Rajini's Big B-eautiful career

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Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan both catapulted their acting careers in the skins of indomitable heroes. Here's a look at how the Rajni star began to truly rise when he took a leaf out of the Big B's book.

Not for the first time in their careers, we have an Amitabh Bachchan movie and a Rajinikanth movie releasing within a span of two months. However, the occasion is unique as Amitabh, now 73 and still going strong in the third innings of his career, has drastically reduced the number of movies he is doing and Rajinikanth, perhaps sensing the outdatedness of a 20th-century script like Lingaa in a 21st-century multiplex arena, is looking to make a comeback in a role that suits his age. Two of Rajinikanth’s previous films, both having multiple roles, proved to be disappointments.

Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan — the careers of the two superstars have intersected and interacted with each other in interesting ways. I don’t intend to say it in the sense of ‘one-is-better-than-the-other’ but just to make a point that when we have two mega stars in two big industries, their careers invariably will join at some point. This happened in the case of Sivaji Ganesan & Dilip Kumar and Sivaji Ganesan & Sanjeev Kumar, with movies of one being remade into movies of the other. The objective is to locate Rajini’s charisma within the period when his career reached his peak. Apart from his own rootedness and on-screen charisma, his popularity also has to do with him being in the right place at the right time. As Tamil film industry moved from its earlier studio-centric nature to a hero-oriented one in the 70s, the time was just right for a ‘superstar’ to arrive.

The careers of Amitabh and Rajinikanth met for the first time in 1980, when the former was at the peak of his first innings and the latter was in the process of becoming an ace hero. Apart from Murattu Kaalai, which released in the same year, one film that marked Rajinikanth’s definitive shift toward positive roles — from the consummate sadist he played in the 70s — was Billa, a faithful remake of Don. This was followed by at least 10 other films where the script was either inspired or derived from Amitabh hits. This ended with Baasha, an adaptation of Hum, in 1995. Most of them worked and helped consolidate Rajini’s star status in the 80s (Of course, he was also doing other movies and remakes, which played a role). It is interesting to explore the reasons.

When Amitabh’s angry-young-man image got etched into the minds of the audiences, the only real competition he faced was probably from Vinod Khanna, someone whose career, just like that of Rajinikanth, started with negative roles. The best bet for filmmakers was to have the two together till 1978, when Khanna went into a sabbatical. In Tamil, similarly, Rajinikanth had a more versatile competitor in Kamal Haasan, some of their best work coming in joint efforts like Aval Appadithan and Moondru Mudichu. Rajinikanth needed to do solo hero movies to move out of the shadows of his rival. Directors like S.P. Muthuraman and Mahendran provided him opportunities. Amitabh-driven scripts were a good launch-pad for him.

Naman Ramachandran, author of Rajinikanth’s biography, traces the acceptance of Amitabh-starrer remakes to the fact that mainstream Hindi movies were getting only limited release in Tamil Nadu in the 70s — following the anti-Hindi agitation of the 60s — that too only in the cities. “The producers realised that the films staring Bachchan and his contemporaries had plots that were proven hits across the rest of India and that in Rajinikanth they had a mass entertainer who could parlay these stories into Tamil hits,” he says.

Another factor was that many of the hit scripts in Hindi — like Deewar, Don and Trishul — had been written by the intelligent star-writer duo, Salim-Javed, who were masters at creating revamped rehashes of past scripts and presenting them in a more classy manner. Apart from a Sholay, most of these scripts were not milieu-specific and could be remodelled to fit into any context. This provided a good formula to create an persona for Rajinikanth in the 80s similar to the one created for Amitabh in the 70s — of the angry young man choosing to exorcise his past demons by picking up cudgels against the system. Hence, Thee, Billa and Mr. Bharat, which more or less kept the soul of the original intact, were grand successes.

Also, at the peak of the single screen-era, the space vacated by M.G. Ramachandran needed to be filled by someone who could do larger-than-life roles that the poor could empathise with, Rajinikanth, with his swarthy complexion, sense of style and timing, was a better choice than his more urbane counterpart, Kamal Haasan. Apart from an odd Sri Raghavendra, Rajinikanth struck to the formula — his character belonged to the subaltern class, rose single-handedly from dire circumstances and aroused the masses, created an individual-driven movement rather than becoming just part of a bigger idea and, in what now looks regressive, had to impart lessons in patriarchy. This began in the 80s and continued well into the late 90s, till Padayappa.

Prominent culture commentator Sadanand Menon says the identity of the angry young man in Bombay films found their appropriate equivalent in Rajinikanth. “His was, in the initial years, a Gabbar-Singh kind of profile. However, later in the 70s, it changed into that of a vigilante hero who fought injustice and inspired hope of change. He was someone the audiences found good but the system criminalised. Since the average audience-member also came from that kind of a background, they could easily relate to that,” he says. However, he adds that remaking Amitabh scripts would have been more of a producer’s choice than Rajinikanth’s own desire.

P. Vasu, a director who has worked with Rajinikanth in films in the last three decades, offers another viewpoint. “Rajini sir has always been a fan of Amitabh. One element he imbibed from the latter’s acting is his comic timing. In the initial years, he was a powerful hero but not into comedy.” He adds that Rajinikanth’s ability to do Amitabh-like comedy was one factor he kept in mind while making Panakkaran, which was a take on Laawaris.

Though their personal backgrounds and the situations they found themselves in were different, the superstar started becoming a victim of his status in the ’90s just like his friend in Bombay had done in the ’80s. After a point, it was bound to crack at the seams. In Amitabh’s case, it happened with a series of flops in the late ’80s — like Jaadugar, Ganga-Jamuna-Saraswati and Toofan — sans script-writers like Salim-Javed but with the same set of directors, like Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai, who had once immortalised him. In Rajini’s case, the lowest point came a decade later with Baba, released in 2002, with Suresh Krissna, who had taken his status to stratospheric proportions through Annamalai and Baasha.

Amitabh’s second innings, which lasted three years (between 1997 and 1999) was a big disaster. With flops like Mrityudata and Lal Baadshah, he realised that he couldn’t play an older version of angry man any more. At a low ebb both financially and artistically, he decided to re-invent himself by doing age-specific roles on the big screen and playing host to a successful television series on the small screen. Here, the inflexion point was not Mohabbatein, it was Aks, a juicy author-backed role which showed a police inspector being forced to tackle with an evil reflection that has made his way into his psyche. His career progressed with films like Black, Sarkar, Cheeni Kum, Paa — all of them script-driven roles he could never do in the ’80s. That he had filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Balki and Ramgopal Varma offering him challenging work only helped him evolve, with his eyes and facial expressions having a greater impact than his dialogues.

In this regard, after two films succeeding Baba one of them a remake of a Malayalam classic Shankar’s Enthiran could have seen Rajinikanth create his ’70s magic. The central character was not Vaseegara, the scientist, it was Chitti, his creation whose villainous proclivities harked back to Prasath of Moondru Mudhichu and Parattai of 16 vayadinile. However, the extremely weak characterisation made him more of an animated caricature — similar to the unidimensional automatons we used to get in the early-day video games — than an antagonist.

In an interview given post- Enthiran to his mentor K. Balachandar, Rajinikanth had said he would not be very keen on doing Cheeni Kum–kind of roles as he is more inclined toward commercial scripts. However, that was before the failure of two of his previous films. Following Lingaa’s failure, he could have been willing to reconsider this.

Sadanand Menon says with Enthiran’s success, Rajinikanth not just took the hype associated with him one level further; he also exhausted all the possible versions he could present of his star image. “It could only have been downhill after that.”

He adds that Rajinikanth’s image is a victim of his fanbase. “It is sustained by his fans and does not need a critic’s or a cinema connoissuer’s or a historian’s opinion.” Hence, he can be only as good an actor as his fans and the producers allow him to.

P. Vasu, who last directed him in Chandramukhi and Kuselan, says Chandramukhi itself marked the comback of the ’70s villain when Rajinikanth played Vettaiyan toward the end. He also adds that Rajinikanth still may not be willing to do the kind of roles Amitabh has done. “When producers opt for him, the costs shoot up phenomenally. And Rajini sir is very conscious about the financial security of both his producers and the buyers.” He goes on to say that “he can maybe do a Mudhal Mariyadhai–kind of role [like Sivaji Ganeshan did in the latter part of his career] in his own way, with the style elements intact.”

Pa. Ranjith’s impressive responses during his recent interview to The Hindu gave an indication that Kabali will be as much a director-driven movie as one that is dependent on the superstar. “If the Kabali teaser is anything to go by, Pa. Ranjith has cleverly managed to combine the superstar’s mass appeal in a manner that is commensurate with his age and at the same time satisfied fans of the younger avatar with the ’80s-set flashback,” says Naman Ramachandran. This could be Rajinikanth’s attempt to transform himself into a character from a star.

One of my favourite early-day Rajini roles is as Devu in Thappu Thalangal, a K. Balachandar film where he plays a ruffian for hire. It was among his very first anti-hero roles, one where he was a central character rather than playing a supporting role. His best acting comes in the last two scenes where there are hardly any dialogues. Having just killed someone who has raped his ladylove, he realises that his own sister is married to him. As reality sinks in for both him and his sister, we are shown him giving his familiar villainous laugh; then, as his sister realises that he has killed her husband, crying rather manically. In the next scene, he has a certain vulnerability and guilt on his face as he is arrested and taken to the police station. His eyes and expressions reveal human fallibility rather than some divine strength and also exemplify the intensity he could bring to scene without the aid of dialogues, even while not doing negative roles. As he tries to enter his second innings, that is one of the roles he can look to imitate.

“Filmmakers, for decades, have been capitalising on [Rajinikanth’s] superstar image but the time is ripe for him to take on more actorly roles, as it were. A gradual and smooth transition will see both fans and connoissuers delighted. But whatever he decides to do, for die-hard fans, he will always be the larger-than-life thalaivar,” says Naman Ramachandaran. A point that attests to both Rajinikanth’s strength and his limitations.

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