To about 99.9% of all people reading this article, the word Superstar only attributes to one person. This applies to people spanning over 3-4 generations. Whether you are from the distant 20th Century, or a millennial, Superstar has always and will always be only one person: Thalaivar Rajinikanth. We’ve all grown up hearing how Sivaji Rao Gaekwad, a bus conductor from Bangalore went on to be one of the greatest stars of Indian cinema.
The story goes that he had auditioned for a role in the 1975 film Aboorva Ragangal, helmed by the late, great K.Balachander who was absolutely impressed and eventually casted him in a supporting, but pivotal character in the film. This film, considered to be a landmark in Tamil cinema history, not only marked the debut of Sivaji Rao Gaekwad, but also the debut of his new screen name, Rajinikanth. It was also a breakthrough film for rising star Kamal Haasan who was re-entering the film industry after being a child actor. Interestingly, the first shot of Rajinikanth in the film sees him kicking open a gate followed by a close-up of him from head to toe. Many believe that the legendary K.Balachander, aware of Rajinikanth’s capabilities as an actor, directed this particular shot metaphorically, predicting his insane stardom in the near future.
Following Aboorva Ragangal, he continued to cast Rajinikanth in his subsequent films like Moondru Mudichu and Aval Oru Thodar Kathai, typically casted as a menacing womaniser opposite Kamal Haasan, who continued to bag the lead roles. He catapulted to stardom with films like 16 Vayathinile and Mullum Malarum, the former for which Kamal Haasan himself suggested that the director cast Rajnikanth for the role. In 16 Vayatinile, he played a egotistic village brat whose sole mission is to make the lives of those around him miserable, and in Mullum Malarum, he played an ordinary village power plant operator who opposes his superiors. This film was in fact, the first in which he was casted in the lead role. Directed by the venerable Mahendran, it became a box-office hit and is immensely acclaimed that it is hailed as one of the greatest Tamil films ever made. The last film in which both now-megastars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan shared screen space was Ninaithale Inikkum following which they mutually decided to never act together, so as to nip the hero-villain typecast they were being cast into at the bud. Rajnikanth then began being offered lead roles in all of his subsequent films and became a star in his own right.
It was for the film Bairavi, where producer S. Thaanu (the producer of Kabali) erected towering cardboard cut-outs, all etched ‘SUPERSTAR RAJINIKANTH in…’ and that’s where it all started. From that moment, for 3 decades, it was only onward and upward for the Superstar. He exhibited his acting chops in the 1980 film Netrikann where he played dual roles for the first time, one of which is an aged businessman/perverted womaniser, and the other being his son, a man of honour and dignity. Following this came a series of blockbusters like Billa, Moondru Mugam and Johnny all of which featured his most memorable characters. His tryst with comedy is also memorable. K.Balachander directed the cult classic comedy Thillu Mullu, where he famously played the same man with and without a moustache.
Audiences watching the film even now on television burst into fits of laughter attributing to Rajinikanth’s sense of humour and comedic timing. His 100th film was the biopic Sri Raghavendra where he shocked audiences with his transformation as the Madhwa saint Sri Raghavendra Swami, thus breaking his stereotypical image as an action star. Following this in 1995 came the most famous movie of his career, the character we most associate Superstar with, in Baasha. His characteristic style, his punch line “Naa oru thadava sonna nooru thadava sonna maathiri”, everything about Superstar in Baasha went on to become the most relatable part of his identity. After starring in landmark blockbusters like Arunachalam and Padayappa following Baasha, the latter which also marked the legendary Sivaji Ganesan’s last and final on-screen appearance, Rajinikanth wrote the screenplay for his next film Baba. He had previously written the screenplay for the film Valli, which he produced too. As fate would have it, Baba became a huge box-office failure and was also heavily panned by critics. He was also accused of promoting cigarette smoking and alcoholism which influenced many youngsters. Rajinikanth was supposedly immensely disappointed at the negative response that he took a 2 year hiatus and even repaid the distributor’s losses. Then he began shooting for a film named Chandramukhi, where he played a rather eccentric psychiatrist, which was a remake of the Fasil’s 1993 cult classic
Manichitrathazhu, to be directed by the acclaimed P.Vasu. This film saw Rajinikanth teaming up with comedian Vadivel for the first time and also with established and then-new stars Jyothika and Nayanthara, respectively. The film released and the rest was history. It ran for a staggering 2 years in select theatres and became a box-office benchmark for numerous films to come. It was also, undoubtedly lauded by critics.
While some actors are known for their physical and mental transformations over different films for different characters, some set their own path with their own body language and demeanor. Superstar definitely is the leader of the latter kind, being wildly famous for his mannerisms, trademark antiques and stylish gait, the first of which would be the way he throws the cigarette, landing it perfectly in his mouth, a feat which his character performs 10 times in a row in the film Ninaithale Inikkum. He is also known to frequently deliver memorable and catchy punch lines in numerous films. The second he delivers each punchline, audiences go completely wild with joy and cheer him on throughout each film. One can argue that Rajinikanth plays the same character in most of his films- A confident young man with out-of-the ordinary fighting skills and physical strength, also being an epitome of goodness, honour and an upholder of family values. But not many know that Rajinikanth wanted himself to be typecast. Kamal Haasan himself had revealed in interviews that in the late 70’s when they worked together for numerous films, he would often advise Rajinikanth to act in more meaningful roles that challenged his acting skills but Superstar would blatantly refuse stating that he wanted to “create his own image”. This in fact, is the prime difference between the 2 megastars. Kamal Haasan does immense research, undergoes a lot of stress, physical and mental transformations for months on-end for each film to please audiences whereas Rajinikanth simply “appears”, throws up a cigarette, delivers a punch line and the box-office numbers soar. That, is the power of superstardom. And the so-called decision he made 4 decades ago still works. That’s Thalaivar for you. And frankly, anyone who questions his acting prowess should by now note that he has been a successful actor starting out as a villain, transitioning to Tamil cinema’s most celebrated hero, displaying impeccable comedic timing, pulling off amazing action sequences with decent ability to dance 😛
The recent years saw Sivaji, where he reportedly received a salary of Rs. 26 crore. Sivaji saw a resurgence of Superstar’s style and went on to become a smash hit. He then went on to star in Enthiran, in a landmark adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I,Robot. Till 2015, Enthiran was the highest grossing movie ever made. Following this came a string of flops, with Kochadaiiyan, India’s first motion capture film and Lingaa(don’t even). It is at this point, that the lead and contributing authors diverge in their
opinion of Thalaivar as we reach his latest release, Kabali. Kabali brought more mixed reactions in people than Donald Trump’s election, and we stand on either side of the proverbial wall in our opinions about Kabali the movie. But one thing that we can definitely agree on is that, it was refreshing to see Superstar in a more age-appropriate role, exuding the same style and confidence he always has, a visual treat as ever.
For every single one of his movies, whether a hit or a flop, we all throng to the big screen for a glimpse of the man as he casually throws a punch line at you while walking away with more style than anyone in the world, stealing the entire audience the second he enters the frame. And that’s why he will always be our only Superstar.
By Sharath Nallaperumal