One of the commentators on a post about Kabali mentioned that people are excited because it looks like it might be similar to an old hit, Baasha. And what do you know, Baasha is on googleplay! So I was able to watch it!
So, is THIS my first real “Rajnikanth” movie? I think so? I saw him in Thalapathi already, and was very impressed. But, while he was definitely the main character of that film, he was surrounded by similarly strong characters (it is a Mani Ratnam movie, after all. He is all about clearly drawn complex characters). So, there was Rajnikanth, but also Shobhana, Mamootty, and even Arvind Swamy.
Baasha is all Rajnikanth, all the time. There are other characters, but they are just there to support him and give him obstacles he can overcome, they don’t really have their own conflicting goals. But what I am not sure about is if this kind of “Rajnikanth” movie is the norm, or just what people think of as the norm?
Like, for instance, I know when people say “Shahrukh Khan Movie”, they mean a light NRI romance like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or DDLJ or Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. But, as a Shahrukh Superfan, I know that these kinds of roles actually make of a fairly small part of his filmography. He started as an art actor, and did a fair number of negative roles and parts in action movies. And even after DDLJ turned him into an NRI romantic lead, at least 50% of his output continued to be action movies, comedies, anything but straight romance. What people think of as “typical Shahrukh movies” are actually just “the 3 movies that first made him a superstar”.
So, anyway, that’s my first question about Baasha. Is this really what 90% of Rajnikanth films are like, or is it just that there were a few really popular and successful Rajnikanth action movies like this and now everyone thinks of them first when they hear “Rajnikanth” but actually more of his output is like Thalapathi?
The thing is, I just don’t see how movies like Baasha would be sustainable. Baasha itself was great fun. It’s got a great hook to the plot (which I will spoil in a bit), some cool lightening effects in the fight scenes, fun songs, and lots of whistle-worthy moments. But it seems like you would need to give Rajnikanth a chance to sort of re-charge his batteries between roles like this, and you would also need to give the audience a chance to miss him, you know? Surely he must mix in some more thoughtful performances and more balanced ensemble pieces along with the movies like this one?
And then the other part of it is, this movie really works because it had such a clever, simple idea behind it. I imagine there is a limited number of clever simple ideas like this in the world to support a Rajnikanth film. And without that basis, this whole movie would have collapsed like a souffle.
Of course, I can’t give away that simple idea without spoiling a twist, so I can’t talk about it yet. But I can talk some more about Rajnikanth performance. When I saw Thalapathi, I was really struck by the amazing energy he has onscreen. It was electric, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d heard the jokes and stuff about the way he puts on sunglasses or flips his shirt or whatever. But what I didn’t realize was that those little flippy fast gestures are part of a larger whole, a bigger sense of sort of sizzling power surges going all through him. To put it in metaphors, if Amitabh is Thunder, all deep and slow and rumbly, then Rajnikanth is lightening, all fast and shocking and then gone in a moment.
The other performances, meh. Nagma was technically the heroine, and I liked that her character was never stupid (usually a big flaw in action movie heroines), but she didn’t really have much to do. She was the sexy western rich girl who falls for our poor taxi driver hero, and disappears for huge swaths of the film until she is needed again for plot purposes. Their romance was kind of nice though. They fell in love through talking, unusual for an Indian movie (especially an action film!). She is a confident cheerful fast talking young woman who gets a kick out of chattering with her taxi driver Rajnikanth. It’s not his fight skills or appearance which attract her, it’s his fast way with words. And then later, his honesty and nobility when he puts up with prosecution by her father’s thugs.
(Also, turns out I have seen her before, she was Shahrukh’s love interest in King Uncle. An even smaller role than she had in Baasha)
On the other hand, Rajnikanth never seems terribly interested in her. Which is fine, I would rather my action hero be all noble and accepting of the woman who decides she is in love with him, than all stalker-y and wearing her down through his constant overtures. I did like the first time he softened, when she announced she would remain in the cemetery in the rain until he came to take her home, because she wouldn’t ride in anyone else’s auto. It reminded me of the similar scene and moment in Love when Revathy finally wears down Salman’s reserve by waiting in the rain for him. What I like in both these movies is that the reaction isn’t a chest pounding “Ha! You waited for me!” moment, but instead a “I can’t believe you sat in the rain for hours! I’m worried about you!”
Of Rajnikanth’s family, I liked all the actors and their characters fine. I liked that of his two sisters, one got to have a love marriage to the boy she wanted and the other got to go to medical school. His brother was okay, it was supposed to be the Shashi role in Deewar, but the character didn’t get quite enough screen time really set up that dynamic. His stepmother was the one that impressed me most, both as an actress and a character. It looks like the actress had been acting as a heroine and then later as a character actor and mother for decades, so it makes sense she would know how to make the most of what she was given. But I also really liked how they handled the character, you got a sense that she was the one Rajnikanth was closest to and most open with in his home, their few interactions really helped you understand how they worked together to raise his younger siblings, and how she is the only one who is ever able to see through to his vulnerabilities.
The villain was okay, and I just realized he was the father in Anjali! Very different kind of part. He didn’t actually have that much to do in this movie, there was a whole build up to their confrontation, but we didn’t really see his side of the build up much. But he did have a convincing “oooo, this is a BAD GUY!” kind of charisma to him, once he finally did show up onscreen.
Okay, I think I have to talk about the clever simple idea that underlies the movie now. So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
It’s actually the same idea that underlies Dilwale, in its bare bones. And, just like Dilwale, it’s a brilliant way to deal with an aging star as your hero. We meet and spend time with Rajnikanth as a simple taxi driver in Chennai. He is kind of the unofficial big brother to all the drivers, we see him giving money for medical treatments or dowries, whatever they need. And he is the real big brother to his step-siblings, putting them through school and dreaming of the day he will achieve his father’s dream of having one son a police inspector, one daughter married into a good home, and the other in medical school. He is considerably older than them, and his stepmother worries because he has wasted his own youth trying to ensure their happiness, but Rajnikanth brushes off her concerns.
We get to know him as this respected guy, a leader, but not a leader because he is feared or violent, but because he is kind and wise and just. His family loves him, his fellow taxi drivers love him, because he is good to them. It’s nice, a reminder that a community leader can be more than just a thug, and that you can respect someone without fearing them.
It’s also a brilliant way to use the gravitas of an older star. Someone like Rajnikanth can convince you that people would love and respect him just because he is him, not because they think he is particular powerful or dangerous. Which brings me to Dilwale!
Just like Dilwale, the twist is that the peaceful calm respectable and beloved older guy used to be a dangerous terrifying gangster! And his old friends who still work with him also used to be terrifying gangsters! But his family doesn’t know, and everyone who just met him recently thinks he is this non-violent saint.
Dilwale was an SRKajol picture, so the reveal of his past was all caught up in his tragic love story and stuff. But Baasha is a Rajnikanth picture, so his past isn’t related to any one thing, but to an accumulation of events that force him back into what he used to be. In both films, once the past is revealed, we know our hero will triumph and everything will turn out fine, so the action scenes are just a joyful series of successes. The real concern is with the emotions that come up from the reveal. In Dilwale, it is the question of whether SRKajol will ever get back together; in this, it is whether Rajnikanth’s new life with his family and community can survive the reveal of his past life.
The basic concept seems so simple, “what if a simple respected working man used to be a gangster and no one knows it?” But it allows for all kinds of brilliance. For instance, when you are dealing with Rajnikanth in 1995 (or Shahrukh in 2015), you know they are going to win all their fights. That’s never the question for the audience. And making them this past superhero gangster type means it is never a question for the characters either. Their old friends, and they themselves, know they will always win the fight. The tension is in the question of SHOULD they fight.
Second, you get two see two different sides of the superstar. The calm chatty friendly happy one, and the burning with anger gangster in the flashback. Much more interesting than if it was strictly linear, and also a nice way to acknowledge the different types of their appeal.
Thirdly, it allows the filmmakers to have some fun and essentially make two different movies. Which is pretty common in Indian film, to have a big shift at intermission. But this is a really really big shift. With the idea that our “present” hero has given up absolutely everything from his past, that means his look, his mannerism, his location, his enemies, his allies, everything is different!
In Baasha, Rajnikanth gets this cool criminal beard and fitted suit look in the flashbacks. I’m guessing this is the look that the Kabali posters were riffing on? Is it a standard thing for gangsters in southern movies to have beards, or is it just Baasha and Kabali? Or just Rajnikanth when he is a gangster?
He also gets a cool criminal backstory within a backstory. It’s kind of a narrative sandwich. Present day Rajnikanth remembers past king gangster Rajnikanth, when past king gangster Rajnikanth in turn was telling the story of when he was past-past simple innocent happy boy Rajnikanth. So really, present day simple peaceful Rajnikanth is what simple innocent happy boy Rajnikanth was always destined to be, the gangster part of his life just got in the way in the middle.
Oh, and very nice social message of communal harmony! Past-past Rajnikanth was best friends with a Muslim boy, Cheran Raj, from the same neighborhood. When the gangsters (lead by a Christian) moved into their area, Cheran Raj stood up to them while Rajnikanth preached peace. Cheran was killed, and Rajnikanth decided to get revenge on his murderers, thus starting down the path of violence. Only, complication, Rajnikanth’s own father worked for the gangsters and felt a sense of loyalty to them because they had helped his family when he started out. It ends with Rajnikanth’s Dad dying saving his life, the gangster in jail, and Rajnikanth swearing to move back to Chennai where his stepmother and half-siblings are living and fulfill his father’s dreams for them. Great gangster origin story, but also a nice little message that he is doing all of this for his Muslim friend (which also explains his “Baasha” nickname, since I think that is usually a Muslim term? But it is in honor of his friend). And that the good guys and bad guys are all mixed together in terms of communities, with the head gangster being Christian, but Rajnikanth’s Hindu father working for him.
Speaking of social messages, the female characters get a bit of a short-shrift in this film, but what we see of them is very nice. Like I said, one sister gets to marry the boy she loves and the other gets to go to med school. The sister who gets married was always marked to be a married, not just because it was her father’s dream, but because she was terrible at school and always wonderful in the house. Only, before Rajnikanth can find her a husband, he sees her at a sweet shop with a boy. I was all set for him to be the angry big brother type, but instead he just kind of scares them a little, and then immediately backs off and says he will go see the boy’s parents and arrange the wedding. So nice!
And the other sister, the one who wants to go to medical school, there was never any talk about marrying her off or anything like that, they were all super encouraging of her dreams and successes. Excellent!
The heroine, barely there though she was, had some strong scenes, confronting her father over his treatment of Rajnikanth, telling Rajnikanth how she felt, and she also gets the final lines of the film. Standing in for all of society, she is the one who forgives Rajnikanth for his violence. It would have worked better if they had built up to it a bit more, made us think that Rajnikanth cared a little about what she thought of him, or feared her disapproval, his sudden turn to her at the end asking if she still wants to marry him after seeing what kind of man he is sort of came out the blue. But the bigger point is that she is the one he asks. Not his police officer brother, or even his stepmother. The young woman in the film is given the ultimate power of judgement on behalf of society.
And then there is a reprise of the hit song from the film. Which I am pretty sure I have seen in the background of other movies at some point (very distinctive costuming). And one thing I can say for sure, Rajnikanth is a much much better dancer than Amitabh.