The Superstar’s next Tamil film was K.S. Ravikumar’s Muthu (1995) for K. Balachander’s Kavithalayaa; it was a remake of Priyadarshan’s Malayalam hit Thenmavin Kombathu (On the Branch of the Mango Tree, 1994), starring Mohan Lal…

In the film, Rajinikanth is the titular Muthu who serves under and is best friends with Raja Malaiyasimhan (Sarath Babu). Their friendship is tested with the entry of itinerant theatre actress Ranganayaki (Meena). Both men love her but she loves only Muthu. Rajinikanth also plays another role, that of Muthu’s father, a zamindar who has renounced his wealth and become a wandering seer…

It was destined to travel to far shores and create a whole new market for Rajinikanth. Bharathan Kandaswamy, executive director at Kavithalayaa, says, ‘Japan is a country which has very few Indians unlike the US, the UK, Singapore or the Middle East. The Indians there are mostly business people or traders. So the traditional market of NRIs that you have in other countries, you don’t have in Japan. It is a predominantly Japanese audience. How do you get an Indian film, that too a Tamil film, to Japan? Bollywood is known. Across the world, people consider Bollywood to be Indian cinema. Honestly, I never thought of Japan as a market. We were cocooned in a small space. To get a Tamil film seen in Maharashtra or West Bengal was a big challenge because we are such a diverse country.’

In 1996, Kandaswamy was in Singapore’s Little India district at the Mohammed Mustafa shopping centre, every Indian tourist’s haven, and was choosing some DVDs when he noticed three Japanese standing next to him and conversing in their language. Kandaswamy didn’t know any Japanese but got curious because every thirty seconds the word ‘Rajinikanth’ came up in their conversation.

Interest piqued, Kandaswamy inched closer to the Japanese to find out exactly what they were referring to. Not knowing the language, he couldn’t follow a word. The Japanese now noticed Kandaswamy edging closer and looked at him with suspicion. ‘After three minutes and ten mentions of Rajinikanth, I couldn’t stand it any longer,’ says Kandaswamy. He offered to help if they were looking for something related to the Indian Superstar.

Kandaswamy did not introduce himself as a producer. The Japanese took him seriously and told him that they were looking for four films of Rajinikanth’s; among them was Muthu. Then Kandaswamy took them to a nearby restaurant to understand their fascination with Rajinikanth.

‘God shows you an opportunity, it’s up to you to grab it,’ says Kandaswamy. One of the Japanese that Kandaswamy met on that fateful day in Singapore was Jun Edoki, a film critic. Edoki took the DVD of Muthu back to Tokyo and watched it with his wife. ‘It was absolutely fascinating—even without subtitles,’ remembers Edoki. ‘We became addicted to the point where we had to see at least part of the film at least once a day.’

Edoki became obsessed with the idea of getting Muthu a theatrical release in Japan. He took the film around to distributors until Atsushi Ichikawa consented to release it via his distribution company Xanadeux. But the rights had to be secured first. Xanadeux wanted to secure Muthu’s distribution rights for Japan for five years for a one-off fee without any box office profit percentage, if any, going back to Kavithalayaa.

Kandaswamy was in a quandary. He had no idea what to ask for as a fair price as there was no precedent. He didn’t want to discuss the matter within the industry in Chennai (the name of the city had changed from Madras in 1996) for obvious reasons. It was up to him to take the decision. So he called Tokyo and asked them to name a price. They were taken aback as they were used to dealing with Hollywood and its prices and legalese. Kandaswamy was keen to explore this new, unknown and exciting market.

Similarly, the Japanese were keen to try out releasing an Indian film in their market. They liked the film and believed it would do well, but the price was something both parties couldn’t arrive at. Kandaswamy made up his mind and took a call. ‘I said, one dollar. Price, one dollar. Can you believe this?’ he says. ‘They were shocked, they thought I was joking.’ Kandaswamy made them promise that if Muthu did well, they would take all the future Indian films from Kavithalayaa for Japanese distribution. The Japanese agreed and the film was released in Japan in 1998 as Muthu, Odori Maharaja (Muthu, The Dancing Maharaja).

Japan was suffering from a crippling recession at the time. Japan’s economy had shrunk 0.7 per cent for the financial year that ended on 31 March 1998, the first time the country had experienced negative growth since 1974. The yen had fallen to an eight-year low against the dollar, and consumers weren’t spending as much as they used to. The cinema is usually a cheap source of entertainment, and Muthu’s air of happiness and full-on entertainment came at exactly the right time for the country.

Kandaswamy says that in 1998, movie ticket prices in Japan were amongst the highest in the world at $15, but he was insistent that ticket prices be not reduced just because the film was Indian. Shinya Aoki, editor of a Japanese film journal, says, ‘Indian films are filled with the classical entertainment that movies used to offer.’

The film was a remarkable success with more than a million Japanese queuing up at the turnstiles to watch it. At the Cinema Rise theatre located in Tokyo’s Shibuya locality alone, Muthu played for twenty-three weeks and attracted 127,000 punters, netting $1.7 million, easily the cinema’s biggest hit of the year. ‘It was the Titanic of the art theatres,’ says Ichikawa.

The distributor had employed a shrewd marketing strategy that included distribution of flyers that read: ‘Forget about the recession. Forget about the millennium. Get rid of your worries. This is the first page of a pleasant dream that will continue for the rest of your life.’ Another flyer said: ‘Starring Superstar Rajinikanth “Muthu”, Meena and Elephants!’

Upon Kandaswamy’s suggestion, Rajinikanth was billed as the Indian Jackie Chan and was promoted across Japan thus, feeding off the Hong Kong star’s immense popularity in the country. Kandaswamy and Ichikawa also followed the maxim that nothing quite sells like a pretty face and flew the actress Meena over to Japan. She made a surprise appearance on stage immediately after the first show of Muthu in one of the bigger theatres.

The actress was armed with three lines in Japanese that she spoke before an appreciative audience: ‘I love Japan. I love the Japanese people. Just see my film three times.’ Kandaswamy says, ‘And that’s what the Japanese did. They saw the film three times.

Even though the agreed price for the Muthu rights was $1, Ichikawa generously paid Kavithalayaa much more than that, following the success of Muthu at the Japanese box office. Kavithalayaa went on to enjoy a profitable relationship for a few years with Xanadeux, and he became the go-to person to select Indian films for Japanese release. Yejaman was released in Japan in 1999 as Yejaman—The Dancing Maharaja 2. A clip from Muthu made its way into Eric Lartigau’s Prête-moi ta main (I Do, 2006), starring Alain Chabat and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

However, Rajinikanth’s and Indian cinema’s popularity tailed off considerably in Japan after that, contrary to popular belief and Superstar Mythology. Miwako Fujioka, a buyer with Japan’s Happinet Corporation, says, ‘At that time, small mini-theatres or art theatres had a great time in Japan. There were many of these theatres. But in the intervening years, the taste for Indian films has changed and the Japanese art film market has changed. So many of these small art house theatres have also closed.’

Fujioka says that because of the dominance of big budget Hollywood films, the situation for independent and international films grew more and more difficult. People in their thirties and forties remember Rajinikanth but he is unknown to the younger generation, she says.

Akifumi Sugihara, Director, Film Business Division of Japan’s Nikkatsu Corporation, says, ‘Muthu was the only hit in the India–Japan market. Not many other Indian pictures turned out to be hits. That picture made the Japanese audience think that all Indian pictures looked alike, with singing and dancing and a duration close to three hours. I thought the same way. So I was not so willing to try and buy Indian movies.’ It was years before Sugihara was informed that there was a new crop of Indian films being made that were different from the singing–dancing norm.

Excerpted with permission from Rajinikanth The Definitive Biography, Naman Ramachandran, Penguin Books India.