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By It's a bird! It's Superman! No, it's the superstar! With the success of Endhiran, India's highest paid actor has once again proved that he is the king of cinema. V. Kumara Swamy looks at the phenomenon called Rajinikanth
  • Published 10.10.10

The young man, clearly had oodles of attitude. It didn’t trouble Sivaji Rao Gaekwad’s friends much when he used their belongings without asking them. But one day he coolly borrowed a classmate’s toothbrush. “I was quite shocked,” recalls the former classmate, who went on to give him a lecture on personal hygiene.

“We were good friends, but he was not the best of roommates,” says Kannada actor Ashok, recalling those days at the Madras Film Institute. Few then thought that bus conductor Gaekwad — with no looks to speak of — would one day reign as Rajinikanth.

Last week, when thousands queued up before dawn for special shows of his new film EndhiranRobot in Hindi and Telugu — India’s highest paid actor made it clear that he was not just an actor but a phenomenon.

His film screenings in the south are always a public event. Crowds rise and roar when he first enters a frame. And they whistle and cheer when he flips his cigarette — now replaced by a piece of chewing gum — in the air, and lets it land between his lips.

“He offers something new in each film, which becomes a rage. It can be his (rhyming) punch dialogues or the way he puts his angavastram (stole) on his shoulder. He is unique,” says R. Radhika, his heroine in many films. “People like him happen once in a century.”

Last month, fans in the coastal town of Tuticorin carried Endhiran’s trailer on a caparisoned elephant in a procession to the theatre. And then they bought regular tickets to watch the 10-minute promo.

The procession would have pleased the actor, for his own journey — from a lower middle-class house in congested Hanumanth Nagar in Bangalore to the sprawling all white two-storey Brindavan in Chennai’s Poes Garden — has been as dramatic.

Rajinikanth, who the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation sacked for long periods of absence (while he took a stab at acting), was pushed into cinema by his friends. He had already made his mark on the local stage. Film director K. Balachander offered him a role as a villain in Apoorva Ragangal (Rare Melodies) in 1975 soon after the results of the two-year acting course were announced, and christened him Rajinikanth. Balachander then offered him roles in two other movies. He also played bit roles in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu films and worked with new directors like Bharti Raja and S.P. Muthuraman.

“He was lucky that he was initially cast by directors like Balachander and Muthuraman. He had a good headstart,” says Ashok, who also acted with him in Kannada films during this period. But his big break came when he got a role as a swashbuckling hero in Bairavi, directed by M. Bhaskar, in 1978. The film became a superhit and Rajinikanth a superstar.

The man clearly wields some magic. How else can the Tamil and Telugu versions of Endhiran gross almost Rs 90 crore in the opening weekend, with all-India collections at Rs 117 crore? How else can a man whose mother tongue is Marathi, who grew up in Bangalore, and who learnt Tamil only because he got his first break in a Tamil film become such a hit?

“It was his acting — and acting alone — that led to his rise in the initial years,” declares M.N.K. Nateson, general manager, South Indian Artistes’ Association. “And then he became one of our own,” he stresses, holding that his Maharashtrian roots never came in the way of his popularity.

To be sure, Rajinikanth was noticed from the beginning as a man with style. But real stardom came with Bairavi. One reason, says Bairavi producer Kalaipuli Dhanu, was that his unique mannerisms and accent had a huge impact on women. “They swooned when they saw him,” says Dhanu.

Perhaps Rajini’s timing was right too. Ashok points out that his fortunes started rising when M.G. Ramachandran, an immensely popular actor and later chief minister, was moving into politics, and Sivaji Ganesan, another greatly admired star of that time, was concentrating on serious roles. Rajini filled the vacuum — and then took over.

Big budget films of Rajinikanth

2010: Endhiran (Robot): made at a cost of Rs 162 crore

2007: Shivaji:The Boss: made at a cost of about Rs 70 crore

2002: Baba: Cost of Rs 25-30 crore

In 1980, he became India’s highest paid actor, overtaking Amitabh Bachchan, with Billa, ironically a remake of Bachchan’s Don. Thirty years on, he earns Rs 25-30 crore for a film, more than double of what top Bollywood actors are paid.

“He is the biggest mass hero in the country today. Even average movies with Rajinikanth will run to packed houses,” says Tamil director S. Ravikumar. He also acted in several Hindi films, starting with Andha Kanoon in 1983 and ending with Atank hi Atank in 1995. He has acted only in six films since Muthu in 1995 — which, many believe, is another reason for his abiding appeal.

But Rajinikanth, experts hold, is not just another successful actor. Like MGR, he has a cult following that goes beyond the usual screaming fans a star commands. C. Lakshmanan, an academic with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, describes it as “uncritical loyalty” — which he stresses is a south Indian cultural trait. “Whether it is a deity, an individual or a cause, we notice that people, especially from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, show an unquestioning faith and obedience. Rajini’s fan following is an extension of that,” he says.

Yet even among south Indian heroes, Rajini is different. In a cinema hall, he is superman. In real life, he is a regular family man. Wife Latha (he met her when she came to interview him for her college magazine) runs a school and his two daughters, Aishwarya and Soundarya, are married. On screen, he is in spectacular clothes and wigs. In real life, he has a paunch and a big bald spot — attributes he does little to hide. “Rajini is the only one in the Indian film industry with the guts to show himself the way he is off screen,” says friend Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tamil magazine Tughlaq.

Yet some argue that his contribution to Tamil cinema has been marginal. “His biggest contribution is fun and entertainment and he has the largest following among children because of his antics,” says social scientist M.S.S. Pandian. But Padma Bhushan Rajini, who once described art filmmakers as “out and out hypocrites of the first order”, would have no quarrel with that. “His sole mission is to make an average cinemagoer happy,” says a critic.

Curiously, it’s not money that makes him tick. The man — whose estimated 1,00,000 fan clubs worldwide (around 30,000 are registered and the rest unregistered, according to the actor’s secretary M.V. Sudhakar) versus Tamil actor Ajith’s 70,000 or so and filmstar Kamal Haasan’s 30,000-40,000 would be an advertiser’s dream — has never endorsed a product. “There is no bigger brand than Rajinikanth. But we know that he is off limits,” says Arvindh Jagannathan of Brand Box Office, a Chennai-based celebrity management company. Adman Prahlad Kakkar believes he will be a “gold mine” if he were to ever endorse a product. His simple off-screen personality, he adds, would be a draw in public campaigns. And his on-screen image, Kakkar says, would be great for tonics and energy drinks.

A leading pharmaceuticals company thought so too and once approached Rajinikanth to endorse an energy drink. “I had the mandate to go with a blank cheque. But Rajinikanth’s people told me that he wouldn’t do it even for Rs 100 crore,” says a former executive of the company.

It’s not just the advertiser who’s been eyeing Rajini’s fan clubs. The mass of supporters is the envy of political parties as well. In 1996, he took on his neighbour J. Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, and aligned with the Opposition. “Even God will not be able to save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa is voted back to power,” he famously said. Her party lost.

But the magic didn’t work in the 2004 parliamentary elections when he asked fans to oppose the S. Ramadoss-led Patali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The PMK won all its seats in north Tamil Nadu.

The actor has not ruled out joining politics, though few believe he will. “He is a spiritual man and a believer in destiny. He simply doesn’t want to predict the future,” says Ramaswamy. Indeed, Rajini takes off to the Himalayas every now and then, apparently meditating and reading spiritual books, staying away from people for weeks.

Even now, his associates have no idea what his plans are. “He will probably take six months off, and he might think of his next move after that. Nobody knows what Thalaivar (the leader) has in his head,” says his secretary Sudhakar.

To that, his fans may add one of his punch dialogues: “I may be late, but I will always be the latest.”

Starting point

1975: Made his debut with Apoorva Ragangal (Rare Melodies) in a negative character. The director of the film named him Rajinikanth

1976: First flipped a cigarette in the air and wore his trademark shades in the film Moondru Mudichu (Three Knots)

1978: Cast as hero in a film for the first time in Bairavi

One of his most admired on-screen pairings is with Sridevi in films such as Moondru Mudichu (Three Knots), 16 Vayadhinile (16 years old), Gayathri, Priya and Pokkiri Raja


How they stack up


No. of films acted in/produced: Over 150

Box office hits: Endhiran, Sivaji:The Boss, Chandramukhi, Muthu, Badsha, Thalapathy

Biggest grosser (raw collections, or box office receipts): Endhiran (opening weekend)

Shah Rukh Khan

No. of films acted in: 70; produced: 9

Box office hits: My Name is Khan, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Om Shanti Om, Devdas, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Karan Arjun

Biggest net grosser: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (at current prices)

Aamir Khan

No. of films acted in: 41; produced: 5

Box office hits: 3 Idiots, Ghajini, Taare Zameen Par, Rang De Basanti, Raja Hindustani, Rangeela

Biggest net grosser: Raja Hindustani (at current prices)

Salman Khan

No. of films acted in/produced: 80

Box office hits: Dabangg, Wanted, No Entry, Judwaa, Karan Arjun, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Maine Pyaar Kiya

Biggest net grosser: Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (at current prices)

#A hit is defined as such by the opening weekend collections, repeat value and how much profit its distributors make

Top heroes: What they charge

  • Rajinikanth: Rs 25-30 crore
  • Salman Khan, Aamir Khan: Between Rs 12 crore and Rs 20 crore per movie
  • Shah Rukh Khan: Rs 8-10 crore
  • Amitabh Bachchan: Rs 6-8 crore