The biggest film event in Tamil Nadu last week was the re-release of Rajinikanth's Baashha. The film was certified by the censors on December 31, 1994. It was in theatres a couple of weeks later. Twenty-two years on, it's still drawing crowds.
At one level, it's a bit inexplicable. At a time films can be streamed on your computer or phone, what makes people fork out money to watch a re-release? In the old days, we heard of theatres re-releasing Sholay every time there was a lull in their fortunes, but that was largely before the advent of home-viewing. The Mughal-e-Azam re-release had a reason. It was touched up with colour. Recently, films of MGR (Aayirathil Oruvan), Sivaji Ganesan (Karnan) and Jayalalitha (Sooriyagandhi) have been trotted out in digitally spruced-up versions. Of these, Karnan became an unexpected blockbuster – but again, you could attribute it to a generation that was not around when the film was first released, in 1964. You could say it was the attraction of watching the larger-than-life Sivaji Ganesan on the big screen, where he rightfully belonged.
But what explains the draw of Baashha? Who has not seen it? More importantly, who has been allowed to forget it? If you're a Tamil-movie watcher, give yourself this test. What's the name of the theatre in front of which Rajinikanth's opening number plays out, and what are the films playing there? (Sathya theatre. Jurassic Park and The Other Woman.) After whom is the hero's auto stand named? (MGR.)
A full seven years before Sunny Deol went near a hand pump in Gadar, here was Rajinikanth, tearing off its handle in the explosive pre-interval action sequence.
The memes won't allow us to forget Baashha. The movies won't either. The film's dialogues have inspired the title of the 2016 GV Prakash starrer Enakku Innoru Per Irukku, and the upcoming Suriya vehicle, Thaana Serndha Koottam. The antagonism between Baashha and Anthony (Raghuvaran) was hat-tipped in a song in the 2013 rom-com Vanakkam Chennai, where the bickering couple refer to one another as snake and mongoose, Akhtar and Sachin, Anthony and Baashha. And the film's punch line – Naan oru thadava sonnaa nooru thadava sonnaa maadhiri (If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times) has passed from quote to legend to parody.
We remember the trivia. We remember Rajinikanth's swag – the gold-dusted jacket, the pince-nez sunglasses he wore a full five years before Laurence Fishburne took this look worldwide with The Matrix.
And yet, here I was, with an audience hooting and cheering as though it were the first-day-first-show of a brand new Rajinikanth movie. As hard as it is to explain pop-culture phenomena, the enduring popularity of Baashha is easy to understand: it's the film that made Rajinikanth Rajinikanth, as we know him today. It's the film that transformed him from mere hit dispenser to something mythical on the movie landscape. Baashha isn't just a movie. It's the telephone booth that Rajinikanth stepped into and emerged a superstar. People sometimes wonder how long Rajinikanth's health will allow him to keep playing a superhero, but the rapturous reception to Baashha suggests that even if the Super Star were to retire tomorrow, we'll never really miss him on screen. Who wants new releases when there are re-releases?
It was strange watching Baashha on screen again. There's a brand tie-in with OLA, so the autos on screen have the OLA sticker – but the rest of the film is a time capsule from the 1990s.
When the letters forming S-U-P-E-R S-T-A-R at the beginning was still something of a novelty.
When characters used to exclaim with delight that they've passed their exams. (Today, not being schooled is something of a badge of honour.)
When Nagma was a thing.
When the use of the word "figure" to denote the girl one liked was still rare. (It's in the song Style style dhaan.)
When a huge "mass" star could still be beaten up on screen.
When the dual persona of the hero could still be a surprise. How easily we were able to sniff out this meek-man-with-a-past formula in last year's Vijay hit, Theri. But with Baashha, there was puzzlement. Why was this man not responding to any provocation? What was his secret?
And when the audience was divided into Kamal fans and Rajini fans, when conversations such as this were the norm.
Kamal fan: What's new in Baashha? Our man has already played a Mumbai don in Nayakan. Plus, that whole angle about the hero's stepmother and stepsisters? Hello! Heard of a film called Sathya?
Rajini fan: Of course! Your man copied it from this Hindi film Arjun, right?
Kamal fan: It's not a copy. It's an "adaptation." And look who's talking! Isn't Baashha lifted from Hum?
Rajini fan: That reminds me. When was the last time your guy acted in a Hindi film? Every one of them flopped, right?
Kamal fan: At least he isn't doing measly supporting roles there. He's doing great films here. Thevar Magan. Gunaa. Mahanadhi.
Rajini fan: But who's watching these films? Apart from you, I mean!
Kamal fan: Your man, for one. The line that justifies Baashha's taking to crime: Oru ayogyan kitterndhu appavi janangalai kaapathara yaarayum ayogyan-nu solla maattanga. (You're not a criminal if you take to crime to help others.) What is it but a rehash of Nayakan's epic "Naalu perukku nalladhu senjaa…" (Nothing is wrong if it helps others.)
And on and on it would go. Had Twitter existed then, we'd have had World War III.
Disclaimer: This conversation is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, especially present-day film critics, is purely coincidental.
You can watch Baashha on the Rajshri Tamil channel here