When a Superstar enters

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Rajinikanth's opening scenes have followed the actor's progress as a larger-than-life hero. His latest project, Kabali, contains scenes that are a throwback to his in-your-face and unapologetic 70s persona.

His shoes make that ominous ‘tak tak’ sound as he strides across the room. Donning a pair of coolers and a classic three-piece suit with his hands tucked in his pockets, there is not much of Rajini’s expressions that you can see in his entry scene in the teaser trailer of Pa.Ranjith’s Kabali. But there he is, walking that walk with grace and charisma. In the one-minute clip, we know what he is going to be in the movie: a menacing don who does not bow down saying ‘ ejamaan’. On cue, we can almost hear the whistles go off, along with screeches of ‘ Thalaivaa’. Watching a Rajini film on the big screen is an experience by itself. Not just for what he represents to the larger audience, but for the moment of his first appearance, which rivals the plethora of punch dialogues.

A lot about Rajini’s persona and the way the audience relates to him has to do with the way he projects himself on screen. The walk, the flick of the hair, the bubblegum which he pops into his mouth with a twist of his hands, the way he says ‘ Idhu Epdi Irukku?’ with a wave of his arms: his on-screen persona is a sum of all these little idiosyncrasies. But, the Superstar's introductory scene — the most whistle-worthy moment for his audiences — is what sets the tone for his films. Remember the scene where Baasha walks in? Or Raja Vetaiyan in Chandramukhi (2005)? Rajinikanth’s entrance sequences have become cult classics now, so much so that entry scenes of all Tamil filmstars have now become elaborate ones just to cater to the ‘mass appeal’, a trend that he kicked off.

So how did it all start? How did ‘Parattai’ become ‘Kabali’? Before the Superstar became who he is now, he was known for giving a certain tinge to villainous roles, a trend that is unique to Rajini given his status now. Not many villain-turned-heroes are as successful at the box-office as Rajinikanth or have been able to sustain it for decades.

From his cinematic debut in K.Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal in 1970s to the upcoming Kabali, the Rajini we have seen and liked are different. In Apoorva Raagangal (1975), his entry was not dramatic in the ‘mass sense’ but the impact was deep. Armed with tattered clothes, he re-enters his wife’s life and wreaks havoc. The way he confesses his illness to his wife’s lover, the way he lazily leans against the walls of the music auditorium as his wife gives her concert, established him as an actor. As he climbed the ladder of success, his style and screen presence graduated with him.

Take Moondru Mudichu (1976), for instance. He is first seen climbing up the stairs with that famous jauntiness and as he flicks a cigarette from his left hand to his mouth, he gives an unholy grin and scoffs at his soft-hearted friend (Kamal Haasan). And at that point you can deduce his character: a man who will go to any length to get the girl he likes (Sridevi). In 16 Vayathinilae (1977), the scene that introduces Parattai (Rajini) is simple. Chappani (Kamal) is the village simpleton who gets bullied by Parattai into running errands for him. But the punchline (maybe it all started from here), ‘ Idhu Epdi Irukku’ is still doing the rounds as a classic phrase. Similarly, the 70s saw the Superstar being anything but one: in Avargal (1975), he is introduced as a jealous and sadistic husband while in Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri (1977), he revamped his image and donned a positive role. After that we would hardly see any more entry scenes of the mean big bad guy that Rajini’s characters were then.

The 80s saw him take up drama films that eked of sentiment and were gripping tear-jerkers. Note his entry scenes in this era. In Ilamai Oonjal Aadugiradhu (1978), he is a respected businessman who shares a brotherly and professional relationship with his manager (Kamal). In Aarilirundhu Arubathu Varai (1979) and Mullum Malarum (1978), the actor’s entry did not demand a commercial or a dramatic scene. The goodness of his character is established at the very beginning and you know that the sadistic guy you saw a few years before has faded away.

It was Billa in the 80s that changed the way we looked at him as an actor. Breaking the stereotype of once-a-villain-always-a-villain, Rajini went on to take up many roles to fit his on-screen charm and style. Murattu Kaalai (1980) was another path-breaker in his career. Making a dramatic entrance by taming the bull, the Superstar shakes a leg while singing ‘ Podhuvaga En Manasu Thangam”. It was then that the trend of dramatic entrances was set up: where the entry of the hero is to a song which is self-aggrandising and philosophical, to boot. From then, the actor has taken to en-masse entry scenes where he makes a statement upon his appearance.

By the 90s, Rajini was an established star whose presence demanded that oomph factor. Remember his first scene in Thalapathy (1991)? A fully-drenched goon beating up the bad guys. But he is the good bad man. Or his intro scene in the legendary Annamalai (1992)? You don’t see him first. He shows his back to you. But the beating of the drums lets you know that the Superstar is going to show up. And then as if on cue, the song ‘ Vandhenda Pallukaren’ kicks off. From then started the legendary intro songs that have become the quintessential entry point for any actor.

But above all, comes Baasha (1995). Never before has an auto-driver had such an introduction in a film. The groundwork for his character is laid as his friend hands an ailing mother some money from the ever-helpful autokaaran. Then comes ‘ Naan Autokaaran’ with Thalaivar breaking a pumpkin with his head and putting his hands together to say ‘ vanakkam’ to his beloved fans.

Picture this. A snake on the loose, villagers petrified, a timid girl and an arrogant woman. Who else but Padayappa (Rajinikanth) to rescue the snake and also make an impact on Neelambari (Ramya Krishnan)? And do not forget Muthu (1995) where he makes quite an entrance with a jump into an empty horse-carriage and takes over the reins, literally. Effortlessly spewing philosophical songs about life, Muthu not only made an impact among Tamil audience but also among the Japanese.

Films such as Muthu...

and Arunachalam (1997)...

... pull off another interesting phenomenon. Here, the character played by the Superstar is of a down-to-earth and honest man of humble means / social status. Despite this, his entry in the film remains larger-than-life as per tradition. The ‘mass intro songs’ — the cornerstone of the actor’s career — were not to be tampered with. Perhaps the audience wasn't ready to stomach a Rajini classic sans the fanfare. Or perhaps, the very contrast — a man who is simple, yet stupendous — contributed to Rajini's aura. With Rajini, references to Tamil Nadu being the land that fed him, of God being the only boss, and of the value of true labour, are rife. In Muthu, he is but an ordinary servant whose role is characterised by honesty and love. The entry song ‘ Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’, though, is anything but ordinary. It takes to sounding off a good word to the viewers that God is above all and that greed will be the end of life — two ideals that Rajini has espoused in many of his layered intro songs.

His gravity-defying fight sequences and penchant for songs of self-praise took a U-turn with Enthiran (2010), which saw a Rajini entrance that is anything but dramatic. He is, after all, an honest scientist on a pathbreaking discovery of creating the first human-like robot. There are no songs, no punch dialogues and no side-kicks preparing us for his grand entrance. Instead, we saw him as the genius who creates a robot that eventually goes rogue. During some of the best moments in the film, director Shankar gave us a glimpse into the yesteryear Rajini, the one who can make your spine chill with his predatory laugh.

And here is where Rajini stands now. The 65-year-old invincible Superstar who can do no wrong on screen. And this is why Kabali’s teaser has sent fans into a frenzy. Because in Kabali, we have the punch dialogues, we have the mass entry scene, we have the ‘ Neruppu Da’ background-music, but we also have Rajini playing the role of a no-holds-barred don. For a few seconds we catch a glimpse of the 70s avatar of the actor, flicking his hair, walking that walk through a hotel. Freeze there. Those few seconds have set the tone for the actor’s next outing. Is he going to bring back the days of yore where he makes no excuses for being a bad man? Are we at last going to see a Rajini who will now openly embrace his age in his movies? Well, the wait is going to be long. But for fans, it promises to be worth it.

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