At the beginning of the Discovery Channel show, Into The Wild With Bear Grylls And Superstar Rajinikanth, the anchor says he's going to take celebrities, well, into the wild, and "reveal the real person behind the icon". Wait! What? You mean Rajinikanth is not the person about whom the following quip was made? "Once Spider-man, Superman and Batman visited Rajnikanth's house together. It was Teacher's Day." The episode opens like a Superstar movie. There's the "intro" shot, an overhead view of the man driving a bright-red All Terrain Vehicle. CUT TO… birds taking flight, a monkey jumping from branch to branch. CUT TO… the vehicle coming to a halt and the man dismounting. (Yes, the foot hits the ground in a close-up.) CUT TO…. the sunglasses coming off. CUT TO… a swish of the hand, and… the ATV disappears. Try that, Spider-man, Superman and Batman!
The episode dropped at 6am on the channel, which means I woke up really early, the way I would have for the First Day First Show of a regular Rajinikanth movie. After a long period of social isolation, watching the S-U-P-E-R-S-T-A-R RAJNI logo (yes, that's there, too) made me feel like a critic again — you can write all the pieces you want, but nothing quite makes you feel you're doing your job like a "new" release. Bear Grylls and Rajinikanth are at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka. The actor is touching 70, but if you look at him in a long shot — without the wrinkles being smoothed over by makeup, without his wig, and with the grey beard that's such a fixture of his off-screen persona — he could be decades younger. There's not a trace of fat. And there's such a spring in his step.
Over preliminary chitchat, presumably to introduce a personality who needs no introduction, Bear Grylls talks about Rajini's beginnings. And at least for those who do not know him, "the real person behind the icon" emerges. The man who speaks in Tamil and smatterings of English. The man who grew up nearby, in Bengaluru. (He still calls it 'Bangalore'.) The man who worked for five years as a bus conductor. At a time the actor's political persona is proving so divisive (even he could not stop Twitter from doing a hand-swish and making a recent tweet disappear!), it's a pleasure to be back with Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, the unassuming Everyman who wears his super-success as lightly as Superman's cape.
During this chitchat, Rajini unleashes something that sounds like one of the many philosophical lines he spouts in his films. "Eppavume oruthar vaazhkayila mukkiyama oruthar thaan iruppaanga. Avanga vaazhkaya appadiye change pannuvaanga." (There's always one person who's important in your life. They will change your life completely.) I loved the fleeting expression on Bear Grylls face, a cross between "Say what?" and "Um, what have I gotten myself into!" and "I need to really work hard to make this look like it's still my show". He succeeds. They walk a bit and stop at a point where there are dangerous snakes. Rajinikanth says, "My God!" Or maybe he's just humouring his anchor.
The instructions keep coming! We are going to make our way to a water hole… We will cross this ravine using this old, rusty bridge… Here's a Kamal Haasan-ish message from Kamal Haasan… Yes, that's there, too! (Kamal calls the host "Mr. Bear!" I love it! This is what I am going to call him henceforth.) It's a message about the importance of water, and Rajini talks about how critical conservation is and his longtime dream of linking rivers. But back to the adventure. Mr. Bear straps a climbing harness on Rajinikanth, and remarks that he will be the most unpopular man in India if something happens to his guest. Eyeroll! Mr. Bear, with your accent, you may keep calling him Rajini-Can't, but he can. Rajini Can!
But unlike in the movies, there are no stunt doubles. There are no mattresses to cushion a fall. There's something else, something touching and unexpected. There's some huffing and puffing. There's the awareness that even Rajinikanth can be taken aback by Nature. As he crosses that rusty bridge, holding on for life, he realises that the iron is hot. As he wades across an ever-deepening river, which may have crocodiles, he realises the water is cold. As he roughs it out — climbing down a slope, climbing back up, changing a flat tyre for the first time in his life when they drive a Jeep — there are scratches on his knuckles. The blood is real.
Mr. Bear tells us, "When you are a Superstar it's easy to say 'no' and stay inside your comfort zone." In light of recent events, some of us may wish that this were true, that Rajini would stay inside the comfort zone of his cinema. He certainly seems well-intentioned. He talks about poverty, unemployment, the need for clean drinking water. He talks about our Prime Minister, who appeared in an earlier episode of the show. He asks Mr. Bear, "What do you like most in Modi ji?" Mr. Bear replies, "I think he had a great sense of humour."
And then he talks about the four major religions in India, and how Islam, Buddhism and Christianity have a home in many other countries but Hinduism has only India, and yet, we are accepting of all religions. Depending on how you parse this statement, you could end up with a Kumbaya cliché or something more incendiary. I'd rather have the Rajinikanth from the movies, the star who, according to Mr. Bear, "does everything with a wink", the star who doesn't take himself seriously, the endearing old-ish man who whoops at the end of the show and exclaims: "This is the craziest day of my life!"