The biggest film in Tamil cinema this year is creating a storm even before its July 22 release. Tickets are selling out for the new Rajinikanth movie Kabali faster than you say “Neruppu da.” Some private companies have given their employees Friday off; five-star hotels in Bengaluru are screening the movie for Rs 1,300-1,400. The Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Employees Welfare Association has begged Rajinikanth fans to stop the practice of bathing his cutouts in milk.

Made on a rumoured budget of about Rs 110 crore, Kabali has been directed by Pa Ranjith and features Rajinikanth as an underworld don and Radhika Apte as his wife. The movie is set to release on over 4,000 screens in Tamil and dubbed versions, and it is no exaggeration to say that its producer, Kalaippuli S Thanu, is one of the busiest men in Chennai at the moment.

The stark white building on Prakasam Salai in T Nagar that serves as the office for Thanu’s banner, V Creations, is buzzing with activity. Trunks and suitcases containing costumes, accessories and props used for shoots are piled one over the other. Bundles of posters are strewn over a large table, and reams of fliers lie in a corner. Just when you are on the verge of giving up after a long wait, 63-year-old Thanu finally walks in. Apart from the waiting media scrum, he is thronged by distributors, publicity agents, and bit players in the movie hoping to get tickets for early shows. Worn out as he evidently is, he patiently meets each one, even if for a few moments.

The trailer of ‘Kabali’.

Rajinikanth’s rise to superstardom from his humble beginnings as a bus conductor in Bengaluru never ceases to amaze. Thanu’s story is no less fascinating. His family owned a tin factory in Chennai, where he used to work before he became obsessed with films and decided to distribute them. “As a kid, I used to sing and would participate in elocution competitions and races,” Thanu said. “I liked movies too. It was in 1971 that I first got into distribution by acquiring the re-issue of K Balachandar’s Naanal for the morning show at Maharani theatre.”

Thanu’s transformation from a distributor to a producer was gradual. “He used to do one show in a theatre in the beginning and then he became a city distributor,” said D Paranthaman, Thanu’s son and the CEO of V Creations. “Then he started acquiring area rights and later he got the rights for negatives. Only then did he become a full time distributor and then a producer.”

Thanu’s experience helped him forge strong connections with various sections of the film industry and gain a thorough understanding of the secrets of the trade. “He knows each and every theatre in and around the state – where it is located, what is the seating capacity or how much it can collect,” trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said.

Thanu met Rajinikanth sometime in 1978, when he picked up his movie Bairavi for distribution. “I made some innovative posters to publicise the movie,” Thanu said. “I took out one with Rajinikanth holding a snake in his hand, another one with him and a goat and a poster that had him taking an aim with a pistol, all stills of interesting scenes from the movie.”

Thanu was the one who came up with the moniker “Superstar” for Rajinikanth. “I was distributing his Bairavi and I took out posters that said ‘Superstar Rajini Nadikkum Bhairavi’ (Superstar Rajinikanth’s Bhairavi),” Thanu said. “Many took offence to my usage of the term superstar as bigger stars like MGR and Sivaji Ganesh were still around and they felt a new actor like Rajini did not deserve the title. They approached me to change it. I said I would oblige and the next day I took out another poster announcing ‘Greatest Superstar Rajinikanth’s Bhairavi.’”

Thanu’s chutzpah caught Rajinikanth’s eye. The actor met Thanu and thanked him, thus laying the foundation for a relationship that has lasted over 35 years. “Rajini is very open and sincere during our interactions,” Thanu said. “I have always watched him in awe and devotion. There’s some kind of an aura about him. At the same time, we are very good friends and also have long, open conversations.”

Thanu’s rich experience in distribution proved useful when he became a producer in 1984 with the Arjun starrer Yaar? Rajinikanth appeared in a cameo in Yaar? at Thanu’s request. “I remember the first shot in Yaar – it’s the scene in which Rajini is praying,” Thanu said. “It was fairly easy to sign on Arjun, who was just an upcoming star at that time. His salary was 70,000 rupees at that time. I made the movie for 31 lakh rupees.”

Since then, his banner V Creations has churned out over 25 movies, many of which have become huge hits, including Kizhakku Cheemayile, Kandukondein Kandukondein, Aalavandhaan, Khaaka Khaaka, Kandasamy, Thuppakki and the recent Theri. “I always look at casting big stars,” Thanu said. “Their star power will make it easier to market the movie and bring in the revenue. But I also give chances to new faces with directors who approach me with strong scripts.”

Thanu is a bold as well as cautious producer, said G Dhananjayan, producer and author of the survey Pride of Tamil Cinema. “Thanu knows that the film business is a tough business,” Dhananjayan said. “He is never over-confident. That’s how some producers release the film on their own and take a lot of risk. Thanu makes sure that even before the film releases, he recovers the costs.”

Kabali has been sold for an estimated Rs 8.5 crore in the American territories and has reportedly fetched record prices in other territories as well. According to back-of-the-envelope calculations, the producers have already made over Rs 200 crore through the sale of movie rights and brand partnerships.

The song ‘Neruppu Da’.

Not all of Thanu’s gambles have paid off. Suresh Krissna’s Aalavandhan, made in 2011 and starring Kamal Haasan as an Army commando and his evil twin, was a big flop. “It was a movie far ahead of its times, people did not understand the technology involved,” said Paranthaman. It took Thanu two years to bounce back with the romance Punnagai Poove.

“I have seen some very bad times when movies like Aalavandhan, SJ Suryah’s Thirumagan and R Parthieban’s Thayyalkkaran flopped,” Thanu recalled with bitterness. “It took me a long time to get me back on my feet after these failures.”

Over the years, Thanu has understood the capriciousness of the trade well enough to hedge his bets. “Even a flop film might earn money for him because he knows how to market the movie and create the right amount of hype around it,” Dhananjayan said. “With Kabali, he’s not distributing it anywhere. He has sold out every territory and he has ensured financial safety for himself. That’s been his practice for the last 30-40 years. I would say it’s his financial prudence and conservatism that’s got him so far.”

In early 2015, it was Thanu, in his capacity as the president of Tamil Nadu Film Producers’ Council, who stepped in as a mediator between distributors and producers after the box office failure of Lingaa, directed by KS Ravikumar and starring Rajinikanth. Distributors wanted the superstar to compensate them for their losses. It could have been to recompense or strictly a business call, but when Rajinikanth had to choose a producer for his venture with director Pa Ranjith, Thanu was the chosen one.

“Rajinikanth knows very well that only Mr Thanu can market a movie like Kabali, Sreedhar Pillai said. “It’s not easy to sell even a Rajinikanth film. It can be undersold or oversold. All those who have bought the film are relatively safe this time. Rajinikanth has made the right choice for a producer after such horrendous mistakes in the recent past.”

Rajinikanth’s name alone is usually enough to drive audiences, but the team behind Kabali has not been complacent about the movie’s box office prospects. Perhaps mindful of the failure of the last two Rajinikanth releases in 2014, Lingaa and Kochadaiyaan, Thanu has lined up brand tie-ups and in-movie promotions, including an AirAsia Kabali-themed flight and silver coins bearing Rajinikanth’s likeness and minted by Muthoot FinCorp.

“AirAsia, Amazon, Shop CJ, Muthoot FinCorp – these companies are taking the movie to North Indian audiences,” Paranthaman said. Fox Star Studios is distributing Kabali on over 1,000 screens in the North. “We are dubbing the movie in foreign languages too,” Paranthaman added. “In Thailand, we are releasing it in 300-400 theatres. New markets are opening up for South Indian films because of Rajini sir.”