Rajinikanth: A Life is an account of the man who was born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad—once a coolie and a bus conductor in Bangalore and now virtually a god in Tamil Nadu. The biography is penned by Vaasanthi, a renowned author and journalist who writes in English and Her books in English include Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics, Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen, The Lone Empress: A Portrait of Jayalalithaa, and Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography.
Below is an excerpt from the book which throws light on the superstar’s early days in showbiz and how he was rechristened Rajinikanth.
Shivaji was worried that the shoot would not start on a Thursday. He had come to believe that Thursday was an auspicious day for him. There was nothing to show that it always worked, but he had come to know that it was an auspicious day for Saint Raghavendra, whom he had come to revere. He cursed himself for being so stupid and superstitious but he couldn’t shake it off. For the first two days, he didn’t have any scenes to shoot since Kamal Haasan, the lead actor, was shooting his scenes then. So rather than hang around on set, he would go outside, sit and smoke. When Balachander came to know this, he shouted at Shivaji: ‘Don’t you want to learn?’ Experienced actors were a treasure trove of knowledge and watching them at work was a way to learn the craft. Balachander’s volatile temper was well known. But the master had a point. It was indeed a treat to watch Kamal Haasan in action. Shivaji marvelled at his skill. He put all of himself into the role, into the moment. He made you believe it was real. Kamal had all that a hero needed: looks, talent, and experience. No wonder he was already a big star though he was much younger than Shivaji. But he had had an early start, as a child artist at the age of six. A sense of diffidence gripped Shivaji. How will he survive amidst such talent?
There was a problem with his name, too. Sivaji Ganesan was a famous name in Tamil cinema. He was known for his ability to take on a variety of roles and had a big fan following. Balachander decided that Shivaji needed a new name. He chose the name Rajinikanth—the name of a character from a film he had directed—Major Chandrakanth (1966).
It was a strange feeling to have a new name.That important rechristening happened on an auspicious day—it was Holi, the festival of colours and joy. On that full moon day, a star was born. For Shivaji, it was even more significant because it was a Thursday, and his first shoot had been scheduled for that day.The date was 27 March 1975. For many years after, Shivaji made it a point to meet Balachander on Holi to pay his respects.
For his very first scene in the film Apoorva Raagangal, an unkempt Rajinikanth, with an unshaven face and in shabby clothes, was to fling open the gates of a house and enter the compound.‘His very first appearance on the screen was symbolic,’ says Y. G. Mahendran, an actor and brother-in-law of Rajinikanth. (Rajinikanth’s wife, Latha, and Mahendran’s wife, Sudha, are sisters.) ‘Not many actors get such an opening. It was as if the doors of opportunity opened for Rajini.’ Mahendran’s father, Y. G. Parthasarathy, a well-known theatre personality, was the principal of the Film Institute when Rajini was a student there. He had told his son about a student named Shivaji who looked rugged but there was something in him that was different, attractive, and promising.
The other actors in the film had already established themselves: Kamal Haasan, Srividya, Major Sundarrajan, Jayasudha, and Nagesh. It was an unconventional story—considered to be ‘revolutionary’ by the standards of the 70s. Bhairavi (played by Srividya) is a famous singer. Prasanna (Kamal Haasan) is a much younger man who falls in love with Bhairavi and wants to marry her. But there is a complication he is not aware of—Bhairavi has run away from an unhappy marriage. Her estranged husband, Pandian (Rajinikanth), enters the story only at the end of the movie.
Rajinikanth was nervous during the first few days of filming. The first shot had to be retaken many times. Balachander began losing patience but understood that the new actor was nervous. Rajinikanth had only two lines of dialogue.
‘Is this Bhairavi’s house?’ he asks Prasanna, who is standing on the balcony.
‘Yes,’ the young man answers. ‘Who are you?’‘I am her husband,’ he says hesitantly. Prasanna is shocked—he had no idea that Bhairavi was married.
He rushes down to challenge the intruder and it is only then that we see Pandian’s face—he looks tired, sick. Prasanna challenges him: ‘What is the proof, can you show me the proof?’ ‘I can’t,’ says the intruder, ‘but she can’t forget.’
It was a simple sentence, one that any actor could have performed. But the new face, his unique demeanour—the audience loved him.
‘Who would have believed then that the gesture, as he opens the gate, nothing more than a swing of his arms, would mark the beckoning of a new crowd of fanatical admirers never heard of before?’ Mahendran laughs. Balachander was satisfied with Rajinikanth’s performance and was happy that his instincts had been proven right. He knew that his new find was star material. He said in an interview to the Tamil magazine Kumudam that he was introducing in the film a new actor Rajinikanth who he believed had a huge future.
Excerpted from Rajinikanth: A Life by Vaasanthi, published by Aleph Book Company. Price: INR 699
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