Originally written for http://www.ibnlive.com/
The number of Rajni forwards, SMSes, jokes doing the rounds is simply unbelievable. The popularity of Rajnikanth seems to have just grown year after year. If you were an 80’s child in South India, you would have practically grown up with bloated legends. If you lived elsewhere, then you would have teased your South Indian friends about the kind of over-the-top sunglass flips and cigarette throws that the ‘Madrasi’ films have. Whether you were a fan or no, you sure knew Rajni. The man is simply hard to ignore.
Most of the elite, even in Tamil Nadu, would initially dismiss the rising star as the poor man’s hero. What is all that nonsense, they would say, all those gimmicks. They would rather watch the ‘thinking’ actor Kamal Haasan. For most of the 80’s Tamil Nadu movie buffs were strongly divided into Kamal and Rajni camps. You could very well have a terse sibling battle, not just mild rivalry, if you and your brother disagreed on who was the best. There were fashion wars amongst stars to ape the hairstyle of both the stars. While Kamal over the years maintained the ‘thinking’ cap, what has ensured Rajni’s continued success and growing appeal is the self deprecatory attitude. Rajni doesn’t take himself seriously, on screen or off screen.
But his fans do take him quite seriously. The Rajni Rasikar manthrams (fan clubs) across Tamil Nadu, take it upon themselves to propagate the Thalaivar’s name by engaging in philanthropic activities. It also helps that ‘Thalaivar’ himself does a lot of charity and in his public appearances gives an impression of the man next door. Only with Rajni, it is not just a put on, but who he is.
80’s North Indian audiences were familiar with Rajni, thanks to the handful of Hindi films he did with big names of the time like Amitabh Bachhan, Hema Malini and Sridevi. But most of the 90’s and early 2000’s Rajni stuck to the South. He was the hero of jokes, you had a Santa, Banta from the North and you had Rajni rip offs from the South. So much so that for the North Indian, the definition of South Indian cinema was raunchy numbers by fat women and some crazy gimmicks by a dark guy wearing sunglasses.
One doesn’t know when, but sometime in the early 2000’s Rajni might have decided to play on this perception. Could have struck him after the immense success of his films like Baasha in countries like Japan (yeah the Robot land loves the Dancing Maharaja). The Rajni one saw after that was more and more about the style, the superstar persona. Perhaps the best example of this was Sivaji-the boss. It was the movie that was sort of Rajni’s comeback in North Indian popular perception. Delhi theaters were fully booked for the first several weeks. Non-tamilian were raving after watching the Tamil version of the movie. Compared to some of Rajni’s work, Sivaji was average at best, it had the same one man against the system theme, that Indian cinema has done since time immemorial. But what stood apart in the movie was that the script was secondary, most of it was about gimmicks and more gimmicks, with a few punch dialogues thrown in and Rajni in a modern young man look dancing to some slickly shot numbers. Understanding the language was not necessary to understand the movie and that ensured Sivaji’s success.
Sivaji was also highly self-deprecatory. Rajni almost smiles indulgently at his fans for their continued support to what he seems to know is some tomfoolery passed off with some cool effects and 70’s style larger than life acting. That perhaps arouses the most respect for him, that he accepts who he is perceived to be. He doesn’t pretend to be this intellectual guy who does idiotic things on screen and then gives interviews about how commercial constraints force him to do such stuff. He just does what he knows best and works for his fans and by doing that he proves to be more intelligent than the average image-conscious star. The self deprecation is evident in most of his latest flicks. Enthiran is a step further in the I-know-you-like-me-this-crazy series. And this has just endeared him even more to audiences that traditionally do not watch his movies. The jokes on him are told in an almost ‘oh he is so cool’ fashion.
Infact there was almost equal excitement in Mumbai about Enthiran, as in Chennai. So maybe finally we have one star who is a universal hit in this diverse country.