It’s a Supernova! It’s a Demigod! It’s Rajini! On Man vs Wild

It’s a Supernova!  It’s a Demigod!  It’s Rajini! On Man vs Wild

Within an hour of the news report going public, the memes were out – by the dozen.
“Rajini grills the Bear “
“Man vs Wild renamed ‘Man and Wild vs Rajinikant’”

If Discovery Channel decides to really change the title of the show in honour of its latest guest, it would be a first; but certainly not wonder worthy, but just par for the course! After all, we are not talking about a mere Matinee Idol here, but about an anthropomorphic Force of Nature, a Sixth Element with Seventh Sense, Second to None / Nothing.

……..Now to catch some breath ……

Shivaji Rao Gaekwad’s epic propulsion from being a Bengaluru Bus Conductor to a Universally revered Demigod is too well entrenched in modern mythology to warrant any repetition.

There are no analytical studies that can fully decode the mystery of his undiminished aura, even after 45 years of his Stardom. As a Social Phenomenon, Brand Rajini is unique and, quite simply, inexplicable.

To label the extravagant shows of devotion indulged in by millions of his Fans worldwide as “Mass Hysteria” would be grossly unfair to both the Idol and his worshippers. It never was, or is, a momentary fad like, say an YouTube Sensation, but a steadfast, thriving attachment that ripens as the Fan ages.

Fierce loyalty to a chosen Icon is a genetic wiring common in South Indian blood. The Velavalis and Garudalenkas of medieval times followed the object of their reverence to death. In modern times too, some highly emotional followers of Leaders in Tamil Nadu take the same route. It is a cultural thing in these parts, to become so attached. Western notions of Reason and Logic cannot be used to analyze the Rajini Mystique cultivated in such soil.

See him appear in public, in his nonchalantly natural avatar – grey stubbled, clad in plain white kurta-pyjama and pedestrian chappals . A Star? An Icon? Hardly! This confident acceptance of and being comfortable in his real self are qualities that never fail to charm people. That it is not an act put on to impress others is also evident, even to a casual observer.

The adoring millions see in him not an improbably perfect dreamboat, but a very approachable reflection of their own SouthIndian selves, shortcomings and all. And then the same people see the same man on Screen, transformed into an attractive and invincible Hero in trendy wear, acting out their collective fantasy of swatting bad guys like flies in Mumbai slums and romancing doll-like damsels in Reykjavik. Somewhere in between, Thalaivar, The Hero, also plays devoted Caregiver to an aging mother, a savior to a friend in need and an upright citizen sermonising an errant public servant. When the supercharged Fans spray coins and celebrate this larger than life Rajini on the screen with whistling, screaming and dancing, they are merely affirming to themselves that anyone can achieve anything if they have faith in themselves.

The memes and Rajini Jokes are weird to the extreme, but never malicious. They are just offshoots of the immense affection the public lavishes on him. His famous “punch dialogues” are over the top, his “Style”stunts dangerously bordering on juvenile Tom-and-Jerry antics. But Fans will not have it any other way.

How did such a phenomenon come to be?
Socially and politically, the 70s and 80s were a period of transition and restlessness in the South. Old orders were changing, young people were angst ridden, no longer given to mincing words or showing restraint in behavior. Over made-up, goody-goody protagonists hamming to the hilt in moralistic movies were becoming too alien to identify with. There was a real thirst for Change.
The situation was perfect for the Rajinification of The Hero.

Rajinikanth did not start his career as a maverick grabbing attention of frontbenchers with outrageous burlesque acts. Trained in the Madras Film Institute, he took his initial steps under the able direction of stalwarts like K.Balachander, Puttanna Kanagal and Mahendran. Many are the movies in which his polished portrayal of emotions won critical acclaim.

His innate talent for ‘becoming’ a character, without the effort showing, was highlighted in the early movies where he shared the screen with the other upcoming actor of note, Kamal Hassan. The latter was of a different cut, investing a great deal of methodology and creative intelligence into sculpting his characters meticulously.

“16-Vayathinile”( 1977), was a memorable show of this contrast. The victimized village idiot ‘Chappani’s intellectually constructed Naturalism was starkly different from the raw and visceral chutzpah of the despicable lout ‘Parattai’. Kamal Hassan’s Chappani won praises ofcourse , but filmdom was totally stumped by the immense mass appeal generated by Parattai Rajinikanth’s leering refrain ‘Ithu eppadi irukku ‘ . The public was rooting as much for a rotten villain as for a Hero! Kodambakkam’s logic and reason went for a toss and the Rajini Mystique was planted.

Given his unremarkable , man-on-the-street looks , he routinely landed Villain roles in his early day , but there was something about the energy and magnetism he exuded that could not be ignored for long.
When he did crossover to Hero roles, he chose, either consciously or by fluke, to become The Hero With a Difference. He not only spouted homilies, but also smoked, drank and brawled without reservation, just like the auto rickshaw driver, the milkman, the farmhand or the factory labourer he portrayed would in real life. All garnished with heavy doses of well timed, perfectly delivered humour. It didn’t fit the template deemed safe in the mid ‘70s and old school Studios pronounced this a surefire formula for box office disaster . Yet, his films proved to be blockbuster hits. Repeatedly.

While “Billa”(1980) , a remake of “Don”( Hindi), established him as an unbeatable Super Star, the cult classic “Baasha” (1995)elevated him to Demigod status .

It is sacrilegious to imagine that The Icon, whose charisma had permeated all the southern states and Mumbai too, could be contained within national borders. “Muthu” ( 1995) dubbed in Japanese as “Dancing Maharajah” became such a sensation in Japan that ‘Newsweek’ declared, ‘Rajini has replaced Hollywood stars as the National Heart throb of Japan’. On a state visit to Japan, the then PM Dr Manmohan Singh referred to Muthu’s success as an outcome of ‘positive relationship between the two countries’.

Rajini’s Japanese Fan Base is so strong that, to this day, groups from there make the pilgrimage to Chennai unfailingly for every new release of his, just to soak in the almost religious fervour and throbbing conviviality that erupts on Release Day.

The Japan miracle has since been replicated, in varying degrees, at other far flung lands too. When the documentary film about the Rajini mania, “For the Love of a Man” ( 2015, Dir: Rinku Kalsy ) with the tagline “Actor-Leader-Hero-God”, premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival , ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ called it a ‘jaw dropping intro to actor-worship ‘ bringing enlightenment to the benighted western world about ‘the biggest movie star on earth , they had never heard of’ ! When US stocks hit record highs in 2017, with no suitable explanation for it, the gag that went around there was “The Equity rally is being driven by Rajinikanth!”

No Icon , before or hence, here or anywhere, ever exercised such a hold on collective imagination that people happily sell family jewels or their blood to organise mini kumbha melas to celebrate his birthday or an award or a new release or a 100 day run. While other megastars release their movies on Festival Days, any day a Rajini movie is released becomes a Festival day. A riotous gag like ‘Rajini issued a cheque and the Bank bounced’ is only half jest! The man really is as powerful as Anti Matter.

It is not as though all he touched turned gold. There were/are quite a few duds too. But, in at least two cases, they too became memorable when he did the unthinkable : he fully compensated the crashing loss suffered by distributors of his films that bombed ! Who can begrudge his evergreen popularity!

Early on, in the middle of his wild gallop towards the peak, he suddenly quit cinema, unable to cope with a particularly agonising phase of inner turmoil. Fortuitously, he turned to spirituality, seeking peace with himself.
And then he was back with a bang, moving with more bounce towards the stratosphere. Neither commercial failure nor a break seemed to have any adverse effect on his popularity.

At age 69 , he remains trim, moves with agility, retains that inimitable twinkle in his eyes and delivers his lines in the same superfast express speed as in his earliest movies, endearing him to both the generation that saw his screen birth and the generation that was born knowing him as a god.

There is no Mass – Class dichotomy when it comes to taking cognizance of his legendary persona. Both IIM (A) and the CBSE put him in their syllabus; his Punch Dialogues have been converted to Business and Life Management Mantra! (“Rajini’s Punchtantra – Business and Life Management The Rajinikanth Way” by P.C.Balasubramanian and Raja Krishnamurthy).

Greatest Global Living Legend, Most Influential Indian, Best-This, Most-That, you name the List and he is in it! The man himself is as flummoxed by his near divine status as the next person and humbly attributes it all to his having been in the right place at the right time, under the right guides.

The international adulation Rajinikanth enjoys is not because of his profession alone, but also because of the simplicity, humility and austerity that mark his real life.

Not all are so blessed. After all, as Thalaivar himself says, “En vazhi thanee vazhi” (My Way is Unique Way ) .

For data and trivia about his life and career:

1. “Rajinikanth – The Definitive Biography” by Naman Ramachandran
2. “Grand Brand Rajini” by Balasubramanian and Ramakrishnan
3. “The Name is Rajinikanth” by Gayathri Sreekanth
4. “My days with Baasha – The Rajinikanth Phenomenon” by Suresh Krisshna
5. “ Standing on an Apple Box” by Aishwarya R. Dhanush