The teaser for the new Rajinikanth movie Kabali closes with the words “Super Star” spelt out in blue lights, one alphabet at a time. This spelling lesson is tradition for anybody who has watched a Rajinikanth movie. It is a signal for audiences to break out into frenzy in the cinemas, and a reminder that what will follow is no ordinary movie, but a quasi-religious experience.

Rajinikanth plays an honourable mob boss in Pa Ranjith’s movie. The cast includes Mumbai actress Radhika Apte as his wife. The release date hasn’t been announced yet.

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The ‘Kabali’ teaser’.

Fans of Tamil cinema are fond of bestowing titles on their favourite actors (Ajith is known as “Thala”, or the boss, and the reigning star Vijay is known as “Ilayathalapathy”, or commander), but it took some nudging from far-sighted filmmakers and distributors before Rajinikanth came to be indelibly associated with the label, reveals Naman Ramchandran reveals in his authoritative biography on the actor. The story behind the crowning of Rajinikanth contains fascinating insights into image building and the creation of a celebrity persona in the decades before slick publicity and marketing campaigns and social media.

The first movie to use the honorific was M Bhaskar’s 1978 movie Bairavi, Ramachandran writes in Rajinikanth. The actor plays Mookaiah, the loyal henchman to a zamindar who turns against his master after he rapes Mookaiah’s long-lost sister.

Acknowledging Rajinikanth’s soaring popularity at the box office, the movie goes to great lengths to heighten his screen presence. “Rajinikanth’s entry is suitably heroic,” Ramachandran writes. “He enters the frame cracking a whip and then thrashes a thief who was stealing crops from his master’s land. At one point, Rajinikanth even uses a live goat as a weapon.”

The visionary distributor and producer who realised that Rajinikanth was no mere box office magnet but a phenomenon in the making was S Dhanu, who has also produced Kabali. Bairavi’s release on June 2, 1978, was preceded by a canny and high-decibel marketing campaign that was orchestrated by Dhanu, a tin manufacturer turned distributor. Dhanu had previously commissioned eye-catching posters for his releases, which were different in style and content from the official publicity material. For Bairavi, he put up a 40-foot cut-out of Rajinikanth at Plaza theatre in Chennai and printed posters in which “Superstar” Rajinikanth is seen wrestling a snake, standing with a whip and carrying a goat on his shoulders, Ramachandran writes.

One of the posters of ‘Bairavi’.
One of the posters of ‘Bairavi’.

Rajinikanth reportedly cautioned Dhanu about appropriating the superstar title. The heavyweights of Tamil cinema, MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, were still around, and Rajinikanth didn’t want them to come off as an upstart. “Dhanu’s response was to print another set of posters that said ‘The Greatest Superstar Rajinikanth in Bairavi’,” Ramachandran reports.

It was a matter of time before “Superstar” leapt off the posters and into the movie. The first film to use the label in its credits was Naan Potta Savaal in 1980, Ramachandran says. “At the beginning of the credits, Rajinikanth walks towards the camera while flower petals shower down upon him and the words ‘Super Star’ in Tamil flash in different colours.

The opening credits of ‘Naan Potta Savaal’.
The opening credits of ‘Naan Potta Savaal’.

Kai Kodukkum Kai, Mappillai and Rajadhi Raja are amongst the few films where the words Super and Star separately show on screen before Rajini’s name appears. Rajadhi Raja (King of Kings, 1989) has the self-referential song, ‘Superstar yaarunnu yettal chinna kozhandayum sollum’ (even a child will tell you who the real superstar is.

The lyrics were by leading Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu. “His image wasn’t created in a day,” Vairamuthu tells Ramachandran. “It was built up bit by bit.”

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“Superstar yaarunnu yettal” from ‘Rajadhi Raja’.