What explains Rajinikanth’s enduring appeal? That’s a question millions will ask today as the 67-year-old superstar’s 2.0, touted as one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, hurtles its way to theaters like an asteroid on steroids. Many a soul can’t wrap their head around why an ordinary-looking man like Rajinikanth is India’s beloved movie star when, in an ideal world, he should have been India’s favourite uncle at best. But he’s not, and this isn’t an ideal world.
As 2.0’s opening credits roll by, a titanic name shall explode on screen triggering mass hysteria among the fans (not simply audiences, they are devoted fans). That name is ‘Superstar Rajni.’ And it’s not just another name. It’s a meme, a Trojan horse, a force of nature, a promise of silver lining in bleak times and all the things can crash the internet and jam your phones. Rajinikanth is back, da. Hold on to your phones.
The superstar’s second outing this year after Kaala that released to a mixed critical and commercial response this June, S. Shankar’s 2.0, as most movie-goers surely know, is a sequel to the hit Enthiran. In these films, the battle for Rajinikanth has moved from earthly delights to the fourth dimension, the realm of sci-fi where Thalaivar can android up to destroy the forces of evil. In Enthiran, robot Chitti (Rajinikanth) had become a Frankenstein monster. Think about the complicated math behind this equation. A Rajini robot is science, software and theory of relativity turned on its face. This is 3D Rajinikanth in Pythagorean theorem. Poor Akshay Kumar. He doesn’t even know what he’s up against.
Rajinikanth’s superhuman abilities make him India’s biggest and most stylish superstar, if not the greatest. At 67, he’s more commercially bankable than a dozen younger Hindi stars put together. He does not fit the mould of your typical Indian hero. Does he even want to be your typical Indian hero? A decade ago, he had mocked his own swarthy appeal in Sivaji: The Boss in a song that proudly announced his dark-skinned Tamil roots and then, added in jest, “Now, I am a white Tamilian.” The woman of his dreams is fair and lovely. Embarrassed by his own complexion, he decides to mask his face in white.
Man and the myth
Zealot fans and admirers have always used this argument about Rajinikanth. That he is modesty personified and that he is the only star who can joke about himself, his humble appearance or skin colour and rather than be ashamed of it, turn that very slight or weakness into a strength. He’s balding but does not see any point in hiding it. He wears a moustache, not in a modish way. In public, he prefers simple clothes, usually black or white. At a press meet promoting Enthiran (2010), in which he was paired opposite Aishwarya Rai he recalled a funny story with a complete stone-face about how a man he had met recently couldn’t believe he had landed a film with the beautiful actress.
“What’s wrong with Aishwarya Rai?” the man had mumbled. The audience was in splits. A sincere Rajinikanth thanked Aishwarya Rai for “accepting to do a opposite heroine character opposite me.” The mangled English invites laughter but it is exactly a part of his ‘I yam who I yam’ persona. He makes ‘nativity’ cool and often blends that aspect of his personality adroitly into his cinema. In the recent Kaala, for example, the colour black was symbolically associated with the dignity of hard labour. These kinds of associations endear him to the masses, making him a people’s hero. On screen, he may be the indisputable king of style but off it, a mystic with minimum needs and that’s the self-effacing personality his followers admire the most about his real-life image. Once on celluloid, however, their expectations from their Thalaivar is nothing short of paranormal. This way, the two Rajinikanths, the man and the myth, the continent-sized mass on cinema and islet in reality, have existed in the Indian psyche for decades now — both in separate compartments but feeding off each other.
“Rajini is close to the masses because people identify with him,” argues actress Khushboo in Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography. Decoding his appeal, she further adds, “They see themselves in him. He does not come across as pretentious or someone unbelievable. He does not take his star status very seriously. He is just as you get to see him. No frills, no attachments.”
Once a bus conductor, the rise of Rajinikanth to the upper echelons of Tamil cinema is both astonishing and legendary. He started out as a villain who ended up as a hero with adoring mass appeal. Talk about transformation! His formative years were spent remaking Amitabh Bachchan’s larger-than-life vigilante flicks. His greatest hits owe a debt to Bachchan. His best-known films of the 1980s, like Billa and Thee are Don and Deewaar rehashes, respectively. Continuing the Tamil cinema binary, in the MGR-Sivaji Ganesan mould, Rajinikanth was always the hero of the masses while leaving the classes to foe Kamal Haasan.
Today, the two stars who have struggled for the supremacy of Tamil cinema are likely to clash as political opponents. Both Haasan and Rajini have set their sights on politics. Though immensely popular, the day he enters full-time politics is the day he will be truly ‘Rajinikanth 2.0.’ Will that be a loss to Tamil cinema?
Perhaps. But whether in cinema or politics, Rajinikanth will remain a people’s hero.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)