Rajinikanth is, quite simply, the biggest superstar cinema-crazy India has ever seen. His stylized dialogues and screen mannerisms are legion, and his guy-next-door-cum-superhero image has found a hysterically appreciative following among millions of moviegoers.
Naman Ramachandran’s marvellous biography recounts Rajini’s career in meticulous detail, tracing his incredible cinematic journey from his very first film, Apoorva Raagangal, in 1975
memorable forays into Bollywood like Andha Kanoon and Hum, from landmark films like Billa, Thalapathi and Annamalai to the
mega successes of Baashha, Muthu, Fadayappa,
Chandramukhi, Sivaji and Enthiran. Along the
way, the book provides rare insights into the
Thalaivar’s personal life, from his childhood
days to his times of struggle—when he was still
Shivaji Rao Gaekwad—and then his eventual
stardom: revealing how a legend was born.
Rajinikanth has not written his memoirs; this book is the closest we are likely to get to the definitive Rajini story.
Naman Ramachandran was placed on Planet Earth with the express purpose of writing the definitive biography of Superstar Rajinikanth. Fate intervened, however, and he was separated at birth from his noble purpose by a metaphorical Kumbh Mela of sorts. His life journey took him across the world where he became a film critic with Sight & Sound, a film journalist covering South Asia for Variety, and the UK and Ireland for Cineuropa, and the author of the book Lights, Camera, Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai, besides a few film scripts. A chance encounter with a Penguin revealed the Thalaivar tattoo seared deep into his soul, and the epiphany that followed resulted in this book.
It all began, appropriately enough, at the hallowed portals of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a venue that has hosted literary legends like Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward, to name just three. It was a fiery Sunday in May at the hotel’s Empire Café where a fortuitous, or perhaps divinely ordained, meeting with a literary agent led to a conversation tracing our mutual Bangalore roots and, inevitably, to a discussion about one of the city’s most famous sons: Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, also known as Rajinikanth. The agent wondered aloud about a possible biography and I wondered aloud about possibly writing it, as it had been for long a subject close to my heart. Incidentally, a little while later, Singapore was where Rajinikanth would recover after alarming millions with his illness.
I left Singapore shortly after the meeting and got busy with the ordinary business of life. Just weeks later, the agent and her business partner asked me to conjure up a concept note and a sample chapter. I did. Then Penguin came into the picture and the result, nearly two years later, is what you are reading now.
Rajinikanth entered my life early. As a little boy growing up in Alleppey now Alappuzha), Kerala, I would watch practically every Rajinikanth film on the Saturday after its release, the Friday first-day first-show unfortunately clashing with school time. I would be accompanied by our faithful family servitor, now sadly passed on to the great cinema in the sky. Being from a village in West Bengal, he did not know a word of any south Indian language, but thrilled to Rajinikanth’s style and action and physical comedy; looking back, his enjoyment was more visceral than mine as he was reacting to pure cinema and not to dialogue or plot. Inevitably, schoolboys like us were divided into Rajini and Kamal camps. I was, in those days, firmly in the Rajini camp.
My family’s Alleppey idyll ended soon enough and we moved to Bangalore. These were the 1980s and though there were some gems, the Rajini films were getting formulaic. Kamal was doing much more interesting work and I slipped slowly into the Kamal camp. I would still watch Rajini films, but when it came to a choice, Kamal would win. When both Kamal’s Punnagai Mannan and Rajini’s Maaveeran released on Deepavali day in 1986, for example, the choice was clear, especially since I’d already watched Amitabh Bachchan in Mard, which the Rajini film was a remake of. But then came Thalapathi and the Suresh Krissna films that elevated Rajinikanth to the stratosphere, and I was mainlining Thalaivar again.
All this of course raises the old biography versus hagiography question. No doubt it is a slippery slope or a thin line, call it what you will, but I am a journalist by training, specializing in film, writing for a variety of well-known Indian and international publications, and therefore believe in being objective. I am also a film critic for a publication that demands balanced analysis before proffering opinion, and I hope I have brought this discipline to bear in this biography. I have also tried to correct popular misconceptions and misinformation about Rajinikanth wrought by lazy research and user-generated information websites, and I hope I have been successful in this.
My research journey began in Chennai. My first port of call was a popular DVD store; I was armed with a printout of Rajinikanth’s complete filmography. Of the 150-plus titles I was after, I found fifteen.
I left the list with the shop along with my phone number, requesting them to call back when they had gathered a significant number of the discs on my list. After radio silence from them for a week, I went around to the store again. They had ten more films and vague promises for some other titles. I was appalled. This was Chennai, the home of the state’s resident superstar. Surely a full set of Rajinikanth films could be had Alas, this was not the case. I had to visit several shops across the city and had to gather the films piecemeal. These were just for the Tamil films. It took two visits to Bangalore to get all the Kannada films and one visit to Kerala for the Malayalam films. Rajinikanth’s lone Bengali films was procured from a cousin in Kolkata, and his English films was ordered online from abroad. An old friend had great difficulty procuring his Telugu films from Hyderabad, but managed. The most efficient city was Mumbai. I left a list of Rajinikanth’s Hindi films with a wholesaler, along with my number. He asked me to have a leisurely lunch. Halfway through my meal, he called me to say that he had most of what I wanted. The rest of whatever was available was delivered to a relative’s home the next day. I have to say that there is a retail opportunity going abegging in Chennai.
Meeting and interviewing legends like K Balachander, S.P. Muthuraman and Mani Ratnam, amongst many others, was one of the many pleasures of the research process—some other pleasures being related to rediscovering the culinary pleasures of south India, the tastes of my youth as it were. Rediscovering Rajinikanth’s films, in chronological order, watching each films twice, once as a lay viewer and the next time with my analytical hat on, made for months of being steeped in Thalaivar territory. The writing, once it got going after months of false starts and dawdling, came in an almighty and seemingly never-ending gush. This was my classic, clichéd writer phase—unwashed, unshaved, surviving on mere scraps of food; I lost four kilos in the process. Reading back my output, I was pleased that it was cogent and somewhat surprised that I’d managed to pull it off.
However, much more than the research or the writing, it was getting to meet the Superstar himself that will stay in my memory till my dying day.
Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, 1 October 2010, 4 a.m.
We are in the Royapettah area of the city. Chennai is a metropolis that rises much earlier than other Indian cities, but today, there is something in the air, and it is not just the strains of M.S.
Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam that is the soundtrack of all south Indian mornings. The retired gentlemen of the Brahmin caste in their veshtis who are pacing up and down their front yards sipping their first cups of filter coffee impatiently awaiting the arrival of The Hindu newspaper, and their freshly bathed wives who are drawing intricate kolams (rangoli) in front of their gates, look up in surprise as a trickle of men make their way past. This is heavier morning foot traffic than usual. The trickle becomes a deluge and in the middle of this surging mass is a grave- looking man holding a brass pot full of milk with mango leaves tied around its neck. Behind him is a long line of men carrying identical pots.
The newspaper arrives on schedule but the hitherto impatient recipients ignore it, choosing instead to gape at the heave of humanity. The men carrying the brass pots stop at a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. A priest chants some Sanskrit shlokas and blesses the pots. The procession—yes, it is now a procession, complete with a brass band playing familiar Tamil film hits that has now joined in—wends its way towards the imposing mass of the Satyam cineplex. Even more imposing than the cinema is a single, gigantic 80- foot-high cut-out of a man in shades. Scaffolding has been rigged up behind the cut-out and the limber men clamber up, careful not to spill a drop of the milk from their pots. Once at the top, the men ceremoniously pou7r the sanctified milk over the head of the cut-out in a ritual known as the Paalabhishekam, an honour accorded only to gods.
The object of their deification is Rajinikanth, also known as Rajini, Thalaivar (chieftain), or, simply, Superstar.
At Screen 1 of the Satyam cineplex, the atmosphere is electric and anticipatory. A screening at such an early hour is unprecedented. However, cinemas across the world have laid on shows around the clock beginning as early as possible and ending well past midnight in order to cope with the massive demand. Every seat in the house is taken and there are many standing as well, fire safety regulations be damned. After all, this is the first-day first-show of the film Enthiran. Expectations are sky high. Apart from this being the first show of the Superstar’s latest, a sci-fi extravaganza budgeted at Rs 130 crore— making it India’s most expensive film at the time—the director is Shankar Shanmugham, who deals only in blockbusters, the music is by A.R. Rahman, on the back of winning a pair of Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, and the leading lady is former Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, a huge draw in the south. Many in the cinema are members of the local chapter of the Rajinikanth fan club—of which there are more than 50,000 worldwide—and they have wheedled this all-important ticket, sometimes at astronomical sums, just to be able to say that he or she was part of this historic moment.
But the audience is not restricted just to fan club members. Venkateswaran Narayanan, films critic and deputy editor of the Times of India, Chennai, remembers, ‘On 1 October 2010, I was at Satyam for the first show. There was a mad scramble for tickets, though none were available at the theatre. Pill shows had been sold off for more than a week. I had luckily got tickets from a friend at Sony Music, which had released the soundtrack. So on the big day, I was eagerly waiting for friends to arrive so that we could go in and settle in our seats before the titles rolled. Lots of big directors and actors were waiting to get in. In their midst, I saw director Lingusamy talking to various people. I thought he was just making small talk. After some time, just as I was about to get in, somebody tapped my arm and asked me if I had extra rickets. I turned to look, and it was Lingusamy! I mumbled an apology, and entered the theatre with a victorious grin on my face. I never did find out if he was able to catch the show.’
Inside, the cinema lights dim, prompting a collective gasp from the audience, and a low-intensity hum rises from them as some innocuous slides thanking various commercial organizations begin to play. Aravindhan Samidoss, twenty-one, an apprentice at a printing press, shivers. It’s not that the theatre air conditioning is too cold; on the contrary, packed as it is with Rajinikanth fans in hot and humid Chennai, the place is warm and muggy. It’s just that Samidoss has goosebumps. He has seen the Thalaivar’s films before of course, when he was growing up in the tiny Madagupatti village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district. But those were in a travelling tent cinema, as the village lacked a theatre. Now here he is, in the capital of Tamil cinema, the industry known as Kollywood (after the Kodambakkam suburb where it is largely based), and he is about to see his first Rajinikanth films in a plush cinema, surrounded by like-minded fans.
Samidoss shivers in anticipation as the music swells and the production company Sun Pictures’ logo unspools on the screen, followed by the name of the producer. Now there is total silence in the auditorium, a hush that is shattered when the letter ‘5’ appears on screen. Screams, wolf whistles and thunderous applause greet each letter that follows individually: ‘U’, ‘P’, ‘E’, ‘R’, ‘S’, ‘T’, ‘A’, ‘R’. The letters resolve themselves into ‘SUPERSTAR’. When the letter ‘R’ follows this, there is pandemonium. The next four letters joined to the first make up RAJNI—and now the fans are dancing on their seats: some shower fistfuls of small change on the screen and others cast flowers.
The decibel levels rise while the opening credits roll, and when the man himself is first seen on screen, they spiral into a crescendo. Grown men cry openly and scream ‘Thalaivaa’ in the same tone that they reserve for entreaties to the Almighty. Similar scenes are repeated across the world in places as far apart as Ann Arbor, Manchester, Kuala Lumpur, Kandy, Sydney and Tokyo.
For his fans, Rajinikanth is God, and for the world, he is a cultural phenomenon transcending the trappings of a mere movie star. Not bad for a man who began his professional life as a humble coolie and went on to work as a modest bus conductor before he became one of the most famous people on the planet and an Internet meme.
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