A Rajinikanth season doesn’t come every year. Like a delayed monsoon, sometimes it comes once in two years. But every time it arrives, it does so with the accompaniment of thunder and lightning and the country, mostly the southern part has to sit up and take notice. Here the man arrives not as a natural man but as a manufactured man, full with all the technology that was used to dress him up this time. As if he was a car with a robotic engine and the highest horse power. Actually, Rajinikanth is just that.
Every Rajinikanth movie sets new benchmarks in spend and this year too, it is no different. Directed by Shankar, 2.0 cost around Rs 550 crore and by the end of the first week, has grossed half of that amount from theatres around the world.
In the US too, it was the biggest attraction of this week, (Rs 25 crore in 4 days). The Hindi version itself has collected Rs 122.5 crore in India in seven days.
There have been regular efforts to figure out why Tamils around the world go mad every time Rajinikanth movie hits town. Every effort has been made to unveil the man, including biographies, documentaries, apart from a whole lot of money spent on reinventing what seems to be a highly reluctant hero, but we are no closer to understanding him or the phenomena.
While he is a phenomena, the fact is that in he is no different from the other superstars that make Indian cinema a world wide entertainment marvel. Be it Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, they are all adored across the world. In Tajikistan, they will dance to a Shah Rukh tune, just as in Abu Dhabi. Rajinikanth is a bit different, maybe in terms of scale. But he is just one among the galaxy of stars which makes Indian cinema the second leading entertainment industry in the world. But no film production company in India will be able to rustle up Rs 500 crore to make a movie, unless this reclusive and reluctant hero signs up.
Rajini, has none of the usual prescriptions for being a star, a superstar or a celebrity. He is humility personified, a man still not able to come to terms with his value and popularity, and constantly wears a befuddled look, a man wondering whether all this is real.
Reclusive to the extent of making his fans frustrated, he is like an incredible jack-in-the-box, who pops up occasionally, delivers a jab to the collective solar plexus and coils back into the box, not to be seen for another year or two.
No one, apart from directors like Shankar or Pa Ranjith, can claim to have talked to him for any length of time and got responses. Only they can certify to the rest of the world that this man, is actually a man, actually one with certain emotions.
Though he is constantly angry in all his films and delivers blows for the underdog, in real life he is yet to scowl. How can he, when his life itself consists of creating out-of-this-world experiences.
Bandeep Singh, creative director of a news organisation, in a Facebook post before the release of 2.0, announced how he got an unscheduled seven minutes to shoot the superstar for a cover picture.
"I have always wanted to photograph Rajinikanth at this intersection point (humility crossing over into his superstar persona). I got the opportunity last week. Seven minutes, after seven years of waiting. He stepped in front of my camera, did as I directed but as I was just getting into my zone, he had to leave. As I turned back disappointed, I found my colleague Sumanth, who was trembling with excitement: 'He has never done this for anyone... never taken any direction for a magazine photoshoot'.."
Is it an intersection that Rajini occupies wearing that befuddled look as if to proclaim his innocence?
But the space Rajini occupies is the imagined megalopolis: where conventions are overturned, traditions questioned, cutting edge technology introduces itself with neon lights, where ambitions soar high in glass and aluminium, and where the poor come to gawk and go away disappointed.
Or is he one caught like Bruce Lee in a chamber of mirrors, hitting out at every reflection of his to smash the reflection and get at the real man? His innocence and humility can in a way be understood.
Rajini is not articulate, abhors the trappings of stardom, though he does everything to enhance that image which he spends one year trying to shake out of, like a python emerging out of its old skin. If a man like him approaches a director for a role, most likely he would be stuffed inside a iron canon and shot out of the studio. For, as Bandeep says, "Seriously bald, with bozo-like hair tufts above his ears, a dark patchy pigmented skin and chapped lips, he inhabits a diminutive frame, which in a plain and churidar-pyjama appears more frail that fit."
Professor of sociology at JNU, Harish Nariandas, who grew up in Chennai says, Rajini altered or dared convention in many years. He was dark skinned in an industry which loves only the fair skin (fact even his biographer emphasises) but somehow fit in well with the genealogy of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. One way to do this was to present himself as the champion of the underdog.
So it was no wonder that after all these years, he again took up cudgels for the underclass, this time the Dalits in Pa Ranjith's Kaala released last year.
There are basic differences between MGR and Rajini though. MGR, during his acting days, had every intention of carrying over his 'champion of the underdog' image to real life, Rajini has over the years resisted all such cajoling.
Harish remembers how as a young boy in 1966, he went to see MGR in the studio with his mother to invite him to a school function. The first thing that MGR did was to write a cheque which his mother refused saying all she came for was to invite him.
MGR himself was surprised why someone was not accepting money from him for that was the practice he had set. He went for the function though. Such generosity has not been reported about Rajinikanth, though he is known to have returned money to producers if his movies flopped.
For many years, people waited for him to launch a political party, but Rajini always mumbled a no at the end. Neither the Right nor the Left holds no attraction for him.
What ideology or philosophy can a man who can get Rs 50 crore for signing up, embrace? Isn’t mouthing an aphorism, enough? Won’t a rhyming couplet do? Or maybe a flick of the cigarette?
Neither is Rajini a great actor who can stir your sadness, or awaken your thoughts about the ultimate fallacy of existence itself. In Kaala, where Rajini has to do without the trappings of algorithm and digital enhancements, he cuts a poor figure in front of that great actor Nana Patekar who in the role of Bal Thackeray confronts him inside the slum. Nana dazzles with his restraint and anger, while threatening him with a gruffy voice that announces intent. Rajini has an answer but, Nana stole the show.
But we know that everywhere, in all corners of the earth, Rajini has the habit of stealing the show.
(The writer is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)