After IV Sasi’s demise, a lot has been written about the director’s work in Malayalam cinema – but he made a handful of Tamil films as well, and I thought I’d revisit Kali, released in 1980 and featuring a pre-superstardom Rajinikanth. The film is named after the character he plays, and it’s a name whose variants he’d adopt in many films (Murattukaalai, Kai Kodukkum Kai, and most notably, Mullum Malarum, which was written and directed by J Mahendran, who wrote Kali as well). Seen today, Kali is hardly a director’s showcase. What Sasi does is tell a story, and he tells it competently – but it’s Rajinikanth who keeps you watching.

Seen today, Kali is hardly a director’s showcase. What Sasi does is tell a story, and he tells it competently – but it’s Rajinikanth who keeps you watching

It’s that star-being-born thing. Mullum Malarum was more of an actor showcase, and with Kali, you can see that actor being phased out by a star. This isn’t to say Rajinikanth stopping acting altogether; just that the star began to become more prominent. Contrast the “hero introduction” scenes from Mullum Malarum (released two years earlier) and Kali. Mullum Malarum is about a rough-natured brother’s love for his gentle sister. The title can be read two ways: as a descriptor of the siblings (in which case, it translates as the thorn and the flower), or as a pointer to the end, where the brother softens (even a thorn will bloom).

As the film opens, the impoverished siblings – who are children, at this point – are performing gymnastic tricks on the street, and later, the brother sees the sister begging in front of a car. The boy in the car mocks her, so the brother grabs a brick and smashes a headlight. Boom: the credits appear. This is a great introduction shot, but it introduces a character, not the performer. This is about the brother, not about Rajinikanth, whose first appearance has him seated by the side of a road, watching a rich man insult a labourer. He does what he did as a boy. He grabs a brick and smashes a headlight. But he’s still in character. He’s still advancing the character.

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Now, look at Kali. It opens with a man entering a prison (a lot of films, those days, began with the camera parked outside the gates of a jail) and asking about Kali. He’s told that Kali was released earlier that day. Now we cut to a joyous boy racing through a street, screaming that Kali is out of jail. The people around get excited, too. Unlike the opening of Mullum Malarum, we are being made to anticipate the hero’s appearance, with short bursts of scenes that build up to the hero-introduction scene in a temple, where a priest hands out kungumam (vermilion powder) to devotees standing in line. And then, it happens.

The actor had an animal magnetism those days, before Tamil cinema “tamed” him, made him a Super Star, and tossed him into a severely limiting cage

Suddenly, a hand shoots out. (We don’t see the face, but we know, of course, who it is.) The priest says he’s run out of kungumam, and he leaves to get some. But the owner of the hand won’t wait. He stabs his palm on a trident and applies the blood on his forehead, which is when we see Rajinikanth’s face. What a face! The actor had an animal magnetism those days, before Tamil cinema “tamed” him, made him a Super Star, and tossed him into a severely limiting cage. Anyway, that’s a different story. This piece isn’t about a star’s trajectory. It’s about his introduction, the first time we see him in a movie.

I looked at some of Rajinikanth’s films between Mullum Malarum and Kali. In Thaai Meedhu Sathiyam, a sambar-Western, he’s introduced as he enters his dog in a race. In Dharma Yuddham, he’s seen dancing at a New Year’s party. In Priya, his face emerges from behind a telephone as he picks up a call. Something similar happens in Billa, where we see the back of his head – he’s driving a car, puffing a pipe. Then, as the car comes to a halt in front of mysterious men, we see his face in the side-view mirror. In all these films, we get bits of visual drama, sure, but there’s no build-up, really.

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Annai Oru Aalayam introduces Rajinikanth in a freeze frame, caught in the act of lassoing a horse. The frame unfreezes and he goes on to capture the animal, while the opening credits flash on screen. Fun, yes – but, again, we aren’t left holding our breath for the reveal! In Aarilirundhu Arubadhu Varai, we get one of those “wheel of time” openings. A little boy switches on a printing machine, the camera zooms in on a revolving contraption by the side, the camera zooms out, and we see Rajinikanth. Another actor’s showcase, another non-starry entrance.

I think it’s safe to declare 1980 the year Rajinikanth became… Rajinikanth. That October, we’d get Murattukaalai, and Tamil cinema would never be the same again

The first real hero-intro scene for Rajinikanth is perhaps in Anbukku Naan Adimai, which was released a month before Kali. After a prelude featuring two little boys who are brothers, we cut to the grown-up versions. There’s been a separation. We see the older brother, wondering where the younger one is. Translation: It’s time to meet the leading man! We cut to a cop briefing members of the CID: “His brain outthinks a computer. He can see in the dark. He can hear even an ant move. But he’s a hardcore criminal. His sentence gets over today, and he’s getting released.”

We step into the police station, to meet this hardcore criminal. We see his hand first, as it picks up civilian clothes. A cut. The face is still bent, but we see he’s changed clothes. It’s Rajinikanth, of course. His hand zips up wellington boots. He walks up to sign the register, the camera trailing him, so we don’t yet see the face. The constable hands him a pen. He picks up a stamp pad instead (whistle!), and makes a thumb impression. And then we see his face. (whistle! whistle!) A month later, we get the trident introduction in Kali. I think it’s safe to declare 1980 the year Rajinikanth became… Rajinikanth. That October, we’d get Murattukaalai, and Tamil cinema would never be the same again.

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