The day it was announced that actor Rajinikanth would join hands with director K.S. Ravi Kumar for the third time for 'Lingaa', expectations of a possible return of the 90s’ Rajinikanth became shrill. In the last decade of the 20th century, Rajinikanth’s films were primarily self-referential: Rajini, the real-life personality often fused into the character he was playing, just so that every dialogue spoken by the character would appear as a personal opinion of Rajini, the real-life superstar.
The characters he assumed were a mere place holder. In film after film, he would give his take on politics, relationships and other life skills.
This changed after the debacle of 'Baba' in 2002, when the cigarette puffing, religious mumbo-jumbo speaking Rajinikanth was replaced by a more understated personality onscreen. He seemed to cut off the needless self-referencing and political commentary as he starred in movies such as 'Chandramukhi', 'Sivaji' and 'Enthiran', resulting in his stardom elevating a film and not the other way round.
Even in director Shankar’s 'Sivaji', where his character was pitted against a politician, the film largely steered clear of making any overtly political statements.
In fact, Rajinikanth has never been as popular as he is today, even though many say that he has been losing his political relevance in the State.
The new approach culminated in Rajinikanth doing 'Enthiran', a big-budget science fiction film, directed by Shankar. In 'Enthiran', Rajinikanth played a character so radically different (as a humanoid) in the twilight of his career and yet infused it with energy of his own. It was a film that pushed Rajinikanth’s popularity into stratosphere though it was not considered a quintessential Rajini film.
The Rajini of the 90s had finally given way to the Rajini of the 21st century. After its success, everyone expected him to go into top gear, perhaps compete on a national scale. However, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, setting off rumours that his movie career was possibly coming to an abrupt end.
It was at this point that the announcement was made about 'Lingaa'. While his fans were glad that they are getting to see Rajinikanth back onscreen after a period of four years, it was also expected that the collaboration would result in a film which would reflect the taste, tenor and sensibilities of a Rajini movie before the ‘Baba’ debacle.
The idea to bring back the Rajini of the 90s in 'Lingaa', who gradually faded away in the last decade, has sadly back fired. Director K.S. Ravi Kumar has stuck to the basic Rajini formula: a poor Lingeswaran (Rajinikanth) realises that he is the grandson of a revered Maharaja during the British Raj. At some point in his life, he had sold his entire wealth to build a dam in a village. The younger Rajinikanth has to prevent an evil politician from messing with the dam.
It is a standard 90s narrative, where the dialogues (mostly uttered by sidekicks Santhanam, Karunakaran and others) are laced with obvious political references about the actor’s political entry.
Having K.S. Ravi Kumar at the helm has helped the film inscribe within the narrative much-needed urgency, which makes it watchable despite its three hour running time.
Lingaa’s sole purpose has been to satisfy the actor’s fans. In fact, actor Rajinikanth said in the audio launch that he wanted to release the film on his birthday for his fans who have waited for the last four years to watch him onscreen.
This is a film where the actor constantly breaks the fourth wall: after the introduction song, he looks at the audience and engages with them, the film features a sequence – of Raja Lingeswaran celebrating his birthday – which prompted the crowds inside the theatre to break into an impromptu birthday song and many other such similar sequences. In between all this, Rajini finds time to romance two ladies (one of which is Sonakshi Sinha) and sing duets with them.
One could call this a perfect Rajini film with all its bearings in tact. The fans’ yearning to see good old Rajini shredding the villains to pieces is understandable, but there is a reason why that archetypal Rajini slowly faded away.
Perhaps, the political vacccum in the State and mounting expectations of the actor entering politics amongst the fans were the reasons why the makers dusted the old Rajini off the shelves and brought it back to life. The fans have every right to feel sentimental about the Rajini of Padayappa, but what we actually prefer is another Enthiran. Honestly, twentieth century Rajinism is over.
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