Screening Room Magazine

Explaining Rajinikanth

An AirAsia plane with Kabali promos. Photo: PTI  

After the deafening hype, Rajinikanth’s Kabali bookings opened last week, and this created a fresh round of hype. One theatre would pop up on or, and a few seconds later, every single seat would be sold out. Then another theatre would follow. Then another. We were left wondering if someone was hoarding these tickets — maybe the theatres themselves. Because unless you are thalaivar, internet speed in India is certainly not fast enough for thousands of seats to be booked in a matter of seconds.

I have never seen this happen with any other film. It’s understandable why so many news channels dispatched reporting teams to Chennai to record the phenomenon. I was invited to be a panellist on one of these shows, and a reporter told me that her team from Bengaluru had been doing Kabali stories for a week. She said, “The TRPs are unbelievable.”

Many hours of air time were spent trying to understand “the Rajini phenomenon.” I’ve heard it was this way with the Beatles, where fans would begin screaming excitedly at the sight of them. I’ve seen this happen with the second trilogy of Star Wars films — in Attack of the Clones, specifically, when Yoda whipped out a light sabre and got ready to battle Count Dooku. I saw the theatre erupt with cheer when, in the first instalment of the rebooted Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy made an appearance as Spock. Spock and Yoda are characters that have endeared themselves to us over years, and this partly explains the Rajinikanth phenomenon. When someone has been on our screens for 41 years, he probably becomes as mythical as Yoda or Spock.

He’s equally remote. Like Yoda and Spock, he exists only in the movies, either on screen or on TV. Otherwise, he’s… who knows? Maybe he’s in the Himalayas, as he’s often supposed to be. Maybe he’s right here in Chennai, playing with his grandchildren. For such a mega-mega-watt star, it’s amazing how out-of-sight Rajinikanth is during the intervals between his films. Doesn’t he travel? How is he not spotted more often at airports or hotels? Or does he don a disguise?

Plus, he doesn’t do ads. He doesn’t do TV shows, hobnobbing with commoners dreaming of becoming millionaires. He doesn’t even promote his films. I mean, who does that (or doesn’t)? In the whole wide world, do you know another star who won’t give interviews? The mystique (or mystery) that stars had before the era of 24x7 media — only Rajinikanth has that today. This, too, explains why a sighting — even if only on a movie screen — becomes such a hysterical event.

Finally, on Friday, the event that is Kabali opened. The box office went through the roof. But reactions weren’t encouraging. The film was too slow, some said. The film was too un-Rajini-like, said others. Most agreed that the director, Pa. Ranjith, did not know how to “use” a star of this magnitude. Then came the question: is there any filmmaker today who can make a Rajinikanth movie that will satisfy everyone?

In the 1990s, he was just a superstar. Today, you’d have to coin a hyperbolic word to explain what he is. Is there anyone who can “handle” a Rajinikanth movie? People do keep trying. His daughter tried to make him an animated superhero in Kochadaiiyaan. K.S. Ravikumar, a director from an older generation, tried shoehorning Rajinikanth into British India in Lingaa. And now, a promising new-gen filmmaker like Ranjith says he wanted to present Rajinikanth as the actor everyone admired in films like Mullum Malarum. But Mullum Malarum was released in 1978, when Rajinikanth was just an actor. His “persona” hadn’t yet calcified. Today’s audiences just seem to want variations of “Rajini style”. The slo-mo walk. The staccato laugh. A few punch lines. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then there’s his age. Rajinikanth has finally begun to look old on screen. Indian audiences (especially Tamil audiences) have always demonstrated an exceptional ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to their male stars (never female) enacting characters who are a few decades younger, but who do you cast opposite him? (Rajinikanth’s next release, which is Shankar’s sequel to Endhiran/ Robot, has the 65-year-old star opposite a 24-year-old Amy Jackson.)

And what kind of story do you write around a star who’s nearing 70, whose fans still keep imagining him as a young man who can do anything, everything?

Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:45:34 AM |

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