RAJINIKANTH IS stylish, and on that topic there can be no discussion. There are those cigarettes flipped stylishly into the air so they can complete the improbable trajectory to his waiting lips. There’s that hand stylishly ploughing through his hair from the forehead on. There are those sunglasses that he twirls in his fingers before stylishly positioning them on the bridge of his nose. There are those patterns being traced in the air with a stylish forefinger, accompanied by a soundtrack effect that makes it appear that a whooshing wind is snaking through the theatre. There are those stylish ‘punch’ dialogues that percolate into pop mythology. There’s that laugh, the stylish one that goes ‘aa… haa… haa…’ (To non-fans, these are just syllables, but Rajini devotees will replay in their minds’ ear the singsong intonation of this laughter.) And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that his contemporaries in Bollywood, like Amitabh Bachchan, have graduated to playing character roles and being Aishwarya Rai’s father-in-law, while Rajini still gets to be her stylish leading man in the upcoming Robot, in a double role, no less.
And yet, for a star so synonymous with style, Rajinikanth’s off-screen appearances can be perplexing to the untrained eye — and by untrained, I refer to the non-Tamil eye. We Tamilians, after all, are used to the dichotomy of our heroes looking one way on screen and another in real life. Cinema is a manufactured medium, and it would stand to reason that the faces up there are manufactured too, made up with make-up. After all, an actor playing an unblemished hero in one film may, in his next outing, slap onto his face a protuberant mole and a fiery set of whiskers in order to portray a villain — and we know, in our logical minds, that neither of these is a reflection of the star when he wakes up in his bed in the morning. So we don’t really flinch when Rajinikanth comes to us bewigged on screen and bald off it. He is, after all, 60. Lesser men have been reduced to shiny domes at far younger ages. (Ask me. I should know.) So when, in an audio launch for Robot, Rajinikanth looks his age, looks like the grandfather that he is, it doesn’t frazzle us. He’s not acting now. He’s real. That’s all there is to it.
But this very normal, very logical set of expectations doesn’t fly in the case of non-Tamils, especially those used to Bollywood stars, and they often seem surprised that a star can let himself be seen like this in public. The superficial explanation, I suppose, is that the Bollywood star is vain and Rajinikanth is not. That certainly could be (and probably is) true, but then vanity has always been a perquisite of stardom. There was a time in Hollywood, in the studio era, when publicity departments (acting on the studios’ behalf ) would control every released photograph of their contracted stars. They knew which profiles, which cuts, which colours suited their stars, and, more importantly, they knew how the adoring fans wanted to see their idols. It was to the studios’ advantage to maintain these illusions. Even in the films, a star would be seconds away from a painful death, and yet a cluster of klieg lights would bathe their heads with a halo appearing to hint at the angels waiting just around the corner. No one wanted to see a face twisted by consumption or cancer. They wanted to worship the countenance of a star.
Or so the studios thought. Gradually, the 1970s brought in a more gritty Hollywood, influenced by the starker aspects of European cinema. As greater numbers of stars allowed themselves to look like real people, the public aspect too began to change. Stars could pose in crumpled T-shirts if they wanted to, with their eyes still bleared by the previous night’s hard drinking. Indian cinema, however, never followed suit. Stars were still celestials, illumined by flattering soft-focus photography. (And this is especially true of heroines, who, even today are expected to conform to ridiculous standards of size-zero beauty.) The average citizen did not need to know that they burped and farted and woke up with bags under their eyes. Unless you were a character actor and no one sought you out for your looks or cared if you toted around an industrial-strength paunch — the public image, the pin-up image, determined the private pose.
UNLESS, OF course, the star is Rajinikanth, who’s still playing the hero. Or, for that matter, the unapologetically thickset and dark-skinned Vijayakanth. Or the proudly bald Sathyaraj. Whatever your opinion of their talents and their films, you come away respecting their honesty, their humility to reveal themselves as they are. They don’t care. And neither do we. One reason could be the untested sociological theory that, in the south, audience seek out heroes who look like them, who look rooted and real, whereas in the north, they want their heroes (the six-packed Shah Rukhs, the eternally youthful Aamirs and Salmans) to set standards they can aspire to. The explanation appears to be that the attaining of the fair-skinned, modelpretty heroine by such a hero is the average wish-fulfillment fantasy of the moviegoer in the south. No one I know has ventured out with a poll to determine the veracity of this theory, so it remains a theory.
The trained eye, meaning the Tamilian eye, does not flinch when we see Rajini bald off-screen. He is, after all, 60
But here’s another theory. Couldn’t it just be that the average audience member is intelligent enough to separate the public persona from the private? And perhaps we like Rajinikanth more because he’s one of us — richer and more known, yes, and yet like us in the ways that matter. We all agonise with ourselves in our daily lives, and maybe it is a matter of reassurance that even without a six-pack, even without a head full of hair, even with the slightest of sagging jowls, someone somewhere can slay the beast and bring home the beauty. Forget the fantasies on screen, this is a far more fantastic narrative occurring off-screen. Perhaps Bollywood stars — especially the ones in their forties and upwards, some of whom apparently are staving off signs of ageing with nips and tucks and hair weaves — can learn this lesson from Rajinikanth, that you can be yourself and your fans won’t stop loving you. On the contrary, they just may come to love you a little more.
The writer is a film critic for The New Indian Express