My friend in college once told me that if you're a class topper, your score is never going to fall below 80%. The teacher knows that you are a topper, and that's to your favour. Unless you turn in a blank paper, even the language in which you write your answers will get you something… it's always rounded upwards. Rajinikanth is that class topper. His mere presence is enough to generate the hype in the theatre that keeps feeding itself every 15 minutes.
But, as if that's not enough, there's this new trend. After watching Petta, I came across a post that highlighted '20 Thalaivar references you missed in Petta', and it had everything from the sunset shot from Thalapathy to the gate opening scene in Aboorva Raagangal. Were these tributes inserted into the movie or was it a movie built around homages? It's a problem if it's the second scenario. And, it seems to be a trend that's thriving. Darbar made it very clear.
The film starts off with a song that says 'Billa En Varalaaru'. The Annamalai theme is played at regular intervals. A punch dialogue gives a nod to Rajni's 'villain' days. Followed by an "Idhu eppdi irukku?" from 16 Vayadhinile. Followed by a 'bad cop; reference from Annamalai. "Ketta payyan Sir," he says. Aaditya "Arunachalam". His daughter 'Valli', another reference. By the time he starts working out in the gym showing off his ripped back and the kaappu (talisman) on his right arm, you can almost hear Abbas say "What a man…"
You see the problem right? There's a Rajini mythology, a compendium of actions for every situation possible, because there's no role that hasn't been done in the Rajini universe. He can flip shades or flash a grin, but he's already done those before in some form, and that recognition gives the audience a high. Watching a Rajini movie these days is like living in the nostalgia of the present. When audiences were raving about the Rajini of the old that they got to see in Petta, was this the take-home message that directors got? That it's okay to exploit this master performer's vast body of work for cheap thrills?
The scene in Baasha where Rajini said "Enakku innoru peru irukku" is iconic because it's not a template from his earlier movies. He earned the 'coolness' he deserved in the swing scene in Padayappa. Even Ranjith came close to creating something like this with the catchphrase 'Magizchi', but now I fear that we are going to keep seeing more of these references that have no recall value after you've gone back home.
Rajini is not the only victim of this though — Atlee is creating a similar universe for Vijay with coolers and Happydent chewing gums. If that is the kind of content the audience is hooting for, why would the directors work any harder? It suffices for Rajini to walk in slow motion with a glare on his face and blaring trumpets in the background.
It's not that this sort of trend doesn't exist in Hollywood. There, it's about the persona more than the person. A character like Batman can be played by umpteen different actors the ages; yet it is Batman who will receive the hurrahs every time on screen. If a Batman fan wants to see the emotional aspect of a character or his many shades, he would face the same frustration if they kept replaying comic book moments again and again. But, that's about it. Robert Downey Junior doesn't try to say "And I – am – Sherlock Holmes," when he's running around Baker Street. That line is Iron Man's and it stays in the Marvel Universe. At least RDJ gets to try different things, but Rajini the performer is always resigned to playing inside the mould of Rajini the star, struggling to expand and fit the personality he has created over a hundred different movies.
The narrative in Rajini movies now seems to be constructed to satiate the expectations of film reviewers who begin by hinting at problems with the movie, but quickly switch to a tone of: "It's all good in the end because we get to see Rajini in his former glory". Issues with the writing are brushed aside casually, because, ultimately, the voice of these reviewers matters more to an audience that is already high on Rajini-ism. I found Darbar to be much more problematic than Asuran, for instance, a movie that drew a lot of flak for its violence… Asuran had a rationale that said – "this human being is venting his anger on these people in this situation". Darbar shrugged it off by saying that "It's okay to kill ruffians if you are Rajini. You can even threaten those batting for human rights." Nobody brings kids to Asuran. But there were proud Rajini fans in the theatre who brought along their children to get them Rajini-fied. Are these decisions being criticised though?
Movies must be crafted, not manufactured based on the opinions of a malleable crowd that is, in turn, shaped by YouTubers who have an incomplete idea of what they are talking about. Don't work with checklists and tick things off to 'create' a super hit. Don't fool the audience by saying, "Oru Rajini padam paatha nooru pazhaya Rajini padam paatha maadhiri."
Don't capitalise on the Superstar and run him into the ground like a racehorse. He earned the title by being a master performer, doing things like nobody else before him. It hurts to see him scavenge on his own legacy. Let him act, just a bit more.