It must have taken some kind of monstrous energy to drive an actor to work in over 100 films within a span of 10 years, from 1975 to 1985. It must have also given some kind of an uncanny pleasure to participate indiscriminately in films with no idea of what they were about. And at the same time it must have been scary working in an environment one didn't belong to, speak an unfamiliar language and work with almost every director and production house in Tamil Nadu and Andhra! In old myths such characters were referred to as ‘Rakshas' while today we fondly call them ‘Rebels'!
Undoubtedly, Rajinikanth is the greatest rebel that any cinema has ever witnessed. Starting his career appropriately with a rebel called K. Balachander in the mid 1970s, he moves up to become the sole rebel in the conformist, Hollywood-like epics of Shankar. All that he displayed on screen was raw energy and no filmmaker could articulate his unique self-consciousness. Rajini was the actor, the character and the director who shaped the actor playing the character, all rolled in one! And that does not mean that he was monotonously the same from 1975 to 2010! What we saw on screen was Rajinikanth simply growing and symbolising the ‘natural' rebel in him in different roles! Although filmmakers try their best to maintain his ‘youthful' rebel image on-screen, strangely he never hides his aging process off-screen.
A matter of timing
Two factors come up-front when we want to understand the reason for his immeasurable success. The first is the public time/space which he comes to inhabit. His entry into cinema and the declaration of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi bear a remarkable coincidence. By default Rajini donned the mantle of a symbolic protest through the viewer's immediate acceptance in his role as the Machiavellian predator in K. Balachander's “Apoorva Ragangal”. Like the Prince in Machiavelli's famous treatise 500 years ago, he goes about inadvertently structuring a discourse in conflict resolution with an emphasis on valuing dissent as the cornerstone for good democracy. We must also realise that until 1983 he was equally popular in Telugu and Kannada films where similar political conflicts were staged.
Indira Gandhi's Emergency was a rude shock for the first generation, post-independent Indians but it was a bigger blow for the Tamil people who were still immersed in the euphoria of a ‘free' Tamil country and its imagined privileges as exalted by the Dravidian politicians. Seeing their leaders crawling for merciful alliance with Mrs. Gandhi of the Hindi belt, the Tamil dream all but crumbled! I cannot think of another Indian State where the local language is valorised as ‘ethereal'; the soil as the most fragrant and their women as the most virtuous! One cannot imagine a Marathi or a Hindi song which compares their phonetics with something as tasteful as honey and elixir!
The second factor was an almost global disillusionment with the State's capacity to handle human rights. The atrocities of the Vietnam war; the fragmenting of balkanised nations; the battle over oil and the destabilisation of communist bastions like the Soviet Union and China demoralise people and veers them away from the belief that the sole purpose of ‘culture' is to create universal happiness. And ‘culture' in Tamil Nadu, especially in the films of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, had become just too syrupy saccharine for one's taste! The Tamil people were now ready for the bitter taste of ‘disgust' or ‘bibhatsa' in order to wake themselves back into reality, ground zero! And an individual called Sivaji Rao is consecrated as an icon called Rajinikanth at the right time by an army of new sculptors and poets like K. Balachander, Bharatiraja, Bhagyaraj, Mahendran, Ilayaraja, Vairamuthu, S.P. Balasubramiam etc. His arrival is heralded by hundreds of fan clubs who use this new icon to voice their protests which few understood. His image was used by Indian filmmakers to express their angst and fears in complex and confused ways too. It is my personal feeling that his unusually large face on a small shoulder frame accompanied by an abnormal shock of hair with a large forehead has also contributed to his distinctive persona on screen!
In a very moving speech during the celebration of compatriot Kamal Haasan's 50 years in cinema, he declared that he owed his career growth largely to the advice given by Kamal Haasan in his early stage. That was the humble Sivaji Rao speaking, acknowledging the fact that the iconic Rajinikanth existed exclusively in the realm of popular cinema and her fans alone. Hats off to both of them who have not sold their iconic status to sell consumer products and raked in the moolah like scores of their famous ‘filmi' fraternity have done!
Sadly, the corrupt Tamil leaders re-emerged unscathed and by the mid 1980s all the sycophancy of Tamil chauvinism was restored while the bitter taste continued to linger on. The filmic output took a serious plunge, to such an extent that between 1995 and 2010 Rajinikanth has done only seven films! Was it a conscious decision not to let his iconic status be misused? In a very strange way, his own dream production “Baba” becomes a significant discourse of his own status, in however a fragmented way.
Tough act to follow
It required a whole new movement to begin again to replace the vacuum created by one icon in the early 21st century with the dark and cruel films like “Kadhal” leading to “Pithamagan”, “Subramaniapuram” and many others. Together these films constitute what that one icon called Rajinikanth set out to do!