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Updated: January 21, 2013 20:37 IST

The man behind the idol

Sangeetha Devi Dundoo
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Author Naman Ramachandran. Photo: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo
The Hindu
Author Naman Ramachandran. Photo: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

Besides narrating the life of Rajinikanth, his book is an attempt at humanising the man behind the icon, says author Naman Ramachandran

Anthuleni Katha, Rajinikanth’s first film in Telugu, was where the actor flipped a cigarette for the first time which became his style statement in a few years. “Rajinikanth had a better etched out role in the Telugu version of the film than the Tamil original, Aval Oru Thodarkathai,” says Naman Ramachandran, author of ‘Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography’ (Penguin; Rs. 699).

Naman Ramachandran’s book is not a compilation of trivia for cinephiles wanting to know more about the enigmatic superstar. It’s the result of research for two years before the book was released on 12.12.12. In over a month since its release, the book has found appreciative takers in filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Suresh Krishna, Rajiv Menon, Malayalam actor and screenplay writer Sreenivasan and Rajinikanth himself. “The superstar held my hand and exclaimed ‘aachariyama irruku’ (I’m surprised),” smiles Naman. The surprise stemmed from the in-depth account of the life of Rajinikanth.

When Naman began working on the book and tried to approach Rajinikanth, the actor had taken ill, was admitted in a Singapore hospital and later quarantined for health reasons and barred from meeting people. “I had finished one-fourth of the research when I got a written note of approval from him for the book. But he stated it wouldn’t be his authorised biography,” recalls Naman.

The London-based author, also a film critic for South Asian cinema for Sight & Sound, Senior South Asia Correspondent for Variety, travelled to meet people from the Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu industries who’ve known Rajinikanth. As he culled out information, he found some of the information made public through Wikipedia and other sources were false. “Wikipedia had a reference that Rajinikanth lost his mother at the age of five. When I spoke to the actor’s brother, I found out Rajinikanth was nine when his mother passed away,” says Naman.

Naman spoke to Rajinikanth’s brother, his friends from Karnataka including the bus driver who knew the actor since his days as a bus conductor. “After Kannada icon late actor Rajkumar, the next popular son of Bangalore was Rajinikanth and yet, there wasn’t much information about him in Bangalore,” says Naman. In fact, it was this lack of information about the iconic superstar that made Naman work on this book.

“I tried to humanise Rajinikanth. We, in South, have got used to seeing the actor attend public events clad in a simple shirt and dhoti, without wearing a wig. In the North, people know him through his films, particularly Sivaji and Endhiran which made him a national phenomenon,” says the author.

For the benefit of pan-Indian audience, the book provides brief synopsis and analysis of Rajinikanth’s films of the 70s and 80s. “Those not clued into regional cinema may not have watched his films like Moondru Mudichu and Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri. Yet, films like these defined him as an actor before he became a performer and then an entertainer,” says Naman, who refrains from elaborating on the actor’s later, more popularly watched films. Naman watched all of Rajinikanth movies twice while working on his book — once as a fan and next as a critic, making copious notes. “My wife says she lost me to Rajinikanth for the last two years,” he laughs. “I needed to do this to short list the films I wanted to discuss in the book.”

Naman also met directors and producers who’ve witnessed Rajinikanth soar in popularity. “I camped in front of KB sir’s (K. Balachander) office for 30 days and then got to meet him. His account was essential since he introduced Rajinikanth. S.P. Muthuraman and Suresh Krishna were also more than willing to talk about Rajinikanth,” he says. But for reasons unknown to Naman, he was unable to get an audience with Latha Rajinikanth. The actor’s daughters Soundarya and Aishwarya consented to speak much later.

Naman got to meet the superstar at a later date in London during the shooting of Kochadaiyaan: “We had a freewheeling, off-the-record chat, but he was appreciative of the work I was doing.”

It’s impossible to discuss the life of Rajinikanth without mentioning his Hindi films, some of them that had the actor in short roles not befitting his cult status. “I played safe here. Instead of sharing my views, I asked film critics to voice their opinion,” smiles Naman, who also spoke with Deepa Sahi, Rajinikanth’s co-star in Hum.

Naman’s first book was Lights, Camera, Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai. “This was a relatively easy. Ramesh Sippy’s daughter Sheena was doing the photographs and it enabled easy access to personalities in Mumbai. Also since I write for Variety and Sight & Sound, people were willing to meet me. In Chennai, though, not many people follow these magazines closely; I had to work extra hard,” says Naman. On hindsight, Naman also feels it’s an advantage the book was not born out of direct interviews with Rajinikanth. “Since I was collecting information from various sources, I cross-checked everything many times over. From a journalist’s perspective, it turned out better,” he says.

What’s next? “There are ideas. But I need a break now. In the last two years, sleep was a big casualty. I have mortgages to pay and a family to take care of. So I was continuing my commitments as a film critic in London while working on this book. I used to start my day at 4 a.m. London time to keep tabs on film news in Indian time, fulfil my commitments as a film critic and also write this book. Writing a 1000-word story to meet a deadline is different from writing 1,20,000 words for a book,” Naman says with a smile.

A few lesser-known facts from the book

In 1997, Rajinikanth featured in a full-fledged role in the Telugu film Chilakamma Cheppindi co-starring Sripriya.

Rajinikanth’s 50th film was the Telugu film Tiger, with NTR. Only later did Rajinikanth get to act with his idol, late actor Shivaji Ganesan. He also wanted to act alongside Kannada superstar Rajkumar, which never materialised.

Rajinikanth gives away almost 50 per cent of his earnings to charity, but prefers not to talk about it.

Rajinikanth had once told K. Balachander that he wouldn’t attempt an autobiography until he mustered up the courage to reveal the truth like Mahatma Gandhi in My Experiments with Truth.

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