The man is 63, is quite unafraid of ageing, and is variously credited with impossible powers. His rise from bus conductor to superstar has neatly flummoxed basic logic, to an extent that it is impossible to separate myth from reality. From straitened circumstances to becoming one of Asia’s highest paid actors (he once wrote a cheque, and the bank is supposed to have bounced!), Rajinikanth’s has been an unprecedented transformation.
He started out as a rebel some 40 years ago and has remained one throughout his life. The phenomenon has been studied in almost all its manifestations by a succession of writers who have tried to analyse the kind of unparalleled superstar that he is.
Director K Hariharan wrote some years ago how “two factors come upfront when we want to understand the reason for his immeasurable success. The first is the public time/space that he comes to inhabit. His entry into cinema and the declaration of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi bear a striking coincidence. By default, Rajinikanth donned the mantle of a symbolic protest through the viewer’s immediate acceptance in his role as the Machiavellian predator in K Balachander’s Apoorva Ragangal. Like the Prince in Machiavelli’s famous tract all of 500 years ago, he goes about structuring a discourse in conflict resolution with an emphasis on valuing dissent as the cornerstone for democracy”.
This is an important observation as it illustrates in a pithy paragraph how a political statement was implied even in Rajinikanth’s avowedly apolitical emergence on the scene. That the Emergency was “tolerated” in the conservative south is an acknowledged fact: there was a huge disconnect between a desperate leader with authoritarian overtones and the immediate generation that came up after freedom, which still retained a sense of idealism and rejected authoritarian tendencies. That for all their protestations, the tallest leaders of the south became whimpering supporters of Indira Gandhi was evident. The chasm between the Tamil “dream” and the reality could not have been wider.
Ideally, culture should become a reflection of universal reality, but in the world of Tamil films, mass anger was only faintly reflected. In a deeply divided caste society, cinema chose to paper over huge differences. According to some, the films of MGR (MG Ramachandran) and even Sivaji Ganesan became too syrupy for good taste. It was during this uncertain period that a certain Sivaji Rao Gaekwad rose from practically nowhere, and people who sought more plausibility in their films consecrated an icon with the name of Rajinikanth. He was the quintessential man from the wrong tracks who makes it big.
With his highly stylised mannerisms, rakish looks and burlesque flamboyance, Rajinikanth over time has more than once played the misogynist who subdues heroines with a slap and a kiss. Challenging vicious foes — in both reel and real life — with an aplomb that is hard to match, he has bashed up more thugs on screen than a full Chennai hospital can accommodate! According to critics, he is a Don Quixote who is adored by the boy working at a tea stall and a Silicon Valley geek alike. As observers will tell you, few can resist his appeal: women cry when he weeps, kids idolise his trademark stunts and his iron-like machismo is a huge invitation for the men.
Anthropologists and researchers have tried to decode the secret behind the adulation Rajini commands across the class divide. They talk of his unique mannerisms; of his phenomenal energy levels that establish an instant rapport with the audiences. Experts have reckoned that Rajinikanth’s screen image helps mobilise subaltern aspirations without endorsing the status quo. He is like a ventriloquist, larger-than-life, whose persona echoes the aspirations and desires of thousands.
The secret of his appeal lies in its simple artlessness. In the Tamil sexual imagination, our superhero’s near-mythic powers include the ruthless quelling of surging female sexuality. He is more accessible, more real than even his predecessor, the late MGR. Sociologists have found that identifying with success is a major stress reliever. Men identify with James Bond for his successful masculinity, and that is Rajinikanth’s appeal for the Tamil male as well.
While the high-brow may find themselves uncomfortable with delving too deep into the sexual politics of Rajinikanth’s on-screen persona, the audience laps it all up with an almost voyeuristic glee. Adulation and voyeurism, after all, go hand in hand. As has been variously observed, it is not unusual to find boys bathing Rajinikanth billboards in milk and rosewater or throwing flowers at the screen when he makes his first appearance. He is the demigod who sets alive their wildest dreams of conquest and liberation. Rajini satisfies the Tamil male’s ego because he embodies the fulfilment of the desire to be manly, sexually attractive and physically energetic. Both the so-called masses and classes love him for all that he represents.
In a career that saw him start out playing the usual villain before evolving into a serious actor able to carry off more complex characters, Rajinikanth’s personality and acting prowess were subsumed by his iconic status. This was indeed true of the 1980s and the ’90s when his movies became runaway hits. He most often played the working-class hero whose easy access to success and defiance of the rich endeared him to the plebian audiences.
However, his personal quest for peace and solace led him to religion. Thus followed cinematic outputs of a spiritual order, such as the 2002 film Baba. The quest failed miserably at the box-office. For his fans, Rajini was not there to gently work on their minds. He was meant to get their veins pumping, and they were unwilling to tolerate any deviations from that image. Only in relatively recent years did he portray a role other than the working-class hero — that of an NRI, playing on the ongoing penchant for things swadeshi, very much in sync with India’s contemporary, globalising ethos. There have been subtle shifts here and there, even when he still tames the haughty shrew by bringing ‘spoilt’ and ‘disturbed’ women into the normal heterosexual order of family life. There have been no compromises on that theme over the years, and the submission by his lady caters to an abiding male fantasy.