malaiyur Mambattiyan. And Jeet Hamari was made simultaneously in Tamil as Thai Veedu. Also, Prayag Raj, of all the directors, notched up a piece of history by bringing together Bachchan, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan in Geraftar!

Such insights make the book quite likeable for an average Hindi film fan. But they come in trickles, not a constant stream. Naman answers some questions; he leaves many unanswered. For instance, why was Rajinikanth overshadowed by his heroines such as Rekha, Sridevi and Jayaprada, in Hindi cinema, though he managed to corner all the attention in Tamil films? Similarly, why did he agree to play second lead not just to Bachchan but even to others such as Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha in Hindi? Surely, he did not need to do a Bhagwan Dada, a Phool Baney Angarey or a Farishtay? They did not help him widen his fan following. Did his less-than-handsome looks come in the way of his wider acceptance? Was it his heavily-accented Hindi that failed to convince cinegoers? And pray, for a man riding on enviable success down South, why did he have to have a Bollywood innings? After all, the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and, before him, Rajesh Khanna, etc, never tried to find a foothold outside Bombay. And how was Rajinikanth able to find millions of fans in places such as Germany and Japan but fail to find as many in the Hindi-speaking belt?

Naman’s “definitive biography” does not tackle the questions. The book is a delight when one sees some exclusive photos of Rajinikanth with his family and friends or reads about the human side of the superstar and his illustrious innings in Tamil cinema, but somehow, like Rajinikanth’s foray into Hindi cinema, it falls short when it talks of his shot at the Bombay film industry. More acute is the loss. As lyricist Vairamuthu says in the book, “His image wasn’t created in a day. It was built up bit by bit.”

Some bits are missing here. The Rajinikanth enigma continues.