The last superstar

Posted on December 27, 2012

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These final years of Rajinikanth’s career are historic in their import, for never again will we see the likes of him.

Rajesh Khanna is usually called the first superstar. Never before, we hear, was an actor known to cause such frenzies among fans. Rajinikanth, then, is the last superstar. Never again will an actor rise to such heights of popularity, inspire such depths of devotion. These are the days of stars, certainly, but the sustained aura around movie-going that gave rise to the cult of stars is not there anymore. Our time is too divided. There is too much to do apart from watching movies once, twice, several times, and brag to friends that we were there first day, first show, etching ourselves into the only kind of history available to mere mortals. And superstars of the magnitude of Rajinikanth need that aura. They can be fostered only in eras where movies conflate into myths. What we have, these days, is mere excitement surrounding a new release. When a film is released in hundreds of screens, and when, if you don’t get tickets in one theatre it’s always possible to dream of seats in another, a small stake is driven into the bloodlust of the fan. Today’s stars are commodities stocked in a chain of supermarkets. They can never be superstars.

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Rajinikanth himself may be never know how and why he became a superstar. Others were better looking, better enunciators of dialogue, better performers, better dancers, better clotheshorses. His transition from villain (or at least, a grey-shaded character) to hero is possibly one of the great mysteries of the cinema. He seemed so right as the bad guy. He carried such a charge, he left the hero in the dust. Of Rajinikanth it could be said that he would have become a superstar even if he hadn’t made the transition to hero. There was such excitement when he walked across screen. It felt alive. We often say that an actor has charisma, and we often struggle to describe what it is, what singular aspect constitutes this charisma, but with Rajinikanth you could point to Moondru Mudichu or Avargal and say, “That is charisma.” Science has taught us that two negatives make a positive, and it appears, in Rajinikanth’s case, that all those negatives combined into an electrifying positive. You cannot plan this. It just happens.

Others have tried, oh how they have tried. They tried bringing in mannerisms of their own, their equivalents of the casual hair-combing and the cigarette-popping. They tried appending superstar-like titles to their names. They tried speaking like him, doing films styled along the lines of his films – but nothing worked. They don’t have viral Internet jokes about them. They don’t have a pan-Indian audience. The reason Rajinikanth, in his late years, has suddenly found acceptance by northern audiences may not be why he’s worshipped down south. They treat him like an amusement to be viewed from an arm’s length – he’s so cool, and all that. But whatever the reason, they have accepted him and made hits of his recent films, which went to them dubbed, whereas other stars find it difficult to keep up their hit rate within their home states. And his blockbuster-generating peers in other industries, like Chiranjeevi and Amitabh Bachchan, have either moved to politics or moved on to older roles. They aren’t heroes anymore, and if you’re not a hero, you cannot be a superstar.

Is there another actor, over 60, who continues to play the lead, effortlessly bridging the divide between real-life persona and on-screen character? Clint Eastwood comes to mind, but then, he plays the protagonist in his films, not the hero. However central he is to his films, to his stories, he doesn’t romance younger heroines, he doesn’t beat up a dozen bad guys, he doesn’t navigate mythically heroic trajectories. He plays characters, not archetypes, and if you cannot play archetypes, you cannot appeal to all ages and you cannot be a superstar.  Rajinikanth, in real life, has grandchildren, but on screen, he doesn’t play, as Eastwood does, grumpy old men. Rajinikanth plays virile young men, and however much a certain section of the audience, perhaps those who prefer realism and Clint Eastwood, may laugh, he has on his side millions who do not find it amusing that he’s shaved decades off his age and is putting the moves on a heroine young enough to be his daughter. That is how you know a superstar.

No one henceforth will be able to do that – not here, not in Bollywood, not in Hollywood. To beget a superstar, you need a culture that allows this begetting. You need people deprived of other entertainment, who go to the movies as if coming up for air in the middle of the ocean. You need people who are riveted to what’s on screen and who’s on screen, instead of composing tweets about how the film so far is sucky beyond imagination. You need an audience that believes in the movies as much as devotees believe in their gods. We have become too cynical, and in the face of other entertainments (and also because the movies have become so accessible, sometimes turning up even on our computers), cinema isn’t just that awe-inspiring anymore. Some may point to Salman Khan and his amazing run of late, in this era of Twitter and Facebook no less – but wait till he’s 60 and let’s see if he’s still sought after, if his audience still buys him opposite Ranbir Kapoor’s daughter.

This last of our superstars isn’t going to be on our screens much longer. The kind of movies that make this superstar, that have made this superstar, aren’t going to be possible with a bad back and with failing eyesight and with lungs that won’t keep up with having to batter a bunch of bad guys into a pulp. And he’s too big, too much of a deity, to play merely human roles, the Clint Eastwood roles – that would be like seeing Sachin Tendulkar, during a commercial break, run out to perspiring players with drinks. And even in these last days of Sachin Tendulkar, we want to see him in those commercials for drinks, as the hero, as the star who convinces his fans that this is the drink to be drunk over all other drinks. Rajinikanth, incidentally, has never done that. He has never asked us to buy this brand of toothpaste or that brand of pen. The only thing he’s ever wanted us to buy is his image on screen, and we’ve done that for over three decades now. Thirty years at the top. It’s unthinkable. It will never happen again.

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