I have written a lot about Rajini before that anything I write here might seem like a mere footnote. But let me try to do justice to my favourite onscreen hero. There are two films which played a vital role in my fascination for the big screen. One was Sathyaraj’s Jeeva and the other was Rajinikanth’s Raja Chinna Roja. These films were my early big screen impressions.
But I want to travel back in time to Aboorva Ragangal. A shabby young man makes a blink and miss appearance in a stellar ensemble. People would have barely noticed him in a cast comprising of Srividhya ,Kamal Hassan and Major Sundarrajan. Maybe his mentor knew he was opening the gates of Tamil Cinema to the man who would eventually redefine Superstardom.
He wasn’t a conventional hero by any sense. He had to rip apart everything that defined a Tamil hero and set a precedent. To his credit, Rajini spent most of his early years as an attentive understudy. He was naturally gifted with the aura of the showman – a trait which was very evident in the films in which Kamal and Rajini shared space. He would complement Kamal’s understated performances with exaggerated applause-worthy showmanship with Deepak of Ninaithale Innikum being the pinnacle. He is entrusted with only one task in an otherwise heavy musical – to be a joyous deviation from all the serious happenings in the film and he does that admirably well. The cigarette flipping scene still evokes laughter. Who would have thought that there would be a scene where Rajini would be scared to flip a cigarette?
Rajini is perhaps one of the most underrated actors in Tamil Cinema. We often overlook the effort needed to bring in that irresistible energy on screen. His early days consisted of some brilliantly understated performances. You don’t have to look past Mullum Mallarum to see what Rajini can do as an actor. People often state 6 il irundhu 60 varai, Thalapathy when mentioning about films where we see Rajini as a full-fledged actor but my favourite Rajini film from his early years has to be Nallavanuku Nallavan. A grossly underrated film where Rajini shines as a fabulous performer. That he has the ever-reliable Radhika at the other end to complement him is an added bonus.
Even in films where Rajini the star hides Rajini the actor, there would be isolated scenes of sheer brilliance where the actor would sneak out of his hiding place. The scene in Anamalai where he reprimands his daughter and song that follows is big screen delight. There are few more gems like these if you are willing to look closely. Even recently despite the ebb and flow of Kabali as a film Ranjith successfully gave us a glimpse of Rajini the actor.
The Villain and the Anti-Hero
I sometimes wonder if we had unknowingly let go of one of the greatest Tamil Cinema Villain of all time by making him a Superstar. He was one of the most unapologetic and remorseless villains I have ever seen on screen. He makes you almost root for him with his antics. You know he is the bad guy but he lures you in every single time he becomes the evil man. Even though the early impressions of paratai and Ramanathan were fabulous my eternal favourite has to be the one role he played after he became a hero – Chakravarthy from Netrikan – he is delightfully charming as the evergreen playboy. In this one too he is unapologetic until the very end where a forced apology note is handed out to appease our conservative audience. That he is pitted against Sarita and himself makes it even more enticing. The son is almost non-existent until that pivotal confrontation scene. Moondru Mudichu is another non-conventional film where the anti-hero of the first half gets a taste of his own medicine when he is cornered by the unforeseen turn of events. Mana vinaigal yarudono still makes me shiver in fear. Perhaps we have lured him into the safe template by letting go of the bad guy. Is it a boon or a bane? Frankly, I don’t have answers.
As I said earlier Rajini silently shattered the norms set out for Tamil Cinema’s leading hero. He wasn’t fair skinned. He was dark, unconventional and rugged. He was essentially an outsider who went on to become the ideal manifestation of all our suppressed emotions. He was a version of the angry young man. No other leading hero consistently aped Amithabh as perfectly as Rajini did. A string of lone crusader films where he became the voice on behalf of the whole. Even as he was surging forward- a sudden diversion stunned us all. Thillu Mullu a film which took us by surprise and caught us off guard. In hindsight, the film would have surprised Rajini himself. He discovered something beyond style and action. He discovered the childish innocence blended with ample doses of humour, With that, he had unwittingly laid down the perfect formula for a mass hero. A formula which still holds good.
Thankfully he didn’t try to be MGR. MGR was a different phenomenon who could not be replicated. Rajini carved his own niche with style and substance until he discovered the template which is still the industry benchmark. Everybody has tried to ape his style with little or no success. The number of times the Baasha template has been repeated says it all. The only hero who has been reasonably successful with this formula among today’s heroes is Vijay. But the one who laid the benchmark for entertainment is Rajini.
He had already become a superstar but the one film which reaffirmed this fact was Annamalai. The trademark superstar music. The scene where he walks in as the new president signalled the passing the baton from MGR to Rajinikanth. The superstar became the rightful heir to MGR’s throne as the undisputable king of the box office. I adore Baasha but the euphoria before and after Annamalai was unmatched. I saw it 4 times in theatres just for that one scene. He crushed box office records with each film. It was during this period that he consistently broke the fourth wall to talk to his audience. Every film became a festival as he became more and more elusive.
Cheating Time : Very few stars have cheated time like Rajinikanth did. Though I have my own inhibitions regarding Kabali Kaala was a treat as he let his eyes take over in a subtle yet passionate potrayal. He stepped aside to let his costars take the limelight. But we cannot imagine Kaala without Rajinikanth.
The resurrection of Kaali :
For me, true Superstar wave lasted until Shivaji. That was the last true Rajini Film. Every other film after that has been an unnecessary stretch aimed at capitalizing brand Rajini. Though there is absolute pleasure in seeing Rajini on screen. The euphoria and the excitement has been missing for a while. Thankfully he is back with a bang as Kaali again in Petta. Now Can’t wait for Darbar which promises to be a delightful tribute to Rajini’s stardom.
Thank you for entertaining us all these years.