The release of Rajinikanth-starrer Petta on January 10 has opened a delirious debate. An overwhelming number of men and women feel that “the one and only superstar” (actors Ajith and Vijay will be livid over this title) is beyond criticism. He is an actor par excellence, and he can never fail.
This group also includes film critics – who call him “Thalaivar” and gush. They punch the most hagiographic reviews, and join a group of people which does not even flinch while showering abuses on those, including movie critics who dare to call a spade a spade.
I think Rajinikanth's acting career is as good as gone – his political ambition, which he has been talking about for a long time, has, well, remained a dream! Apart from his very early films, like Apoorva Raagangal, Mundru Mudichu, Mullum Malarum and few others, he stopped acting, opting, instead, to being a performer, a showman.
Movie after movie, and this includes his latest, a crime caper, Petta (helmed by Karthik Subbaraj, whose adoration for the star literally mars his directorial efforts), chose to project him as a mass entertainer. So, in Petta, he is once again the style supremo – playing with dark glasses, running his fingers through his wig and flicking the cigarette.
Certainly, this does not call for any effort. Even an untrained actor can do that. Why must a producer pay millions to get a veteran like Rajinikanth to perform such antics?
Unfortunately, Rajinikanth has not – or maybe not allowed to – matured into a great actor whose one hallmark is sinking into a role, disappearing into a character. Rajinikanth remains Rajinikanth in Petta, in 2.0, in Kabali. He does not transform into Kali or Vaseegaran or Kabaleeswaran.
His predecessor Sivaji Ganesan, despite his loud articulation, wild gesticulation and dramatic theatrics, had the guts to become the character he had to play in a film. In his 1964 outing, Navarathri, Sivaji essayed nine different kinds of men, including a leper, a drunk and a hunter. And he was completely different in each of these parts.
Many years later, Kamal Haasan would reprise this concept in Dasavatharam. Haasan has the courage to strip himself of anything remotely Haasan in his movies. Works like Raja Paarvai, Sadma, Moondram Pirai, Pushpak Vimana, Apoorva Sagodhargal, Avvai Shanmugi, Nayagan and Papanasam have been extraordinary examples of Haasan's acting skills.
For that matter, take a look at Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He essayed a murderer in Badlapur, a television journalist in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sadat Hasan in Manto, and is now all set to become Bal Thackeray. It’s sheer grit to swing from being Manto to Thackeray.
This is where Rajinikanth fails. And this is where his contemporaries who are as old as him or thereabouts score. An Amitabh Bachchan has gracefully chosen roles that are in harmony with his age. He is great as a lawyer in Pink, he is marvellous, hilarious and entertaining as a constipated father in Piku and is memorable as a jolly good fellow in 102 Not Out.
And Rishi Kapoor as a don in D Day, and as a fallen hero in Mulk desperately fighting to save his family’s honour was splendid – letting us forget that we were watching Rishi.
But Rajinikanth never lets us forget that we are seeing Rajinikanth on the big screen – not even for a moment. His draw and appeal lie in reminding you every moment that here is that superhero – his mannerisms, his way of speaking all saying in unison that here is ‘the’ Rajinikanth.
Can, then, one call Rajinikanth an actor? No way. He is a mere entertainer out to attract his fans with his tried and tested formulaic pieces of action.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)
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