I knew it was not going to be an easy task to review a book whose subject is the South Indian film phenomenon, Rajinikanth. When one has been raised on a diet of Bollywood films, the only movie stars one tends to be aware of are Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar of Hindi cinema in the early 70s; Amitabh Bachchan, who reigned supreme in the 80s; or Shah Rukh Khan, who took over the mantle from Bachchan in the 2000s.
I first became aware of Rajinikanth when the film Andha Kanoon was released in ’83. In that he acts alongside Bollywood stars Hema Malini, Reena Roy and Bachchan. The details of the plotline are foggy but I do remember Rajinikanth and failing to understand why this strangely named person was cast. His dialogue delivery sounded clumsy (his Madrasi accent was to be blamed) and he didn’t look glamorous. My reservation notwithstanding, there is no denying Rajini’s star power and Rajini hysteria among fans who have elevated him to an almost godly status.
Journalist Manu Joseph explains this phenomenon in her article “The Revenge of Rajinikanth”: “Rajinikanth is another proof that not everything can be analysed ... There is no reason why Rajinikanth exists, there is no reason why he did not retire as a Marathi bus conductor, and no reason why he instead became the superstar who can have theatres go up in flames if he is ever killed at the end of a film. There is nothing in him or in Tamilians that explains his fame … Some things happen for no reason.”
Coming to film journalist Naman Ramachandran’s bulky tome, Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, the book’s cover, that has a gold sketch of the superstar on a white background, is eye-catching. On the inside flap of the book Ramachandran states that he was “placed on planet Earth with the express purpose of writing” this book. You immediately get the sense that the author is also one of Rajini’s acolytes. Consequently, the biography reads largely as a fawning and verbose tribute to Ramachandran’s idol.
Rajinikanth was born as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in 1950 in Bangalore to parents of Marathi origin. His family, three siblings and parents, had to subsist on their father’s meager pension. Rajini’s older brother ensured that the younger brother’s education continued uninterrupted and also enrolled him in Ramakrishna Ashrama for religious education. There Rajini showed an interest in theatre, performing in religious plays. Around this time, a propagandistic-infused cinematic development was taking place in Madras. A newly formed political party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation), decided to reach out to its electorate through films. DMK aspired to have a separate state that comprised speakers of Dravidian languages, i.e. Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, and to achieve this aim its leader, C.N. Annadurai, wrote scripts in those languages, advocating their party’s socialist ideology. These propaganda tools were quite effective in reaching out to large audiences and made stars out of N.T. Rama Rao, Sivaji Ganesan, M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalitha, eventually propelling them to successful political careers.
After completing his 12th standard in school, Rajini worked odd jobs such as a coolie, a carpenter and an office boy. In 1970, he became a bus conductor at the Bangalore Transport Service (BTS) and in between gruelling work hours occasionally acted in plays under the aegis of the BTS Association, honing his histrionic skills. A couple of well-wishers decided to finance the talented young man’s formal cinema education at the Madras Film Institute. It was a wise move as it was here that Balachander, a highly reputed Tamil film director, discovered Rajini. The unconventional auteur chose him for unconventional reasons. “I was thrilled by the fellow’s fragile health and powerful eyes and his chiseled face … And of course, his skin colour, you know. The dark skin I thought was an advantage, because again it is different from others. All the people who are very fair and all that, they have an easy entry into films. Why shouldn’t I take this boy, give him a good role, and see what can be drawn out of him?” Except that Rajini knew only a smattering of Tamil, Marathi being his mother tongue. But within 20 days he learnt the language and was cast in a small role in Apoorva Raagangal (Rare Melodies), christened Rajinikanth by his mentor Balachander.
Rajinikanth’s debut in Tamil cinema came at a time in the 1970s when its two superstars, M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, were in decline. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh too, his rise coincided with the exit of N.T. Rama Rao. These actors shifted their sights to politics, creating a vacuum which Rajinikanth would fill within a span of three years. To get there, though, Rajini had to traverse a tortuous route of villainy, soft-porn potboilers and playing second fiddle to another rising star of South Indian cinema, the supremely talented Kamal Haasan. By the late 1970s and 1980s Rajini was doing films in four languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, marking his identity by embracing style over performance, getting known for flipping cigarettes into his mouth, punching dialogues and single-handedly bulldozing the bad guys.
Fascinating though this account is, mid-way through the biography one is bogged down by detailed outlines of almost a 100 of Rajinikanth’s films. And in spite of details about his properties, spiritual activities and philanthropic work, Rajini’s personality and the phenomenon that he is never emerge. Only a book reviewer with a looming deadline can be forced to read the book in its entirety.
Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography
By Naman Ramachandran