How do you solve a problem like Rajini?

Posted on July 30, 2016


Reflections on the week leading up to “Kabali,” and questions about the years ahead.

After the deafening hype, Rajinikanth’s Kabali opened bookings last week, and this created a fresh round of hype. People were glued to their computer (or phone) screens, waiting for theatres to announce show timings. Usually, most theatres open bookings on the same day, but this time, it was a staggered affair. One theatre would pop up on or, and a few seconds later, every single seat would be sold out. Then another theatre would follow. Then another. We were left wondering if someone was hoarding these tickets – maybe the theatres themselves. Because unless you are thalaivar, internet speed in India is certainly not fast enough for thousands of seats to get booked in a matter of seconds. We began to hear news that theatres were selling tickets at the counters at five, ten times the price. One thousand rupees, someone said. Five thousand, said another. Many people looked at me enviously and said, “What’s your problem? You probably have ten tickets!”

But here’s the thing. I didn’t. I contacted people at theatres. I contacted PR people. I told them I needed just one ticket for the first show on the first day, and I waited. This is what many “insiders” did, the ones that were supposed to have easy access to tickets. Till Thursday morning, I did not have a ticket. But as the day went on, people I’d contacted began to get back. One ticket from here. Two from there. Suddenly, I was the one giving away tickets. I have never seen this happen with any other film, and it’s understandable why so many news channels dispatched reporting teams to Chennai to record this phenomenon. I was invited to be a panellist on one of these shows, and a reporter told me that she had come down with her team from Bangalore to Chennai. They’d been doing Kabali stories for a week. She said. “The TRPs are unbelievable.”

Hosted by

“Unbelievable” is a good word to use in this context. The Delhi-based channel anchors would have used another: “Incomprehensible.” Many hours of air time were spent trying to understand “the Rajini phenomenon.” I admit it is hard. I’ve heard it was this way with the Beatles, where fans would begin screaming excitedly at the sight of them. I’ve seen this happen with the second trilogy of Star Wars films – in Attack of the Clones, specifically, when Yoda whipped out a light sabre and got ready to battle Count Dooku. I saw the theatre erupt with cheer when, in the first instalment of the rebooted Star Trek series, Leonard Nimoy made an appearance as Spock. Spock and Yoda are characters that have endeared themselves to us over years, and this partly explains the Rajinikanth phenomenon. When someone has been on our screens for 41 years, he probably becomes as mythical as Yoda or Spock.

He’s equally remote. Like Yoda and Spock, he exists only in the movies, either on screen or on TV. Otherwise, he’s… who knows? Maybe he’s in the Himalayas, as he’s often supposed to be. Maybe he’s right here in Chennai, playing with his grandchildren. For such a mega-mega-watt star, it’s amazing how out-of-sight Rajinikanth is during the intervals between his films. Doesn’t he travel? How is he not spotted more often at airports or hotels? Or does he don a disguise? Plus, he doesn’t do ads. He doesn’t do TV shows, hobnobbing with commoners dreaming of becoming millionaires. He doesn’t even promote his films. I mean, who does that (or doesn’t)? In the whole wide world, do you know another star who won’t give interviews? The mystique (or mystery) that stars had before the era of 24×7 media – only Rajinikanth has that today. This, too, explains why a sighting – even if only on a movie screen – becomes such a hysterical event.

Finally, on Friday, the event that is Kabali opened. The box office went through the roof. (Sample headline on Saturday morning: “Kabali smashes all box office records, collects over Rs 40 crore.”) Heck, even carried a story titled “How Rajinikanth and Kabali mania swept India.” But reactions weren’t encouraging. The film was too slow, some said. The film was too un-Rajini-like, said others. Most agreed that the director, Pa. Ranjith, did not know how to “use” a star of this magnitude (though the narrative, at least in the urban centres, began to change from Monday). . Then came this question: Is there any filmmaker today who can make a Rajinikanth movie that will satisfy everyone? In the 1990s, he was just a superstar. Today – thanks to all those Internet memes, thanks to Japan making a blockbuster out of Muthu, thanks to his films being promoted on the outside of airplanes – he is something else: you’d have to coin a hyperbolic word to explain what he is today. With the exception of Shankar, who works in an equally hyperbolic zone, is there anyone else who can “handle” a Rajinikanth movie?

People keep trying. Rajinikanth’s daughter tried to make an animated superhero out of him in Kochadaiiyaan. The film bombed. KS Ravikumar, a director from an older generation, tried shoehorning Rajinikanth into British India in Lingaa. The film bombed. And now, a promising new-gen filmmaker like Ranjith says he wanted to present Rajinikanth as an actor, the actor everyone admired in films like Mullum Malarum. But Mullum Malarum was released in 1978, when Rajinikanth was just… an actor. His “persona” hadn’t yet calcified. Two, there were audiences then that were ready to watch a slow-paced, character-driven drama. If we are able to appreciate Rajinikanth’s acting in this film, it’s because of this pace, the attentiveness with which the character was written. Today’s audience is completely different. They begin to hoot the second a film slows down. They just seem to want variations of “Rajini style.” The slo-mo walk. The staccato laugh. A few punch lines. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then there’s his age. Rajinikanth has finally begun to look old on screen. Indian audiences (and especially Tamil audiences) have always demonstrated an exceptional ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to their male stars (never female) enacting characters who are a few decades younger, but who do you cast opposite him? In Kabali, Radhika Apte, who plays his wife, looks like his granddaughter. None of this will matter, of course, when it comes to Rajinikanth’s next release, which is Shankar’s sequel to Endhiran/Robot (even if the heroine of this 65-year-old star is, gulp, 24-year-old Amy Jackson). But afterwards? What kind of story do you write around a star who’s nearing 70, whose fans still keep imagining him as a young man who can do anything, everything? Going back to myth, I keep thinking of the Sita swayamwara episode from the Ramayana, where mighty kings try to lift that big bow, and keep failing. Like Sita, Rajinikanth (and his fans) keep waiting.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2016 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.