There is a moment in the Kabali trailer where the Superstar walks down a corridor with henchmen wearing a lethal Manila shirt. With one deft flick he sweeps back the trademark mane and I was, like Proust, transported back to the misbegotten days of my youth, the eighties. In that politically incorrect and not yet meta-charged period we were uncomplaining consumers – from the highs of the cricket World Cup victory to the lows of B-grade Hindi cinema. We absorbed it all, and accepted that Hindi cinema was no longer obliged to follow any rules, of history, cinematography, color, or continuity. Scenes assaulted our senses like “just one damn thing after another”.
Two men bestrode our screens in that period, overturning the traditional pantheon of filmi heroes with a story arc – Mithun Chakrabortyy and Rajinikanth. Rajini’s arrival on the shores of popular Hindi cinema (Andha Kanoon, 1983) followed Kamal Haasan (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981). While Bombay’s film world had already embraced female actors from the South for several decades, the debut of male superstars needed a more fortuitous positioning. But both fitted in oddly into the established system. Haasan did better with his edgy romantic roles, and the occasional directorial deviation (Chachi 420, 1997), while Rajinikanth was always difficult to slot.
In our Hindi filmi consciousness, Ranjikanth first made a dent in 1980, not as an actor but as a name, Billa. This was the Tamil remake of the Amitabh Bachchan blockbuster Don. Billa had other associations for us, as the man, who along with his cohort Ranga abducted and killed the Chopra siblings from Delhi in 1978, a case that had caught the imagination of the country in the years before carpet-bomb media. Billa was no name for a hero for an Amitabh Bachchan copy. While we sniggered about these Tamil fellows having no sense of cultural association, Rajinikanth would nonchalantly and unselfconsciously make another movie in 1982, called Ranga.
And then, of course, came the jokes.
Is swag a synonym for Rajinikanth?
Rajinikanth’s reputation preceded his debut in Bombay cinema – he of the swirling hair, the twirling cigarette, and the twerking sunglasses, whose iconic entry scenes, slo-mo and fast-mo fist fights and somersaults were laced with sound effects and punch dialogue that broke the fourth wall. With Andha Kanoon, we awaited his wanton assault on our senses, and were not disappointed. Enter Vijay Kumar Singh, man in black. As he walks around his childhood home (where, inevitably, his parents and sister have been raped and/or murdered) we see Rajinikanth’s POV. Unlike ordinary mortals, his vision is all fish-eye. His gaze is so intense the whites of his eyes turn red as we watch and he smashes a block of RCC kept right in the middle of the room for the sole purpose of smashing it. In declamatory tones, he promises revenge, but while Hindi film folk would raise a mutthi bhar matti as attestation, Rajini does more – he picks up and pulverises a fistful of concrete.
How can we assess the career of the Boss in Hindi cinema? In movie after movie from 1983 to 1995, Rajinikanth pressed all the right cinematic triggers that would send his Tamil fans into Pavlovian frenzy, but this somehow worked only fitfully in Bombay. One reason for this ambivalence may be that Andha Kanoon, while a big hit, relegated him to Amitabh Bachchan, who despite only making an extended cameo remained centre stage. Bachchan also got to sing the title song. Rajinikanth ultimately would come across as a hit-man. Hindi cinema loves its stereotypes, and Ranjikanth would be offered few roles as leading man. He became an eternal sidekick, and more than once a “sachcha Musalmaan” sidekick (much in the mould of Shatrughan Sinha when he transited from villainy into good-person roles in Khan Dost et al.). Rajinikanth would be the faithful number-two man to Bachchan in Geraftaar (1985) and Hum (1991), and later to everyone from Shashi Kapoor to Raj Kumar to Govinda.
In order to garner brownie points, Rajinikanth had to oblige all by dying dramatically. With apparent lack of irony, in Gair Kanooni (1989), he dies twice in the same film, once as Aadam Khan and then as Akbar Khan. Both deaths are through a combination of stabbing and electrocution, in the latter case in Govinda’s arms, reciting the Kalma. And to bury irony once and for all, in Geraftaar he dies (as inspector Hussain) in Bachchan’s arms, reciting… the Kalma. It is unlikely in his current meta-avtaar, Rajini fans would accept something as mediocre as dying from their demigod.
In the days before his deification (not only by his fans but by our hysterical national television) Rajinikanth was happy to be an ensemble actor, an untenable position today. He would be subject to the role and the narrative, not embody the narrative, the text, the subtext, the denotations and connotations as he does today. Wafaadar (1985) and Chaalbaaz (1989) are both essentially comedy films. As Anupam Kher’s servant Ranga (!) in Wafaadar, the future “Thalaivar” acquiesces to all sorts of atrocities meted on his posterior. Surely if the Rajini bhakts today were to see Anupam Kher laying on Rajni’s bum with a swagger stick or giving him a swift kick in the youknowwhere, he would sincerely have to rethink his current domicile.
Rajinikanth would have starring turns in standalone B-grade films like Gangvaa (1984) and John Jaani Janardhan (1984) but they barely caused a flutter. He probably foresaw, quite early, his limited future in Hindi films and stopped after Aatank Hi Aatank in 1995. This too was an ensemble film based on The Godfather in which Rajinikanth played the role of Sonny Corleone. Hindi films were changing too, and his over-the-top turns had little mileage. Before long both global and indie sensibilities would make serious inroads and the appearance, storytelling and even acting would transform. Even mainstream Hindi film stars (the Khannate, for example) would have to change their ways.
The Superstar’s Hindi-speaking fans have had to wait for his Tamil films come to these shores in their dubbed versions, and through these filtered lenses have seen his rise from superstar to SuperGod. But even his most diehard acolytes would have noticed how, since his last five releases or so, right until Kabali, Rajinikanth has become completely subsumed in his own created image. Becoming the Once and Future Thalaivar has come at a cost. Rajinikanth is now his own Chitti, the robot from Enthiran (2010) that his maker struggles so hard to contain.