Book Title: Rajinikanth: A Life
Rajinikanth, the ‘greatest superstar’ of all time, keeps it remarkably real in real life. When he was promoting his 2010 movie ‘Robot’ with Aishwarya Rai, it would appear that he was deliberately contrasting his own age and plain looks with Rai’s youth and beauty — indeed, he would joke about the absurdity of playing the leading man opposite Rai. Rajinikanth didn’t opt for a wig or hair transplant — that’s the supreme confidence of a man who knows that his fans would love him no matter what. My friends from the South — especially the one who was losing his hair prematurely — loved Rajinikanth for being real, even if he performed fantastical tricks on screen.
How does an actor who catches bullets fired at him between his teeth, or who lights a matchstick by simply glaring at it, keep it real in actual life? This biography provides some clues. Rajinikanth was a commoner who behaved like the common man. It was no act. Film director Muthuraman relates a story about how in the late 1970s, when he was sorting out logistical problems at a rice mill where they were shooting, Rajinikanth simply disappeared — he was eventually found sleeping on a pile of rough paddy sacks. Wouldn’t it hurt his skin? “Before I worked as a conductor, I worked as a coolie in a godown. I used to carry paddy sacks on my back. My skin is used to it and my back to the load,” Rajinikanth answered.
Rajinikanth is a commoner. On screen, he often played the common man — a driver or even a domestic servant. He looks like the man on the street, but his manner — flipping beedis or stopping bullets, with a knowing, wily smile — is that of a confident, empowered commoner.
This, the writer says, came about due to the social and political churn caused by the Self-Respect Movement led by Periyar in Tamil Nadu. The time was ripe for Rajinikanth. “It was in this atmosphere — the air filled with irreverence to caste and class hierarchy — that Shivaji Rao Gaekwad entered Tamil films, with his anti-hero image, nonchalance, defiance of authority and rakish smile,” writes Vaasanthi.
His weird on-screen tricks appealed to fans in Tamil Nadu but not to those in his native Karnataka. Film critic and writer MK Raghavendra says: “That is because the strong working class that emerged after the social juggling that happened in Tamil Nadu during the Dravidian Self-Respect Movement is not there in Karnataka… Rajkumar, who was a big star, played roles that projected Brahminical qualities though he was not a Brahmin.” In Rajkumar’s films, the villains have non-Brahmin names, while he himself would have a name that represented the higher class, says Raghavendra.
Rajini’s fans wished to install him in the Chief Minister’s chair — but he made several missteps, including a dalliance with the BJP, not seen as a party of the downtrodden. This alienated many of his fans, and his own political party never took off.
If you’ve been fascinated by Rajinikanth, you’d like this story of how Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a Kannadiga who spoke Marathi at home, became Tamil cinema’s greatest superstar.