Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rajinikanth, where is that great actor?

Sometimes, one strongly feels that superstar Rajinikanth should step back, pause a while and reflect. Is he doing justice to the marvellous actor in him, that actor one saw in his earlier films? He could hold you spellbound. Yes, really, he could do that.
He still has audiences riveted, but not through his performance. The aura he creates through sheer gimmickry enslaves men, women and children - who celebrate each movie release of his by firing crackers, garlanding huge wooden cutouts of his and by anointing them with milk and sandal paste.

Rajinikanth in Lingaa poster
With Rajinikanth's latest Lingaa scheduled to open on his birthday, December 12 (provided the legal hurdles are cleared in time), Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu and perhaps even Karnataka are psyching themselves into a state of frenzy.
Much as one tries, it is hard to explain this phenomenon called Rajinikanth. It defies logic and rationale. Among India's actors, he has the largest fan following, only next to the late MG Ramachandran - who was also the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu heading a political party whose doctrine he helped spread through the roles he played on the screen. Other Tamil Nadu chief ministers, Annadurai and Karunanidhi, wrote the stories and the scripts for these movies.
Rajinikanth in a scene from Endhiran

However, one wonders whether Ramachandran's popularity was as incredible as Rajinikanth's. In Tamil Nadu, he is revered as god, and he is beyond reproach. He is everyone's friend. Every bus conductor or rickshaw driver dreams of becoming a Rajinikanth. The desire to mutate himself into that hero is obsessive to the point of being maniacal. So if Rajinikanth dies at the end of a film, the theatre will not live either. It will be burnt down. So shattering is the blow of seeing the hero pass away.
And true to this, Rajinikanth endears himself to the masses also through his astonishing simplicity. He appears in public in a dhoti and a shirt. At other times, in a pair of trousers and a shirt thrown over. He is bald, but does not cover it with a wig. The contrast between Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth at the recent International Film Festival of India in Panaji, where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award, was startling. Bachchan was all dressed up, Rajinikanth, well, dressed down. And his humility and mannerism on stage were overwhelming.

Rajinikanth and Sridevi in a still from Moondru Mudichi

Rajinikanth appeals most strongly to the downtrodden, who see him as a brilliant success story. Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bengaluru to Marathi parents, Rajinikanth lost his mother when he was barely five, and spent much of his youth working as a coolie and later as a bus conductor in that city. A friend and co-worker helped Rajinikanth secure admission in the Madras Film Institute in the early 1970s. He got his first break in 1975 with a K Balachander film, Apoorva Raagangal. It was only  J Mahendran's 1978 Mullum Malarum that gave him the star tag.

Rajinikanth in a scene from Mullum Malarum

On watching these two movies recently, there was no mistaking the brilliance of his acting ability. In both, he essays shades of deep grey, and yet there was something captivating about Rajinikanth. Mullum Malarum lifted him to the skies all right.
Yet, when P Vasu made Kuselan in 2008, which almost seemed like Rajinikanth's own story, it crashed.  So too some of his earlier works. But the failures never appeared to diminish the brightness of the halo around him.
A large part of this can be attributed to his showmanship in cinema. The way he flicks a cigarette in the air or dances or even stands, infuse that desire in the conductor or the coolie to succeed. And, who knows, become another Rajinikanth.
Rajinikanth in a scene from Avargal

However, for the discerning viewer who looks beyond star material, Rajinikanth is all style and very little substance. Some have called this clownish. Yes, a clown alright, but perhaps a beloved clown.  His actions on screen can be read as a bunch of tricks, out to grab the attention of the lowest-common denominator. The superb actor in him appears to have been eclipsed.
One would like to conclude with what one began with.  I have seen his Endhiran, Ra One (in a guest appearance) and Kochadaiiyaan among some others. These have not caught my attention. It is his early works like Moondru Mudichu and Avargal that hold unbounded fascination for me. Still, and after all these years. Maybe, Rajinikanth should walk away from gimmickry, and awaken that actor in him all over again.

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