Rajinikanth - a superstar for all seasons
Decoding the phenomenal success of an actor who hasn't aged a day in the eyes of his fans
For close to a month, India's superstar Rajinikanth, has been shooting for his new actioner titled Darbar at Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai. No visitors were allowed at the shoot, being held in a hospital and a railway station.
The incessant rainfall, especially towards end-September may have delayed the filming sporadically but evidently the spirit of the 68-year-old entertainer wasn't dampened at all. This time around, the part of the leading lady has gone to Nayanthara, a South Indian star instead of a Bollywood heroine. Earlier he had teamed up with Radhika Apte, Sonakshi Sinha, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Manisha Koirala. Evidently, he doesn't require B-town's glamour quotient anymore.
Reportedly, Rajinikanth is portraying the role of an invincible police officer in the project, being made in Tamil (it will be dubbed into other languages, of course). The director is A.R. Murugadoss, who is most famously known for the Tamil blockbuster Ghajini (2005) and then three years later in a Hindi remake toplining Aamir Khan. Incidentally, Darbar is being lensed by one of India's most creative cinematographers Santosh Sivan, who can handle the vagaries of the monsoon season effortlessly.
Quite clearly, the project underscores the fact that Rajinikanth has recuperated from his fluctuating health and has no intentions of calling it quits as an actor. Plus, signs are that he is maintaining a distance for a while from the realm of politics. Despite announcing his entry into the political arena two years ago, he will immerse himself deeply only during the legislative assembly elections in 2021. Without a doubt, his legion of fans would like to see him occupying the seat of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
The key to the mounting popularity of Rajinikanth is that, like Amitabh Bachchan in his heyday and Salman Khan today, he can make the most impossibly fantasticated situations in the script look believable. The plots invariably showcase him as the messiah of the underprivileged.
His acting is thoroughly stylised, whether he's performing a boisterous dance number, carrying out daredevil feats or belting out reams of over-the-top dramatic dialogue. At the outset of his career, he would often play the stereotyped villain, an antagonist who makes a living hell out of those who dare to cross his path. Ironically today, he has become just the opposite, often saving the world from imminent destruction. The baddy has transformed into a superhero.
Without a doubt, he connects with the mandarins as well as the masses because of his unpretentious, off-the-cuff, magnum-sized performances. He hasn't ventured into realistic, offbeat cinema, perhaps aware of the fact that the audience expects him to be larger-than-life from the first frame to the last.
By the way in person, Rajinikanth is humility personified; he avoids flashy costumes off the screen and repeatedly recalls his debt to K. Balachander, who discovered him at the Madras Film Institute. The veteran director cast him in Apoorva Raagangal (1975) as a villain opposite the hero Kamal Haasan.
Having knocked out a score of over 150 films, the superstar doesn't need to hide his balding pate behind a wig in public. He doesn't need to be faux cool, since he has a natural swag, its appeal cutting across generations, from the millennials to the septuagenarians.
Indeed, WhatsApp group messages abound with affectionate jokes, on the lines of,"Rajinikanth can kill two stones with one bird", "Rajinikanth can drown a fish under water" and "Rajinikanth can play the violin on the piano." LOL? And if he's ever quizzed whether his mannerism of tossing a cigarette in the air, catching it between the lips and lighting up immediately, is borrowed from Shatrughan Sinha, he has always conceded, "Why not? I'm a fan of Shatru sir."
Truly, it's a pity that despite acting in 23 Hindi language films, he couldn't quite make a lasting impact in Bollywood. About the only ones which have a recall value to a degree are T. Rama Rao's Andha Kaanoon (1983), Ramesh Sippy's Bhrashtachar (1989), Pankaj Parashar's Chaalbaaz (1989) and Mukul S. Anand's Hum (1991). Frankly, the less said about the others, the better. Unfazed, he was sporting enough to make a tongue-in-cheek guest appearance in the Shah Rukh Khan special effects extravaganza Ra.One (2011), which left his fans asking for more.
Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bangalore to the family of a police constable, there was a time when he worked as a coolie at a railway station, a carpenter and then as a bus conductor before following his dream of acting by joining the Madras Film institute. In between, he was enrolled by his brother in a monastery set up by the Ramakrishna Mission, explaining his ongoing interest in philosophy and spirituality. I did try to engage him in a conversation once on this subject, to which he had stated succinctly, "God is in all of us. To everyone his or her own beliefs, which must spring from one's own heart and mind."
His has been a chequered life, which could make a biopic, right away or some day. The bus conductor of yore is a Padma Bhushan awardee. He is rated as the highest paid actor in Asia after Jackie Chan, and appears to be working at a measured pace towards locating a firm berth in the world of politics.
No wonder, even if the shooting of Darbar was frequently disrupted by the rains and thunderstorms, Rajinikanth and his team didn't cancel a day's schedule. After all, here's a superhero for all seasons. So as one aphorism goes, "When Rajini sir wants the lights on, he just switches off the darkness."