Fans, who have known Superstar Rajinikanth from his 90s films, may not be aware of his work as a character artiste during his formative years in Kollywood. It was before the film industry trapped him into a particular star image after it realised his midas touch could turn any film into a blockbuster. It was before he became a demigod for millions of his fans.
It won’t be wrong to say that director J Mahendran was only the second filmmaker after K Balachander to spot the unbridled acting talent of Rajinikanth and made better use of it.
Speaking at a Rajinikanth event in 2017, Mahendran recalled a great deal of struggle he had to face to make Mullum Malarum, which was considered a breakthrough in visual storytelling in Tamil cinema at the time. He recollected that producer Venu Chettiar refused to hire Rajinikanth, who was then playing negative roles and mostly second fiddle to other leading male actors of that time in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films.
It was after days of agonizing negotiations that Mahendran persuaded Venu Chettiar to finalise Rajinikanth for the role of a lifetime. “The producer was very angry with me after he saw the way I had shot the film. He cursed me and accused me of deceiving him. Because he had no idea how I was shooting the film. If he had known the style of my making, he would have stopped the production halfway. Thank god, he never came to the shooting spot,” he said.
After about three weeks of its release, Mullum Malarum benefited from good word-of-mouth and started running houseful in theatres. Even as Rajinikanth has acted in over 160 films so far, the top five films where he shone as an actor would not be complete without Mullum Malarum taking the top place.
“I saw a different side of Mahendran sir on the sets of Mullum Malarum,” Rajinikanth recalled at the same event in 2017. “He was like a tiger on the sets. He wouldn’t move on to the next scene until he got what he wanted.”
Mahendran’s hand in shaping Rajinikanth’s career goes beyond Mullum Malarum. “Mahendran sir persuaded the director to name my character Rajini in Aadu Puli Attam in which he was a writer. He is the one who created Rajini style with that film,” the actor noted. He was referring to his iconic dialogue in the film: “Idhu thaan Rajini style” (This is Rajini style).
The Kaala star said Mahendran pushed him out of his comfort zone and never settled until he gave his best take. “I was content with my acting career as I was unburdened by the fact that people have accepted me as an actor. But, Mahendran sir and Balu Mahendra sir kept me on my feet,” he said.
Rajinikanth even recalled how Mahendran got into his head while preparing him for the role of Kaali. “Usually, what people speak behind our back help us more than what people say to our face. And Mahendran sir and Balu Mahendra sir kept discussing about Kaali’s characteristics and personality within earshot and turned me into that character,” he said.
Mullum Malarum revolves around the relationship between a brother and sister. Rajinikanth’s Kaali is a doting brother, who nurtures a strong hatred for people from a privileged class. And his life spins out of control after his boss at work (played by Sarath Babu) begins to push his buttons. Kaali is entirely different from larger-than-life characters that Rajinikanth is known for. In fact, Mullum Malarum could be classified as an indie film by a producer who is known for making commercial films.
Rajinikanth’s Kaali is a vengeful man, who pays a heavy price for his pride. Kaali is one of the very few ‘human’ characters played by Rajinikanth in a career spanning over four decades.
“Mahendran sir showed me there was another Rajinikanth in me. He taught me a new dimension of acting. After watching Mullum Malarum, director Balachander sir had sent me a letter saying that he felt proud of introducing me as an actor. On the sets of Petta, we both got an opportunity to talk a lot after a while. He expressed discontent with the state of affairs in our society and politics. He never compromised his self-respect for the sake of anyone or anything. He is a role model for new directors. His passing is a very big loss for Tamil cinema. But he will forever have a place in it. Let his soul find peace and my deep sympathies for his family,” Rajinikanth said after playing his last respect to his friend Mahendran, who passed away on Tuesday.