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Thalaivar,the Boss

Meet the frenzied fans of Rajinikanth. They wear his visors,quaver before his posters and offer milk and flowers to his gigantic cutouts. They turn Chennai into the ultimate fandom.

Written by Saritha Rai | New Delhi | October 10, 2010 7:05:02 pm

Meet the frenzied fans of Rajinikanth. They wear his visors,quaver before his posters and offer milk and flowers to his gigantic cutouts. They turn Chennai into the ultimate fandom.

It was much before daybreak and the air had a cool crispness that was unusual for this sultry city. The doors of a temple were still shut,with just a sweeper outside brushing garbage into a pile. A short distance away,though,crowds milled about as if gathered for an early morning darshan. Men in crisp white dhotis,pressed shirts and angavastrams over their shoulders jostled with others in jogging attire and yet others in snazzy shirts and sunglasses. At 5 am,bugles blared. The crowd roared. Flower petals and confetti floated in the air. Milk gushed down a huge scaffolding in libation,paal abhishekam. This was Chennai. And the city displayed its religion: Rajinikanth.

At the AGS Cinema in the Villivakkam neighbourhood near Anna Nagar,where Enthiran was showing,Rajini devotee Saktivel knew enough English to muster,“I am not a fan,I’m a fanatic.” He had waited for this — the opening of a Rajinikanth movie — for the last couple of years. Sixty-eight-year-old Muthulakshmi K arrived with her daughter,daughter’s friend,the friend’s mother and 52 others. “Romba azhaga (So good-looking),” she quavered,gazing at the lobby poster of Rajini with lightning-bolt sideburns. Then,without missing a beat,she said,“He matches Aishwarya in looks.”

In the gathering was an equally smitten Jayashree Kumaran,25,an MNC employee. She had woken up at 3 in the morning to be herded into a group arriving at the cinema. The tickets were organised days ago through “a friend’s friend’s friend”. Kumaran was so into the superstar that she used “Rajini slang” in every other sentence. “Chumma adhuruddileya… this is rocking,” she said,repeating a punch line from Sivaji: The Boss. This kind of frenzied mass adulation is enough to bust the myth that only Bollywood represents mainstream Indian cinema.

Enthiran is arguably Asia’s most expensive movie (official budget estimate Rs 165 crore) starring the country’s highest paid actor Rajinikanth (reportedly Rs 45 crore). It released in 2,250 screens worldwide,from Robot in Hindi to Robo in Telugu. It ran all day on opening Friday,with 84 shows in Chennai’s Mayajaal cinemas alone. Such was the demand that tickets for the first couple of days sold within minutes of the opening. Bombarded by requests,office bearers of dozens of Rajini fan clubs (rasigar mandram) across the city went underground.

5.30 am. The audience at AGS Cinema chanted as the opening credits rolled: “Thalaivar (Chief)!” Three boys with no more than 15 years between them pranced,sporting Rajini visor-caps,in the first row. Such is the cult and mystique of Rajinikanth that when the King of Bling first appeared — bearded,be-vested and bespectacled — the crowd went ballistic.

With the icon in nearly every frame,Enthiran is a Rajini vs Rajini,dual-role treat for his fans. Rajini as the scientist Dr Vasigaran builds the android Chitti (“I am Chitti,speed 1 terahertz,memory 1 zettabyte”) who turns villainous when infused with emotions. In an early scene a policeman catches Chitti for parking in a No Parking zone and asks for his address. The robot deadpans,“180.61.14….” It’s his I.P address.

Enthiran,directed by S Shankar known for his lavish spectacles with extravagant budgets and dramatic visual effects,also has Hollywood big-name imports Stan Winston Studios and Yuen Woo Ping to provide the animation and choreograph the martial stunts. To top it all,the film is the first production of Sun Pictures headed by Kalanidhi Maran,the grandnephew of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. Co-producer of the movie and COO of Sun Pictures Hansraj Saxena justly crowed,“It cannot get any bigger than this.”

As with every new Rajini release,the true Rajini groupies — some of which sport cool names like Bombay Rajini and Poster Kumar — make their pilgrimage to Albert,an old cinema in the Egmore area. Many come in from other cities. It is a cohort of familiar faces that miraculously congregates here for each new Rajini film.

There was Vinod Selvan,25,who insisted he had been a fan of Rajini since the day he was born. Another arrived as a robot-lookalike,wearing a motorbike helmet atop a shiny metallic suit. A third drove his autorickshaw adorned with Rajini stickers right up to the steps of the movie hall. Friends Bharath V and S Subramanian said they adored Rajini’s style. “It’s in the way he walks,the way he gestures,what he says and how he says it… it is the flair with which he puts on his sunglasses or lights his cigarette.” Homemaker Rajeshwari Satish Kumar who introduced herself as “part-time housewife and full-time Rajini addict” could recite every one of his punch lines in her sleep. Take this: “God proposes,Arunachalam disposes.”

The object of all this veneration is an unlikely hero in real life. Rajini does not do marketing promos before the release of his movies. Enthiran did not even have a preview. He appears sparingly in public,but is completely nonchalant about his image. His greying beard,his balding head and his wrinkles are for all to see,shorn of any artifice. Not for him the gelled hairpieces,the excessive make-up and the six-pack abs of overdone Bollywood heroes.

But on the big screen,as Enthiran is evidence,Rajini is a jaw-dropping combination of raw machismo and do-gooder spirit. His sideburns are stylish,his wigs are flashy and his sunglasses are Emporio Armani. In a lavish song he changes his look one hundred times,in others he gambols through Machu Picchu,Brazil and the United States with girlfriend Sana,played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who is half his age in real life.

With a shoe-turned-skate,he can glide on railway tracks,sprint on a speeding train,morph into an Anaconda and swallow a helicopter. Bullets zip out of his bare fingers to go smack through the forehead of baddies. He confronts a ferocious gang of weapon-wielding thugs,magnetically draws the metal to his body and turns into a multi-armed deity. It is all quite extreme but the crowd loves it. As they say here in Chennai,there is nothing Rajini can’t.

”Rajini is a very accessible hero,that way his screen and public persona mesh seamlessly into each other,” says Uma Vangal,an assistant professor in the direction department of Chennai’s LV Prasad Film Academy. That morning outside Albert,Vangal and three of her students are filming a documentary that follows the life of three hardcore Rajinikanth fans. The documentary,four years in the making,tracks the trio through their lives’ ups and downs during the pauses between Rajini films.

The Rajini phenomenon has no parallels either in Bollywood or in the South. In movie-crazy Tamil Nadu,megastars like MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa turned to politics to extend their power bases. Yet,the network of thousands of rasigar mandrams,out-rivalling all other movie stars put together,is proof of Rajini’s clout. Many parties will do anything to rope him in,but his rejection of politics has only enhanced his mystique.

By lunch that day,as milk puddles formed below massive Rajini cutouts at Kasi theatre in Ekkaduthangal area,Rajini buff Ananthanarayanan Subramanian pondered the superstar’s appeal. It transcends age,gender and class,he said. “His social conscience and his innocence appeal to the educated and the illiterate,the blue collar and the white collar,” he said. He was booked to watch the film three evenings in a row.

There is one place where the Rajini strut didn’t work: Bollywood. Rajinikanth has always been a bit of an oddball figure there,enjoying limited success in films like Andha Kanoon or playing second fiddle to Sridevi in Chaalbaaz. “In the North,he has been the butt of jokes,” says Subramanian. Enthiran may well change that.

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