Rajinikanth’s nickname in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala works smartly with the movie’s Mumbai setting. Rajinikanth’s character in the April 27 release is a Tamilian named Karikaalan, meaning a man with a burnt leg (possibly a reference to the Sangam period king Karikaalan Cholan). His nickname, Kaala, becomes a nifty way of tapping into a long movie tradition of making references to Rajinikanth’s dark skin tone in real life.

“What kind of name is this?” asks Nana Patekar’s character in a room that is bathed in white. “Kaala means black,” Karikaalan says. He is dressed all in black, wears black sunglasses and a black beaded necklace, carries a black umbrella, and drives a black jeep, in case you missed the point.

“Black is the colour of labour,” Karikaalan tells Patekar’s character. “Come to my chawl and see. All the dirt there will appear colourful to you.”

Kaala (2018).

Rajinikanth rose to stardom despite what were considered disadvantages – his unusual Tamil accent and unconventional looks, his dark skin at a time when most leading men, including his rival Kamal Haasan, were milk-white. His triumph against the odds has created a sub-culture of cheeky jokes, songs and dialogue about his skin tone. Even the screen name of the man originally known as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad has something to do with his complexion, Naman Ramachandran writes in Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography.

When K Balachander met Rajinikanth in the early 1970s, the director was struck by “the fellow’s fragile health and powerful eyes and his chiselled face”. Balachander told Ramachandran, “And of course, his skin colour, you know. The dark skin I thought was an advantage because again it is different from others. All the people who are very fair and all that, they have an easy entry into films. Why shouldn’t I take this boy, give him a good role, and see what can be drawn out of him?’”

Balachander cast the former bus conductor in a small but significant role in his 1975 romantic drama Apoorva Raagangal. But he felt that Shivaji Rao Gaekwad needed a better screen name. “…he chose a character name from his own film, Major Chandrakanth,” Ramachandran writes. “AVM Rajan had played a character named Rajinikanth in the film, and Balachander christened Shivaji Rao with this name. And thus was born Rajinikanth, soon to be a household name. The name literally means ‘colour of night’; it was a comment on the colour of Shivaji Rao’s skin.”

Apoorva Raagangal (1975).

A reference to Rajinikanth’s un-heroic appearance pops up in his debut itself. In Apoorva Raagangal, Rajinikanth plays Pandiyan, the long-lost alcoholic husband of Bhairavi (Sripriya), whom he abandoned after making her pregnant. Pandiyan enters the film at the end wearing a dusty coat, a loose tie, shirt and trousers. His beard and hair are unkempt and he looks distraught as Prasanna (Kamal Haasan), Bhairavi’s young lover, confronts him. Pandiyan has come to make amends, but Prasanna is wary of letting him meet Bhairavi. When she asks Prasanna who is at the door, he says “Yaaro pichakkaran” (some beggar).

In the films that followed, Rajinikanth was mostly cast as villains. In his second movie, Katha Sangama, he plays an idler who rapes a mute woman.

Haasan and Rajinikanth shared screen space in many films, with the characters defined by their skin colour. Haasan was the hero, and Rajinikanth, the schemer. In Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976), Rajinikanth is the conniving Prasath, who lets his best friend Balaji (Kamal Haasan) drown so that he can get close to Balaji’s lover Selvi (Sridevi). When Sridevi is confronted with the idea of marrying Prasath, she says, “Sariyaana villain moonji” (he has the face of a villain), followed by mock laughter.

An angry Prasath responds to Selvi’s jibe: “You’ll be the first heroine to marry a villain. See, how history is about to change its course.” Prasath doesn’t succeed, but history did change its course with respect to Rajinikanth’s career.

Moondru Mudichu (1976).

Some of the references to Rajinikanth’s appearance are downright derogatory, such as the sequence that introduces the village rowdy Parattai (Rajnikanth) in P Bharathiraja’s 16 Vayathinile. The simple-minded Chappani (Kamal Haasan) is massaging Parattai’s shoulders. Parattai’s friends ask him if Chappani offers his services as a masseur to anybody else in the village. Chappani unthinkingly says that he also massages buffaloes and cows. Is Chappani likening Parattai to a bovine creature? “A buffalo doesn’t talk, but you do,” Chappani replies.

16 Vayathinile (1977).

Rajinikanth got his back in J Mahendran’s Johnny (1980), in which he plays a double role. Singer Archana (Sridevi) lovingly compares Johnny’s skin colour to all her songs: “Naa paadum geethangal unn vannam.”

Johnny (1980).

T Rama Rao’s Andha Kanoon (1983) takes the colour reference to the extreme. Rajinikanth plays Vijay, a vigilante who is out to avenge the killers of his family. The song Ek Taraf Hum Tum Ek Taraf Saare features Rajinikanth with his face blackened alongside black-face background dancers. They are all supposed to be in disguise, since Vijay is being pursued by the police.

Andha Kanoon (1983).

Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (1991) revisits the black-white binary. Rajinikanth plays the Karna-inspired Surya, the long-lost brother of the fair-skinned Arjun (Arvind Swamy). Swamy plays an honest government collector, while Rajinikanth is the enforcer of a gangster. Subbulakshmi (Shobhana), Surya’s lover, is from a Brahmin household, and fails to convince her father of her love for Surya. When she tells Surya of her engagement with Arjun, an angry Surya chastises her, saying that all she wanted was a fair-skinned man.

Thalapathi (1991).

By the ’90s, when Rajinikanth’s stardom had reached its peak, his complexion became a matter of pride. In Muthu (1995), Rajinikanth plays a landlord’s manservant who falls in love with drama troupe member Ranganayaki (Meena). The ardour is mutual. In the song Thillana Thillana, Muthu wonders how Ranganayaki chose a dark-skinned man like him despite the abundance of fair-skinned suitors.

Muthu (1995).

Rajinikanth played many working-class characters in the ’90s – a milkman in Annamalai (1992), an auto driver in Baasha (1995), an orphan in Arunachalam (1997). This was the decade during which he earned the prefix ‘Superstar’. The significance of Rajinikanth’s achievement carried over to the next decade. In Cheran’s Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000), Amudha (Malavika) falls in love with the dark-skinned Sekar (Murali). She describes her passion for him as the love for the colour black. In the song Karupputhan Yennaku Pudichu Colour, Rajinikanth finds a mention – “nammooru superstar Rajinikanth karuppu thaan.”

Vetri Kodi Kattu (2000).

Perhaps the most blatant – and egregious – tribute is in Shankar’s Sivaji (2007), a movie filled with meta-references to Rajinikanth’s larger-than-life persona and his back catalogue. Sivaji is in love with the lily-white Tamizhselvi (Shriya Saran), but she turns down his proposal since their skin tones do not match.

Sivaji’s aide Arivu (Vivek) launches into a monologue against Tamizhselvi’s racism: “Who are you calling black? Tamil Nadu will be up in arms! Krishna is black, so is Kamarajan and so is writer Vairamuthu. That piano is black, kishmish is black.”

But Sivaji has been challenged, and he decides to lighten his complexion for Tamizhselvi’s sake. He lathers his face with mango juice, egg yolk, milk cream and strawberries and even undergoes a facial. He temporarily succeeds (the make-up and digital intermediate help too).

Pa Ranjith’s previous movie with Rajinikanth, Kabali (2016), bursts with black pride, in keeping with the director’s politically loaded films. At an interaction with college students, Kabali (Rajinikanth) is asked about how he married the fair-skinned Kumudha (Radhika Apte). He recounts how, when Kumudha professed her love for him, she declared, “I want your dark tone smeared all over my body.”

“I’m dark but I’m powerful,” Kabali says with a laugh. Indeed.

Kabali (2016).