Southern Lights: The Man Behind The Superstar

A few thoughts on Rajinikanth’s Deepavali-day interview on Zee Tamil, an “event” that possibly rivals 2.0 because the Superstar so rarely meets the media
Southern Lights: The Man Behind The Superstar

As he walks in, he looks like a benevolent family elder, bald and smiling and with kind eyes. He looks like he should be squeezing that slender frame into an easy chair, and disappearing behind The Hindu. Instead, he's the star of stars, a super star, the Superstar, whose aura shows no signs of dimming. Amazing. Something tells me we'll never see the likes of him again. Big stars, yes. Perhaps even bigger stars. But like him, no!

The host, Archana Chandhoke, begins by saying she wants to look at him like a fan. "Rendu kangal pathaathu," she squeals. Two eyes aren't enough. I am reminded of Papanasam Sivan's composition that says he needs billions of eyes to gaze at the Lord. I don't blame Archana. This rare interview by Rajinikanth is like a divine visitation.

The first question is surprisingly businesslike, about 2.0, the film he (He?) is out to promote. Apart from the characters, he says, there's nothing similar between Enthiran/Robot and 2.0. There's an "excellent message," apparently. Because that's why we go to Shankar movies, right?

At first, the film was planned without songs. Then, one title song was deemed necessary. Then, one "background song". AR Rahman, then, said an album needs at least four songs. But the segue to Rajinikanth's favourite song is more interesting. It's 'Ponaal Pogattum Poda', from Paalum Pazhamum. I'm not surprised, given the star's well-publicised spiritual side. It does make sense that he's partial to this genre that was once called thathuva paadal (philosophical song). But this is the part I find most fascinating. He (being a Maharashtrian from Karnataka) had to find out the meaning of the song from a Tamil friend. How odd is that? I mean, he must have been drawn to the song only through the visuals and the music, then. Suddenly, an anecdote takes the form of a legend.

As they talk, I look at the comments below. One of them says: "I think Rajni Sir is the only star in the world to Act in Black and White, Digital Color, Motion Capture, Animation, 3D movies…Vera Level…" True, no?

I am immensely touched by Rajinikanth's reminiscence of seeing cut-outs of stars and wondering how it would be if he had one of himself. Today, after the tonnes of milk that have drenched his cut-outs over the decades, we can only look back and laugh at the absurdness of this recollection. But to hear him say it – the way he did, as though remembering a distant dream – is very touching. Plus, this terrific finishing touch. When the dream becomes a reality, he says, it isn't that satisfying.

I love it that he still says san-tho-sham, for happiness – and not san-dho-sham, like Tamil speakers generally do. That's one of the many, many things that makes him him.

Wow, he's making a joke about marriage, that the idea of it is more satisfying than the reality. He lumps it with name, fame… Archana asks if it's all Maya. Yes, he says, it's… Maya Maya, Maya, Ellaam Maya, Chhaya Chhaya, Chhaya, Ellaam Chhaya. Okay, so he doesn't say it, but it's what I hear.

His answer to the "simplicity" question is lovely. He travels in a BMW, lives in a Poes Garden house, dines in five-star hotels. Why are you still calling me simple? I'd say it's because how untouched he seems by his fame. How he owns his oldness, his baldness – without feeling the need to present a public self similar to his screen self. Groundedness and a lack of vanity – that's also a kind of simplicity, no?

The next question is about how Rajinikanth embodied the robot in 2.0. I want him to speed through this necessary (promotional) evil and get back to more personal stuff. I keep staring at the two robots at either end of the frame. So if you think about it, there are three Rajinikanths of some shape or form in this room. It's the premise for an Aldous Huxley short story about clones. (So what if Huxley is dead? We're talking sci-fi, after all, aren't we?)

His favourite screenplay is… Baashaa? Hmmm! It's not a bad screenplay at all, but of all the films he's done, including Johny?

The next question is about genres. Archana names Jackie Chan as the representative of the action genre, Charlie Chaplin as the representative of comedy, and for music/dance, she names… Michael Jackson? Not Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire or, closer home, Kamal Haasan? Part of me wonders if I should take offence and file a PIL. Everyone's doing it these days.

Why this question about genres? Because Rajinikanth embodies the "style" genre. How did he hit upon it? Rajinikanth credits K Balachander, his mentor, who told him not to slow down his fast way of walking and talking. But what about Shatrughan Sinha? In older interviews, the Superstar has spoken about how enamoured he was by the Hindi actor's "mannerisms"!I want to hear how he'd made them his own.

The Amy Jackson question/answer is meh, but the next one is fun. Rajinikanth has been paired with Sridevi, Sripriya, Gautami, Khushboo. And his favourite co-star is… 'Fatafat' Jayalakshmi. A super answer. Very few heroines have had the verve to match up with the unique thing he brings to the screen. Radhika is another. I'm glad he mentioned her, too.

His favourite screenplay is… Baashaa? Hmmm! It's not a bad screenplay at all, but of all the films he's done, including Johny?

When money began to pour in, he says he wondered if he were special. Then, he understood it was all just a question of being at the right place, at the right time. Had he entered the industry in the 1960s, challenging MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, he might have bombed. This makes me think. He's probably right. Can you imagine him fitting into a movie of those times, weeping through a P Bhimsingh melodrama (though 'Aarilirundhu Arupathu Varai' does come close)? The times had to change, and K Balachander had to change his way of making movies, to make a Rajinikanth possible.

That incident about Amitabh Bachchan seeing Baashaa, realising that was how Hum should have been made, going to Rajinikanth's house, waiting till he came home, then embracing him and admitting the Tamil remake was so much better… Okay, slight gooseflesh happened.

Still, if you consider the Sivaji=Kamal and MGR=Rajini comparison, there's something touching about a dreamer queuing up to see the film of the star whose place he'd eventually fill.

When asked to remember a whistle-worthy moment (that he experienced with audiences in a theatre), he talks about the Andhaa Kanoon kick. Yesss!

He wanted to buy the house whose gate he opened in the first shot of his cinema career (in Aboorva Raagangal). But before he could get to it, someone else bought it. I hope they held on to that gate. An eBay fortune awaits them.

He stood in line to buy tickets for an MGR film. (He thinks it's 'Thaai Mel Aanai'. That's an MGR song, but not an MGR movie. Does he mean Thaai Sollai Thattathey?) I want this to be a better anecdote, something larger than life. Still, if you consider the Sivaji=Kamal and MGR=Rajini comparison, there's something touching about a dreamer queuing up to see the film of the star whose place he'd eventually fill.

When asked what makes him choose a script, he admits that he looks at the "mass" factor first. It's a cool answer, an honest answer, but it makes me think about the many missed opportunities like Kadaisi Vivasayi, which Manikandan wanted to make with him. At this stage of his career, if he doesn't stretch a bit, when will he?

What makes him emotional? Those who kidnap children and make them beg, and so forth. These people should be shot on the street, he says. It's a good answer. And I'm fairly sure Shankar perked up at this answer. Throw in a second-half flashback, and you have a script.

I wish there had been more of the stretch where Rajinikanth responds to screenshots. An image from Bairavi – the first time he was called "Super Star" – makes him recall how he couldn't attend the 100th-day celebrations because he was shooting with NTR, in Andhra Pradesh. An image from Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu makes him recall how he had no dates, and Sridhar called him personally and said he needed just 12 days, and how other producers moved their dates around and made it possible because it was Sridhar. Thank heavens. Or we wouldn't have had one of the more memorable Kamal-Rajini combinations. The most memorable Kamal-Rajini combination? I'm trying to decide between Avargal and Ninaithaale Inikkum.

Speaking of. I expected – okay, I wanted – a little more pushing about Kamal Haasan. Rajinikanth remembers Kamal Haasan being a big star when he came to films, a craze among kids and college students, and how thrilled he was when he got the opportunity to travel in Kamal's car one day… But then, he just said, Kamal is Kamal and left it there. How has their friendship evolved over the years? Okay, maybe he's not going to go public with so personal a relationship, but wouldn't it have been something if he had?

So Rajinikanth was on the road, and he heard someone scream out "Thalaivaa!" and it was a cry directed at someone else? This has got to be the irony-comedy of the century. Also, a hint of the baton being passed on. Eventually, that title will belong to someone else. We will struggle with the transition, and we will accept it, knowing, in our hearts, that there will never be another like him.

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