Rajini: the actor before the hero

Amidst all the hype that surrounds the release of Kabali , those who grew up watching Rajinikanth will remember him not only as a larger-than-life hero who dominated the screen, but also as an actor who kept people glued to his movies. Here are some of the roles that defined Rajinikanth the actor.

Mullum Malarum

Kabali’s director Pa.Ranjith has said that he wanted to bring back the Rajini from Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum. Not without reason. Rajini played the role of the quick-tempered, lovable brother with ease, and Kali is surely one of his most revered roles. Almost all the scenes with his nemesis in the movie, Sarathbabu, are superbly done. But remember the intro scene where Kali kicks at the wheel of a rich man’s car after he sees him ill-treating a lay worker? That set the tone for the film.


In Gayathri, he is the sadistic and perverted husband who is into producing pornography. His spine-chilling laughs apart, Gayathri showed us how Rajini can pull off a villain role with élan. It was not the first time that the actor has essayed a ‘bad husband’ role; but Gayathri was in the ’70s and Rajini had no qualms about taking up the role of a man obsessed with sex.

Aval Appadi Thaan

He plays the role of chauvinistic rich young man who judges Manju (Sripriya) for her life choices. For a directorial debut, Rudhraiya broke many stereotypes to come up with a broadminded story of a sexually liberated woman whose life involves two men: Kamal (who sympathises with her) and Rajini (who toys with her). And the Superstar here was easily the dark horse in the film.

16 Vayathinilae

His ‘idhu eppadi irukku’ with the famous wave of his hands has become a cult classic. Rajini had a little more than a cameo in the film. He shared screen space with Kamal who was in his prime then and more so in this movie. But, in every scene with Chappani he becomes more of the bully and sharp-tongued sly ‘Parattai’.

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Moondru Mudichu

There is a scene in Moondru Mudichu, when Rajinikanth, on realising that the woman he has been lusting after is now unattainable, absentmindedly pulls at her blouse as she attempts to get away from him. It tears and she tosses the words, “mother’s touch,” at him. He plays a murderous, scheming character, and does it so well that everybody was rooting for him.

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In a chilling sequence in Avargal, Rajini’s character constantly verbally abuses his wife. The tactic is the same — it’s bait and switch — he draws her in with a line, something complimentary, and then delivers the verbal lashing. It is something nobody else could have pulled off.

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Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri

It was probably a shock for audiences who were used to seeing Rajinikanth as a villain up until then, see him as a character with a squeaky-clean image. And to imagine that the man with the squeakiest, cleanest image, Sivakumar, played the anti-hero here.

Aarilurundhu Arubathu varai

It’s nothing short of a saga in which Rajini essays the role of a man who undergoes every possible difficulty in life. The stereotypes are all there — the poor family, ungrateful siblings etc. -- but Rajini carries the role with dignity, and a small smirk on his face every now and then, as if laughing at the very possibility of being defeated by something as silly as circumstances.

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Thillu Mullu

Granted, Thillu Mullu is a remake, but it holds its own, all thanks to the two lead actors. It was Rajini’s first full-length comedy film, and that interview scene with ‘Thengai’ Srinivasan established that the Superstar is adept at playing the wide-eyed innocent while convincing us that all it takes to dupe a person is a moustache.


Strictly speaking, Thalapathi isn’t completely a ‘character’ role. He still gets to beat people up, still gets a duet with the leading lady. But it wasn’t completely commercial either. The mother-son drama, Surya’s friendship with Deva and the love triangle between Surya, Arjun and Subbalakshmi - they all made for some brilliant cinema moments. Moments that Rajini aced - and reminded us that there was a director’s actor still within him. Thalapathy is among one of those rare Rajini films that let the ‘Thalaivar’ fans relish their mass hero and at the same time, appealed to a broader audience that wanted more than just a hero-beating-up-goons masala story.

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2022 7:17:38 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/Rajini-the-actor-before-the-hero/article60529182.ece