The Rajni Era: A Phenomenal Career in Movies and Politics
Image Credits: mirchi9.com
How much can a poor person ‘grow’ in a country like India? How much of a mark can he make for himself in the world of cinema, where nepotism and stereotypical standards matter the most?
There is a man from the masses: a dark, skinny, baldheaded man; a coolie and bus conductor from Andhra Pradesh, emerged as a demigod. The face of the word ‘superstar’, the man who inspired generations of young actors, and continues to be revered as ‘Thalaivar’(leader). It's the story of one of the biggest superstars the country has ever witnessed; the story of a man who came from nothing and walked to the peaks of stardom; the story of a man who broke the existing stereotypes and set new standards for the industry. It's the story of a political mastermind who shook the government with his fanbase and penetrating speeches. The story of Rajnikanth, the first Indian actor to have appeared across four different spectrums of world cinema: black-and-white, colour, 3D, and motion capture, recently, honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke award.
The Journey To Glory: Rise of Thalaivar
When Shivaji Rao Gakewad, a petty Bus Conductor in the Bangalore Transport Service (BTS), decided to become an actor and took up an acting course in the newly formed Madras Film Institute, after coming across an advertisement, it was the birth of a new era of stardom inTamil Cinema and later, Indian cinema itself. Back in the 1970s, when Indian cinema was profitable, almost exclusively, to fair-skinned heroes playing the charming lover, Rajni started his career with negative roles. He portrayed ruthless goons, cruel drunkards, a pornographer who sells his own wife's pictures, etc. Rajinikanth had acted in 50 films over a period of four years, and in four different languages. He credited the Hindi film star, Amitabh Bachchan, as his inspiration and began playing Bachchan's roles in the Tamil remakes of his films. During a phase of his career, Rajinikanth abruptly chose to quit acting but was coaxed to return with the Tamil film Billa (1980), a remake of the Bollywood blockbuster Don (1978), written by Salim-Javed and starring Amitabh Bachchan. Billa had Rajinikanth playing dual roles and eventually, became his first ever commercial success. It was a turning point in his career, disproving detractors that claimed Rajnikanth was "finished", seeing to his acceptance as a full-fledged hero in the world of cinema. The success of Billa established Rajinikanth as the most celebrated actor of South Indian cinema, overtaking Kamal Haasan. By 1983, he was popular across Telugu and Kannada films as well. In the same year, he starred in his first Bollywood film, Andha Kanoon, alongside Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. The film went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of the time. By that time youngsters of south India had been ‘Rajnified’: trying to emulate his unique mannerisms, style, and dialogue delivery brimming with suave.
Rajinikanth was given the 'Superstar' title after the 1978 film 'Bhairavi', which was directed by M. Bhaskar and produced by Kalaignanam. The title is used in his movies ever since, as people declared their devotion to the man who fights crime and saves the day. Superstar became like a demigod to the people; a new dimension to stardom. In the tamil soil where cinema and politics flows as the same river, Rajni played a prominent role. By the 1990s, Rajinikanth established himself as a commercial entertainer. Almost all the films released during this period were highly successful at the box office.
21st century Tamil cinema was borne on the shoulders of this titan, as his movies like Chandramukhi (2005), Sivaji the Boss (2007, )etc. were in top Indian hits of the first decade of the new millennium. Following Chandramukhi's release, it was reported that AVM Productions was set to produce a film directed by Shankar starring Rajinikanth – the largest collaboration yet for a Tamil film. The film was titled Sivaji and was released in the summer of 2007, following two years of filming and production. It became the first Tamil film to be charted as one of the "top ten best films" of the United Kingdom and South Africa box offices upon release. Rajinikanth received ₹26 crore (equivalent to ₹63 crore or US$8.9 million in 2019), for his role in the film- the highest in his career at that time. Then he again struck the box office with the magnum opus ‘Enthiran’. The film was released worldwide in 2010 as the most expensive Indian film ever made, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing film in India of its time. Rajinikanth was paid a remuneration of ₹45 crore (equivalent to ₹81 crore or US$11 million in 2019) for the film. His performance in dual role as a scientist and humanoid robot was critically acclaimed;
"is there anything left to be said about a man who, at 61, still manages to star in one of the most successful films of the year, not just in the south, but across India? Superstar Rajni once again proved that he is the actor with the Midas touch with the sci-fi flick Endhiran, where he played an ambitious scientist, a naive robot and an evil android bent on destroying the world [...] He did it with such aplomb that he's been the talk of the town for months. He might do one film in two years, but when he does, he pulls out all the stops." —Rediff.com comments on Rajinikanth's performance in Enthiran.
In 2011, he fell sick and was hospitalised. The prayers and wishes from his fans, across the world, stood testament to the reverence which he held among the masses. Following his recovery, his next film ‘Linga’ and the motion capture film ‘Kochadiyan’ were failed ventures. It triggered predictions about the end of the ‘Rajni era’ but that was far from the truth. After five years, he came back with the movie ‘Kabali’ (2016), which propelled an unprecedented hype. It was made glaringly obvious that the thalaivar mania is not something that can die out easily. After Kabali, Rajni came with movies like Kaala (2018) and 2.0- a standalone sequel to Enthiran (2010), featuring Rajinikanth reprising the roles of Vaseegaran and Chitti, alongside Akshay Kumar and Amy Jackson. Produced on an estimated budget of ₹570 crore (US$80 million), 2.0 is the most expensive Indian film till date. He returned, after a long break, to his age-old field of “mass masala” genre with Petta (2019). The Times of India reviewed, "Petta is a complete mass entertainer with twists and turns that will make you howl in the theatres like you would in a Thalaiva film. It is relevant to the current day and age; it’s a film that all Rajinikanth fans definitely enjoy!". Rajni’s recent film Darbar (2020) was complete with ‘Rajni’ factors which made even a poorly scripted movie a commercial success. Undoubtedly, his stardom and charisma is phenomenal.
This superstar who is the second-highest-paid actor in Asia, just behind Jackie Chan, is a bald, old man with a paunch, hailing from the state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force to be reckoned with. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "superstar Rajinikanth!"
Despite his humongous superstardom, Rajinikanth was and is a man of the people. He is well aware that his Dravidian looks are amongst the reasons that have endeared him to south Indians, giving his fans the opportunity to finally see a version of themselves on screen, as opposed to the fair-skinned milquetoast heroes prevalent before his advent. The fact that his fans love his bewigged on-screen, stylish persona as well as his real life appearances where he is simply clad, unshaven and balding, proves that the actor and the man are equally popular. Unlike most stars that perform charitable acts only to publicise it to the press, Rajinikanth prefers to let his charitable deeds do the talking.
Clash of the Titans; Thalaivar v/s Thalaivi
Rajnikanth’s mass following elevated him to a position of a strong political influence and key player in the political arena. The disagreeable relation that Rajni held with Jayalatitha, the beloved ‘Thalaivi of tamil masses', was dramatic and dynamic at the same time.
The eventful clash between Rajni and Jaya started in the 1970s. She accepted the offer to act in “Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal” and Rajanikanth was likely to be booked as the hero. Prior to that, Jayalalitha met Rajinikanth. He went to her house and somehow, she did not like him-might be his colour or mannerisms or looks. She refused to act with him and Rajanikanth was rejected. The movie ended up being a failure. Regardless, Rajni could not accept the rejection. Subsequently, Rajanikanth became a superstar and Jayalaitha did not act in any more films. Later, Rajnikanth movies developed a trend of portraying a prideful female character, which was an insinuation at Jaya. In the film Muthu, he criticized Jayalalitha directly. Thereafter he used to put on some “punch” dialogues to showcase his political ambitions.
The 1996 Tamilnadu election witnessed the depth of Rajni mania amongst the Tamil People. During that period, the film ‘Bombay’ was released. Some people from the minority community, threw bombs at Mani Rathnam' s house. Rajni decided to utilise this incident as a political weapon against Jayalalitha.
RM Veerappan (RMV) who was cabinet minister in Jaya’s government, produced the film ‘Baasha’ with Rajinikanth as the lead. The film was a mountainous success. During its celebratory function, Rajanikanth blamed Jayalalitha for the bomb incident at Mani Rathnam's house. This resulted in RMV losing his ministerial post. Rajini raised his voice against Jaya’s government and remarked, "Even God cannot save Tamil Nadu if AIADMK returns to power." He actively supported the DMK and TMC alliance and asked the people of Tamil Nadu and his fans to vote for that alliance. This alliance had a complete victory in 1996. The superstar who can defy odds in on-screen fights did the same thing in the off-screen political arena too. He single handedly turned the fate of the Jayalalitha government.
There ensued many public clashes between these two including the famous ‘road blocking’ by Superstar. Rajni’s house is next to Jayalalitha’s residence in Chennai’s Poes Garden, and used to face continual inconvenience due to the fanfare around Jayalalitha. Whenever Jaya’s car used to leave the house, a stampede-like situation was witnessed on the roads from where she used to travel. The entire traffic used to come to a standstill. One day, both Jayalalitha and Rajini happened to leave their homes at the same time and the cops stopped Thalaiva’s car to let Amma’s car pass first. An agitated Rajni stepped out of his car and lit a cigarette. Seeing Rajni standing on the main road like this, the entire traffic stopped. People rushed towards his car to catch a glimpse of him and it was hours before Jayalalitha’s car could get through. In another incident, when there was a function to facilitate Sivaji Ganesan, Rajanikanth took the opportunity to go around the stadium in an open car to exhibit his popularity.
But things were not always in favor of the silver screen God. Later, in 2004, Rajinikanth said he would personally vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but would not extend his support to any front during the upcoming Indian general election.The party, however, failed to win any seats in Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha. Rajni’s declaration to step into politics to exploit the vacuum created due to the demise of Karunanithi and Jayalalitha, and consequent withdrawal from his political plans are another story.
The Dusk of Rajni Era
Unlike his contemporary, Kamal Haasan, “Rajinikanth has always been particular about targeting family audiences and getting a ‘U’ (universal) certificate for his films," independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai had said in an earlier interview to Mint. A lot of the appeal, Pillai had said, has to do with his humility. Everyone knows he was a bus conductor and a coolie before he became a leading actor. He’s a common man’s man who came from nothing, making no bones about the fact that he’s balding, and being as comfortable wearing a crumpled kurta as he is, on screen, dressed in stylish suits and wigs.
To be sure, in recent years, it has been a challenge for filmmakers to keep those typical commercial Rajnikanth elements intact in their projects, while coming up with something new for the superstar. Rajni has learnt a lesson with films like Lingaa (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), that failed to impress fans even though they were financial successes. In making a film with Rajinikanth, one runs the risk of jeopardising one's career in an ignominious defeat at one's own peril. There are certain elements expected of a Rajinikanth film to cater to his ardent fans, even if the actor is prepared to look old on screen. This man is at the last phase of his career but still he is at the peaks of stardom and carries a vehemently strong political influence too.
By Devadeth K. Reji
Devadeth is a second year B.A. Honours Political Science student at Hindu College, University of Delhi.