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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Rajinikanth is a spell that can’t be broken by a Vijay or an Ajith

On Superstar Rajinikanth's 69th birthday, we look at how the Darbar star has reinvented himself in the recent years.

Written by Manoj Kumar R | Bengaluru | Updated: December 12, 2019 10:36:53 am
Rajinikanth birthday Superstar Rajinikanth celebrates his 69th birthday today.

Superstar Rajinikanth’s upcoming film Darbar features a song titled “Chumma Kizhi”. The song, which is scored by a millennial composer Anirudh Ravichander, is a throwback to the 1990s hero-introduction songs in Rajinikanth films. The song is written by lyricist Vivek who celebrates all things Rajinikanth (including the name Rajini) in the peppy number. Now, why would the songwriter use the name ‘Rajini’ in the song that features in a film, in which Rajinikanth is not playing himself? It won’t make sense when we try to analyse a Rajinikanth film through the prism of logic. We don’t usually buy tickets for a Rajinikanth movie to engage our artistic sensibilities. We rush to the theaters to watch ‘first day, first show’ because of the magic the Superstar creates on the big screen.

It is, simply, the generosity we have only reserved for Rajinikanth. We don’t extend this courtesy to any other actor from the Tamil film industry, including Kamal Haasan. One misstep by Kamal in his films, we would go to town with it. When Kamal’s artistic expressions are hard to read, we would call Kamal self-indulgent. But, we willingly give Rajinikanth “Get Out of Jail Free” card without any condition. Even when the filmmakers include songs that border on narcissism, we don’t complain about Rajinikanth movies. Now, do we?

“Chumma Kizhi” is designed with one aim only: turn the cinema halls across the country into a dance floor. It is meant to rev up the mood and energy of the fans of Thalaivar, giving the much-needed edge to the director to narrate a story, which more or less, would be an extension of more than two hours and 30 minutes of “Chumma Kizhi”. In short, a film that celebrates all things — Rajinikanth.

This pattern of building a story arc that puts the idea of Rajinikanth above the art of filmmaking emerged in the early 1990s. To be exact with director Suresh Krissna’s Annaamalai (1992). Suresh was hustled into the responsibility to direct this film by his mentor and legendary director K Balachander. He was brought in after director Vasanth, who was originally hired to direct Rajinikanth, opted out for reasons best known to him.

Suresh, in his memoir titled My Days with Baasha: The Rajinikanth Phenomenon, has talked about the extraordinary circumstances under which he landed the huge responsibility of directing Rajinikanth. The film’s release date was announced as June 27, 1992. And it was a prestigious project of Balachander’s Kavithalayaa Productions. So there was no question of postponing the release date.

Suresh went to shooting without a full-bound script. He and his co-writer Shanmugasundaram fleshed out the scene-by-scene screenplay on the sets. And then he shot the freshly brewed scenes on the spot. Under such pressure, Suresh fashioned new ways to celebrate Rajinikanth that would establish a template for Rajinikanth films for the next two decades.

Take, for example, “Vanthenda Paalkaran” song. It was the success of this song that made an introduction song by S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, a must-have in Rajinikanth films.

Following Annaamalai and Veera, Suresh again directed Rajinikanth in Baasha. And the rest is history. The film helped Rajinikanth achieve a demi-god status. Suresh will be forever known as the director of Baasha, even as he has more than 50 films to his credit, including Sathya and Aalavandhan (both are cult films in their own right).

Rajinikanth dominated the 1990s surrounding himself with a handful of filmmakers who had mastered the art of exploiting his hard-earned stardom to the hilt. In other words, he avoided taking risks by working with other filmmakers who may not understand the needs of his fans. Perhaps this extreme caution made him struggle to stay at the top in the 21st century.

Rajinikanth’s fourth collaboration with Suresh, Baba (2002), failed to recreate the magic of their previous films. The film tanked at the box office, and it was also panned by critics. Many called it the beginning of the end of Rajinikanth’s box office reign. Despite his sporadic box office hits, the Superstar was still struggling to maintain a steady winning streak. Reason: he was going back to the same set of directors who had seemingly reached a saturation point, where they were no longer could repeat their previous success.

The ageing superstar needed a new Suresh Krissna-like director who could redefine the idea of Rajinikanth for millennials. And the Superstar did realize that. He stepped out of his comfort zone and collaborated with director Pa. Ranjith. When Ranjith directed Kabali (2016), he had only two low, medium budget films (Attakathi and Madras) to his credit. Kabali was a huge leap for Ranjith, and it was a leap of faith for Rajinikanth. The Superstar collaborating with a seemingly novice filmmaker changed the game in the industry.

The name of the game is: who can bring the ‘vintage Rajini’ back on the screen? So, young director Karthik Subbaraj made Petta. That film was nothing but the 36-year-old filmmaker’s nostalgic trip down memory lane dotted with old Rajinikanth films.

Rajinikanth doesn’t act in genre films anymore. Now, he’s a separate genre himself. The upcoming Darbar also seems to depend majorly on the Rajinikanth nostalgia. At least that’s what “Chumma Kizhi” number tells us.

The recent success streak of the Superstar has proved that idea of Rajinikanth is a spell and it won’t wear off with time. That magic seems to find relevance and reinvent itself through generations as long as the man behind the magic, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, wants the show to go on.

And that’s why it looks utterly silly when people debate over a rhetorical question ‘Who is the next Superstar of Tamil cinema?’. Is it Vijay or Ajith?

That’s cute, no?

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