Rajinikanth didn’t invent the punch dialogue, but it is safe to say that nobody has popularised the delivery of sharply written lines aimed for maximum effect better than the Tamil screen icon.
Rajinikanth’s new movie Kabali doesn’t have any lines specifically aimed at inducing whistles, according to its new generation director Pa Ranjith. But the manner in which Rajinikanth’s Malaysian gangster character says “Kabali da” in the trailer is meant to send shivers down the spines of audiences, as are the swagger and cold stare. The line is already being parodied in other films even before its July 22 release.
Dialogue writers have been crucial to Rajinikanth’s screen persona right from his early days as a villain in the films of K Balachander and Bharathiraaja. As early as 16 Vayathinile (1977), the actor had made his lines as important as his unique delivery of them. “Ethu eppadi irrukku (How’s that?),” is mimicked till date.
In Murattukalai (1980), Rajinikanth’s oft-repeated line, “Seeviduven (I will hack you to death),” was seen as a boost to his menacing persona. The multifaceted Panju Arunachalam, who is a producer, director, writer and lyricist, came up with the one-liner intended to charm the front-benchers. And it did.
“Punch dialogues were invented to prop up the hero,” said author and screenwriter Devibharathi. “When the cinema witnessed heroics beyond the grasp of the common man and one in which he could get satisfaction only by proxy, the punch dialogue came into its own.”
The idea of a verbal punch that adds to the movie’s commercial punch took firm shape in the 1990s. Annamalai (1992) thrust the actor into a space that he has, by and large, made his own. Directed by Suresh Krissna, the hit social drama about estranged friends unequivocally showed that in the hands of the right actor, the punch line could, if written well, go very far in deciding the movie’s commercial success.
In a pivotal scene, the titular character played by Rajinikanth challenges his rich friend-turned foe that he will end his reign of power, money and fame. “Mark this day in your calendar…,” the monologue starts and by the time it ends a few electrifying moments later, audiences have leapt out of their seats howling and whistling with joy.
Annamalai was jointly written by Krissna and Shanmuga Sundaram, who came up with many lines during the shoot. Since that movie, nearly every major Rajinikanth release has at least one line that has the power of a slogan.
Punch dialogue reached peak optimisation in Krissna’s Baasha (1995), a loose remake of the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Hum (1991). One of the lines, “I say it once, I say it a hundred times,” has gone down in Tamil film history as one of the most popular utterances by a Rajinikanth character. The movie catapulted the actor into the superstar league, with box office success matching critical acclaim.
In Arunachalam (1997), the dialogue “Andavan solran, Arunachalam mudikaran (God proposes, Arunachalam executes”, became a youth mantra even though the film didn’t do as well as expected. Padaiyappa (1999) has “En vazhi thani vazhi (I make my own way),” another one of the superstar’s most quoted lines.
The necessity of giving Rajinikanth a line that will send viewers into paroxysms of delight has become the burden that few films can bear. Some movies have replaced the punchline with punch sounds. The films Chandramukhi (2005) and Enthiran (2010) don’t really have clever lines. The “lakalakalaka” delivery in Chandramukhi, the P Vasu-directed adaptation of the Malayalam superhit Manichithrathazhu did give much-needed impetus to the climatic sequence.
In the science fiction fantasy Enthiran, Rajinikanth plays both Vaseegaran and his robot Chitti. In the lengthy climax, Chitti, who is smitten by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character, ask her to identify Vaseegaran, whom he describes as a “black sheep”. The actor bleats, “Maa maa.”
Lingaa (2014) tried to avoid punchlines as much as possible, which cited as one of the reasons for its commercial failure. “This is commercial cinema catering to the common denominator,” observed the writer Devibharathi. “It is not necessarily good cinema.”
Worshippers of the Rajinikanth punch line might not get their kicks out of Kabali, but they can rest assured that the sequel to Endhiran by director Shankar will have enough whistle-inducing moments. Also starring Akshay Kumar as the villain and Amy Jackson as the heroine, the under-production movie “will have all the commercial elements of a Rajinikanth blockbuster”, said screenwriter B Jeyamohan. He strongly hinted that punch dialogue will be the order of the day as far as his script is concerned.
The fact that nearly every Tamil actor, from Vijay and Ajith to the newbies, look to deliver lines that will hopefully propel them towards stardom proves that punch dialogue is an integral part of the Tamil film landscape. As Rajinikanth said it himself in Baba (2002): “Naan lata vandalum latesta varuven (I might be late, but I will always be the latest).”