An avid Tamil cinema fan knows the “build-up” scene for a star all too well. The audience is treated to a series of questions and comments that deify the hero before we see him, body part by body part: Do you know who he is? Do you know what he can do? He is like a *insert any ferocious animal name or natural phenomenon*. In Nelson Dilipkumar’s Jailer (2023), a scene that foreshadows Muthuvel Pandian’s (Rajinikanth) transformation from a mild-mannered pensioner to a supercop refers to the protagonist by a curious name – a dinosaur.
It’s true that some dinosaurs are known for their size and ferocity, but the remark is also an acknowledgment of Rajinikanth being from another era. For the superstar who holds the dubious distinction of playing child actor Meena’s father in Enkeyo Ketta Kural (1982), her lover in Yejaman (1993) 11 years later, and rejecting her character in favour of a younger heroine in Annaatthe (2021) 39 years later, Jailer marks a new approach to his on-screen image.
To begin with, Muthuvel Pandian is a retired grandfather. In the past, Rajinikanth has played middle-aged and elderly characters in films such as Muthu (1995), Arunachalam (1997), Padayappa (1999) and so on, but these films also had a ‘young’ Rajinikanth who got the lion’s share of the screen time. His avatar as the older character was viewed as a “get-up” and his on screen image remained that of a young man. So much so that in KS Ravikumar’s Lingaa (2014), Sonakshi Sinha (who is 37 years younger than Rajinikanth) was cast as his heroine. However, the film sank at the box office, possibly because it was too dated and offered nothing new to fans.
Perhaps it was Lingaa’s failure that made Rajinikanth gravitate towards working with Pa Ranjith, a young director who had blazed into the scene with the unconventional romcom Attakathi (2012) and the gritty political action drama Madras (2014). When Rajinikanth appeared in a suit, sporting salt and pepper hair in the promos of Kabali (2016), it was a decisive moment in the superstar’s filmography. Radhika Apte, who is several decades younger than Rajinikanth, played his wife in the film, but their relationship was that of an older married couple.
As Kabali, Rajinikanth carried much of his famed swag, but there were also changes. In contrast to his earlier films where the ‘young’ Rajinikanth had a substantial role to play and the ‘old’ Rajinikanth had limited screen time, Kabali had only a few minutes that showed Rajinikanth as a young revolutionary, and that was firmly in the flashback portion of the film. Otherwise, the story focused on the elderly Rajinikanth – his life, his relationships, and his challenges. Nelson’s Jailer, too, is in a similar vein and the ‘young’ Rajinikanth appears in exactly one scene in the film which is written as a flashback.
In Kabali, Rajinikanth’s body language was that of an older man, and there were no over-the-top stunts like the parachute scene in Lingaa that became the butt of jokes. In an interview, Pa Ranjith spoke about the thought process behind making Rajinikanth play his age: “I liked the power of the real Rajinikanth when I met him more than his on-screen image. I wanted to bring the power of this simple, humble Rajinikanth to the screen. I knew that I wanted him to play an elderly character with a grey beard.”
At the time, Rajinikanth was apprehensive about sporting a real grey beard since he wasn’t sure that it would look good on him. “He was worried about whether the audience would like it. He wanted to mix some black into the grey beard, and we tried that out in the photoshoot to finalise the look for the film. But the dyed beard didn’t work out, and so he just walked out with a grey beard, his suit and no makeup. Everyone applauded when they saw him,” recalled Ranjith.
Rajinikanth’s hesitation to appear as a greying senior isn’t a simple case of vanity. After all, the actor has always appeared without a wig or makeup in public and for stage shows. But when it came to cinema, Rajinikanth was wary of alienating his audience. Over the years, his fanbase has rejected any experimentation or deviation from the Rajinikanth template: 'Thalaivar' is a one-man army fighting a righteous battle and he emerges victorious. Films that veered from this — like the mythological drama Sri Raghavendrar (1985), supernatural action film Baba (2002), drama Kuselan (2008) and 3-D animated period drama Kochadaiiyaan (2014) — failed commercially and fans said these titles didn’t feel “like a Superstar film”.
However, after delivering back-to-back flops with Kochadaiyyaan and Lingaa, Rajinikanth had no choice but to go back to the drawing board. His gamble of working with an upcoming director paid off, and the hype around Kabali proved the audience was ready to accept a new Rajinikanth. His next film, too, was with Ranjith and in Kaala (2018), he played a don who is also a grandfather for the entire length of the film. It was a first for the superstar actor. The flashback portion featuring a 'young' Rajinikanth in Kaala was done using animation.
In Jailer, the “dinosaur” comment is truly driven home when Rajinikanth is moved from his place next to Tamannaah Bhatia in the song 'Kaavala' and relocated to the background, dancing next to Jaffer Sadiq who plays a minor gangster. It appears to be a wink-wink admission that Rajinikanth is indeed too old to be keeping step with someone half his age in a song of this genre. There is no romance track for him either.
Dilipkumar also does away with the Rajinikanth introduction song entirely, choosing instead to have a crucial song – 'Rathamaarey' – that establishes Muthuvel’s family and the relationships between them. The director’s previous film, Beast (2022), also showed his willingness to break templates when Vijay got the simplest of “intro” shots. Even when he does resort to formulae in Jailer, the director adds a surprising twist, like in the paisa vasool sequence that shows all three superstars – Rajinikanth, Mohanlal and Shivrajkumar – lighting up at the same time. It’s a fun take on the now-classic trope of a hero lighting his cigarette to show off how cool he is.
In Shankar’s Sivaji: The Boss (2008), Rajinikanth switched from smoking to chewing gum on screen. This came after persistent criticism that the actor’s stylish way of lighting cigarettes – particularly in films like Annamalai (1992) – had influenced scores of young people to take up smoking. But in with Petta (2019), Karthik Subbaraj convinced Rajinikanth to light up on screen again. The film was, after all, an encyclopaedia of Rajinikanth references and how could his famous cigarette swag be excluded?
Tamil cinema’s relationship with alcohol is more complicated than with smoking, which has largely been used as a style statement. Drinking alcohol has almost always been an indicator of a sadness or tragedy (like a failed romance) informing the hero’s life.
But in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master (2021), Vijay plays a depressed professor who is constantly drunk – including his introduction shot where he gets out of an auto and sways his way down the road – and there is no reason given for his alcoholism. He’s also shown to mess up due to his addiction, but this is presented as a vulnerability rather than something that deserves castigation. At a time when the screen is saturated with disclaimer after disclaimer for everything ranging from traffic rules to violence against women, such portrayals that move beyond the stifling binaries of virtue and vice feel like a representation of the audience’s collective frustration, and an acknowledgment that it is okay for the hero to have his share of flaws.
It’s not just Rajinikanth. His contemporary and Tamil cinema’s eternal loverboy, Kamal Haasan, has also graduated to playing his age on screen. Haasan has met with great success when he played an older man in films like Sagara Sangamam (1983), Nayakan (1987), Indian (1996) and others, but these either featured him in a double role or had significant stretches with Haasan as a younger man. In Vikram (2022), his astounding comeback directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj and produced by his own Raaj Kamal Films International, he plays an undercover agent who is also a grandfather, and has no heroine to romance.
But beyond playing their age on screen, what is also clear is that stars have understood the need to share screen space in films directed by new age filmmakers. There’s a running joke among Tamil cinema fans that someday, Haasan, who is known for playing ten roles in Dasavatharam (2008), may well do a film where he is the hero, heroine, villain and comedian, and there’s no other actor in the cast.
Yet Haasan’s Vikram was a multi-starrer where he shared screen space with Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh Faasil. In fact, Faasil as Agent Amar gets most of the screen time in the first half of Vikram, and Suriya makes an impactful cameo as gangster kingpin Rolex towards the end.
Haasan’s last release before Vikram was Vishwaroopam II (2018), the long delayed sequel to Vishwaroopam (2013). The first was a blockbuster despite controversies (or perhaps because of it) while the second crashed at the box office. When he decided to return to cinema four years later, Haasan chose to work with Kanagaraj who had made three consecutive blockbusters – Maanagaram (2017), Kaithi (2019) and Master (2021) — and who is known for bringing big names to play off each other. For instance, in Master, Kanagaraj had the ever popular Vijay Sethupathi play the villain opposite Vijay, who is arguably the biggest star of his generation.
In Jailer, acclaimed Malayalam actor Vinayakan plays a brutal smuggler who goes up against Rajinikanth’s Muthuvel Pandian. It’s been a while since we saw a worthy villain in a Rajinikanth film, and Vinayakan receives ample screen space and scope to perform. Even more surprising, two superstars from other industries – Mohanlal and Shivarajkumar – play important cameos in the film, nearly upstaging Rajinikanth in the climax. Such scenes contradict traditional wisdom in the southern industries where male superstars seldom share screen space once they reach a certain stature, believing that they should not step on each other’s toes.
With OTT platforms luring viewers away from cinema halls though, it has become necessary for directors to think about what will lure audiences to theatres. Multi-starrers are clearly working well with the audience, going by the roaring response that these films have received, and we’re likely to see more such combinations in the future.
Meeting fan expectations while directing a superstar can be a daunting task. Any variation from the template can earn their wrath, so a young director has to tread carefully. Rajinikanth, for instance, was usually introduced on screen with an energetic song sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam. Ranjith broke the tradition with Kabali where the introduction song 'Ulagam Oruvanukka' was sung by Santosh Narayanan, Gana Bala and Ananthu and included rap. In Kaala, it was 'Semma Weightu' by Arunraja Kamaraj, Dopeadelicz, and Harihara Sudhan.
In both films, there was another significant change that Ranjith made – he dared to kill Rajinikanth. In Kabali, the aged hero is at an event when a gunman walks towards him. The credits start to roll and we hear a gunshot, suggesting that Kabali has been shot. In Kaala, where Rajinikanth plays a Tamil don in Mumbai, he is believed to have perished in a fire – but the villain sees him everywhere because his ideology is still alive. While every Rajinikanth film since the Nineties had portrayed him as a larger-than-life hero who was never defeated, Ranjith broke the convention. Rajinikanth was suddenly human, he was vulnerable like the rest of us – the ideas that his character stood for were more important than the person.
Jailer’s ending, too, offers a departure from the Rajinikanth formula. The cherished idea of an omniscient Rajinikanth crumbles at the end, with a twist that reveals the real villain in the film. Preserving the family at any cost has always been an important trope in a Rajinikanth film – from convincing a survivor to marry his rapist brother in Dharma Durai (1991) to suffering a public lashing to protect his family in Baashha (1995) – and Jailer smashes this with an unconventional ending.
The attempts made by these young filmmakers may not always work but they’re necessary to establish a new order. After all, the verdict from the audience is clear – stars need to reinvent themselves if they are to stay relevant. Better a dinosaur that's alive and kicking than a fossil.