45 Years Of Rajinism: Why The Rajinikanth Kind Of Stardom Can’t Be Achieved By Anyone Else

Baradwaj Rangan answers FC Readers’ questions on Rajinikanth’s career, his career-defining movies, and a timeless dialogue.
45 Years Of Rajinism: Why The Rajinikanth Kind Of Stardom Can’t Be Achieved By Anyone Else

Excerpts from 45 years Of #Rajini-ism By Baradwaj Rangan

Naga Praneeth: Actors like Chiranjeevi and Mohanlal are top stars with a huge fan following in the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu. Despite them being better actors than Rajini, what do you think is the reason for the pan-Indian appeal that only Rajini could pull off?

Around the time of Enthiran and a little before that, the gimmicks part of Rajnikanth's persona became very popular. And those films were tailor made for a pan-Indian audience because you're talking about huge special effects, big screen movies, and that kind of translated. But then again, I won't say that he was able to follow it up, but for Enthiran and 2.0 that audience really happened for Rajnikanth. 

Viveyandran: I am more of a fan of Rajini's 70s and 80s classics such as Moondru Mudichu, Mullum Malarum, Pudhu Kavithai and Nallavanukku Nallavan rather than his mass movies like Annamalai and Baasha. Growing up, which era of his did you enjoy the most? 

I would say movies like Mullum Malarum, because technically though I was too young at that point in time, those were the movies that I got to see in theatres a little later. Those are really, really good films. And I think what really stands out in those films for me is… now-a-days we have restricted the notion of a star to somebody who makes a First Day First Show audience whistle very loudly. I love it that a star is able to do all that but beyond, one would go to a movie to see somebody do a variety of things on screen and I think that's gone now. And even with Rajini, as the money on his films kept increasing and as they became more important propositions, his range became narrower and narrower. 

Adithya Narain: Which modern-day director (post Baasha) do you think has understood what 'Rajinism' is and played to its strengths? 

I think this is an easy answer, and it has to be Karthik Subbaraj for Petta. I am not a huge fan of that film through and through, but I think the film got a distillation of what fans like about Rajnikanth and kind of played to the actor's side and fans' side to a large extent. This was something that for a very long time a Rajini film lacked, which is a stylistic signature. I think after Thalapathi, Petta is the first film Rajnikanth was in that had a director's signature all over the screenplay, and it was not just like a Rajini service machine. 

Yesh: Rajini has been riding the popularity wave forever irrespective of how well his movies fared. Why do you think people go crazy about a Rajini film when they know there is nothing novel or fresh to expect? If at all some novelty exists, like in Kabali, they turn it down, forcing him to traverse a similar path again and again. What is your take on this?

These are psychological explanations that I am theorising. I think before Rajinikanth, you needed to look a certain way to become a hero. You needed to be fair and have a certain chocolate boy look. Yes, Sivaji is not a chocolate boy but there's no evil glint in his eyes, he can't play a rowdy very easily. There is a certain softness, a certain mellowness and gentleman-ness and a certain dignity to the hero. Rajini came in 1975 and blew that shit out of water. He was basically saying that, "I have fantastic dark skin and I have a glint in my eyes and I am going to have certain mannerisms." I think he basically showed people that he was one of them. Instead of keeping the hero on a pedestal, he was able to bring that down. And one of the tragedies for me personally is the softening of Rajini in recent years. I am not talking about the pure villain roles like Avargal, but even when you look at him in films like Nallavanukku Nallavan, there is such an edge to him. There is a certain attitude that is so fantastic to watch. But now he looks very cuddly and a tired set of mannerisms have been recycled. But, at that point, you can't look at anything else because he is such a natural camera subject. Here was a guy who didn't fit the conventional good guy bracket or look like the sweet guy next-door. He kind of looked like somebody you didn't want to mess around with and I think that really resonated with a lot of people and also paved the way for a lot of unusual heroes to come after Rajinikanth. And I think that is the reason people hold onto Rajinikanth. 

Dr CGS: I still can't decipher the Japanese connect of Rajinikanth fandom and the success of a film like Muthu there. Or, is it just an industry mirage? 

I am equally puzzled, because Muthu being translated as Dancing Maharaja and becoming a blockbuster there, I just don't know what happened  there. I can understand if Enthiran or one of his older, dramatic films become a hit there. Sometimes, I feel that when I go to a film festival, people come and ask me if I am from India and if I know Shah Rukh Khan. One point of me will be a little annoyed and think, 'Oh you think we just make these big commercial films.' But another part of me over time has slowly begun to realise that it is actually great because whether it is Germany or Japan, even their entertainment is very focussed in genre. So when they see our big, mass commercial films, they are thrilled. There's songs, dance, comedy and colorful stuff happening everywhere and they love that. For them, it is hugely different and I think that becomes an attraction.

Rajinists: I read somewhere, "Kamal can do what Rajini does but Rajini cannot do what Kamal does." I am a Rajini fan and love his mass films but he has also proved his acting skills with films like Mullum Malarum. Your opinion? 

First of all, I don't think Kamal Haasan can do what Rajini does. They are very different performers. I think people sometimes restrict acting to a very narrow definition of can he cry convincingly or can he dance etc. If you ask me if Rajini can act in Sagara Sangamam, no, he definitely cannot because he is not a good dancer and there are certain things about that role which he can not do. But, by the same factor if you ask me if Kamal can pull off Baasha convincingly, I don't think so because there is a certain swagger element which comes along with the territory and people somehow dismiss that off as not acting. That is a kind of thing you own in front of the camera. People equate only dramatic acting with acting, but comic acting, stylish acting are all not considered acting. You cannot just consider Mahanadhi as the only style of acting. There are various styles of acting, and Rajini comes with his own brand of acting. 

Sai Vikneshwar Mani Jayaraman: What are some of the 'so bad, it's good' Rajini films you like? 

I'll say Paayum Puli, because that movie came about at the height of the Kung-Fu movie phase. Movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin were becoming big hits in Chennai, so AVM decided to do that kind of a film with a training montage and such stuff. But I think even then it is not just a guilty pleasure because Ilaiyaraaja was Ilaiyaraaja and we got songs like 'Pothukkittu Oothuthadi' and 'Appakada Annakili' and it was fantastic to just see and hear these songs on big screens. I also think a lot of films that Rajinikanth did that were based on Amitabh's movies also fall into this category. They are kind of adapted to a Tamil sensibility and are half-real, half-fantasy films. I think for every actor in the 70s and 80s, you kind of end up with a bunch of films that you look back at fondly because they are kind of gloriously trashy as opposed to the current-day films that are just trashy and have no redeeming factors. 

T Abhishek Balaji: Which is your favourite Rajini punchline?

I am going to go with 'Ithu Eppadi irukku?', because it is one of the funniest Rajini scenes and he does it beautifully. In 16 Vayathinile, the first time he sees Sridevi who is Ganthimathi's daughter, his friend asks if that is Ganthimathi's daughter. And it turns out that Sridevi is wearing a dhavani and Rajini looks at the cart where she and her mother are standing and then imagines Ganthimathi wearing the dhavani. He says, "Ava aatha dhavani pottalum nalla thaan irukum." and then he says, "Ithu Eppadi irukku." I really like that punchline.

Tarun: Will there be another star who can achieve pan-India stardom like Rajinikanth?

I am not talking about pan-India stardom, but I don't think the Rajini kind of stardom can be achieved by anyone. Simply because the audience has become fragmented and the kind of films that people watch are all over the place. 

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