Hindi/Tamil/Kannada/Malayalam/Telugu Film 101: Rajinikanth’s Life, Part 1 Bus Conductor to Movie Star

Well, I did it!  I finally finished my Rajinikanth biography!  Now I just have the Savitri, Hema Malini, and Shashi Kapoor biography on my to do pile.  Plus various other film books that aren’t star memoirs.  Anyway, now I am ready to very tentatively try to put together some kind of narrative of Rajinikanth’s life, based on the movies I have watched (far more than I realized!), and this book, and information I gathered elsewhere

Disclaimer: I have only started studying the southern Indian film industries in the past couple of years.  The amount that I do not know is staggering in comparison to the amount I do know.  This is a very very general starting point for those who are even newer to south Indian film and know even less than I do.  The purpose is simply to put the facts of common knowledge in a concise logical order.

 

 

 

The problem with Rajinikanth is that he is still working.  That is, any book written about him is necessarily unfinished, because his life as a public figure is unfinished.  Which is also probably why there are surprisingly few books written about him, not worth it when anything you write could be out of date a week after it is published.  So I read one of the two most recent and most accurate books available and it gave me some vague grounding.  But not as much as it could have, because this book was a frustrating experience of missed opportunities.  The author, Naman Ramachandran is an experienced and well known film critic.  He got unbelievable access, lengthy interviews with everyone from Rajinikanth’s best friend from his bus driver days in Bangalore to his Hindi film co-star Deepa Sahi to K Balachander himself.  And he did a fair amount of research, lining up photos and dates.  But he never really put it all together into a logical narrative of the changes in Rajinikanth’s life, and the changes in India, and how they worked together to make Rajinikanth “RAJINIKANTH”.  He spent most of his time distracted by analyzing the films in a somewhat old-fashioned psychological way, no effort made to provide a larger social context for the films or Rajinikanth’s stardom.  FRUSTRATING!  But the good thing is that this book gave me some very basic time lines for how things happened and where they happened.  And revealed some parts of Rajinikanth’s biography that surprised me (although I am sure they are old-hat to most people).

Image result for rajinikanth the definitive biography

(This book)

The first thing I found interesting was how all-Indian Rajinikanth is as a person.  His family is Maharashtrian, but were living in Bangalore in Karnataka at the time he was born.  He was named Shivaji Rao in honor of Chattrapathi Shivaji, the great Maharashtrian hero. And of course he would go on to be most famous as an actor in the Tamil industry, living in the Tamil Nadu city of Chennai.

I was also surprised to learn that Rajinikanth’s father was a police constable.  So all those heroic police officers in his movies, and all those police station scenes, that would have been old hat to him.  In addition, as the son of a police constable, Rajinikanth was raised at a far lower level of society than most of his fellow film actors.

But Rajini was the youngest in the family, and therefore the most privileged.  He benefited from the support, financial and otherwise, of his older brother Satyanarana.  Rajini was able to achieve more education than his siblings, and eventually a better job, passing the civic exam to be made a ticket collector on a city bus.  And, with education, came educated interests.  He found a theater group and quickly became addicted to working in their plays.

What really surprised me was that Rajini applied for, was accepted, and succeeded at an advanced acting academy, the Madras Film School.  The school itself I found fascinating, it had separate schools, teachers, and student groups for each of the language groups, Tamil and Telugu and Malayalam and Kannada.  Rajinikanth was in the Kannada group.  Rajinikanth had just enough money to survive while in school, thanks to the generosity of his older brother and his friends who lent him the funds to survive.  And a friend he made at school, a classmate in the Telugu group, who let him stay in a lean to shelter on his family’s terrace in Madras.  It was a hard scrabble beginning, but it was also education and training.  Rajini didn’t succeed just on instinct and inner strength, he succeeded because he had the opportunity to learn.  And to make connections.  It was after a speech at the film school that Rajini was able to introduce himself to K Balachander.

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(Some current students at the now Chennai Film School, run by the state government)

One thing I got from this book, because the author repeated it over and over again without ever really exploring further, is that Tamil cinema was in a transition point in the 1970s similar to the transition point it is in now (and which Hindi film is in as well).  Shivaji Ganesan and MGR had ruled the film industry for decades.  But they were both slowing and getting older.  The question was, which two stars would replace them?  And it had to be two stars, because Tamil cinema had a strong dynamic of the “class” and the “mass” star.  With no mixing between the two.

The “class” star was already picked and on his way up, former child star Kamal Haasan.  He was also already working with K Balachander, the acknowledged master director of the era.  But the “mass” star had still not been identified.  And at the time that Rajinikanth was first cast in films, it was never thought that it would be him.

K Balachander molded Rajinikanth more than anyone else.  He gave him his name, at a Holi party, for which reason Rajinikanth used to come for his blessings every Holi day.  Shivaji Rao was a good film name, only the Tamil audience wouldn’t accept a second Shivaji.  So Rajinikanth was selected.  Balachander cast him first in a small role in Apoorva Rangagal, playing the drunken deadbeat husband of the heroine who appears late in the film.  His only dialogue scenes are with Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth’s first onscreen co-star.  It was Balachander who encouraged Rajinikanth to value his natural speed of movement, of dialogue delivery, his odd memorable gestures and turns of phrases.  He also encouraged him to stay on set whenever he could and watch the other actors work and learn from them, to never drink while on call, and just generally to work hard and seriously and make the most of his opportunities.  He even told him to learn Tamil.  Which Rajinikanth did, within a matter of weeks.

Image result for rajinikanth apoorva raagangal

(Kamal, Balachander, and Rajinikanth)

That’s what Rajinikanth did, he made the most of his opportunities, he worked hard and delivered.  One thing that comes through in this book, from all the interviews with his co-stars and his directors, is that Rajinikanth succeeded through hardwork and careful planning as much as luck or talent.  He was immediately noticeable on screen, and other directors were quick to pick him up in similarly small and slightly grey roles.  He was also willing to run back and forth between Kannada and Tamil and Telugu films as needed.  And to work extremely hard and carefully, literally dozens of films in a year.  Where another young actor might have ignored advice, avoided hardwork, priced himself to high, any number of things, Rajinikanth listened and watched and worked and, very slowly, he started to climb up the ladder of success in the southern industries.

Ramachandran gets a bit distracted by showing the falsehood of the legend that Rajinikanth started as a villain.  But I find it more interesting to think about where that legend began.  I suppose it is more dignified and dramatic to think of Rajinikanth as a villain turned good, kind of like his character in a lot of his movies.  But the reality is, he was a hardworking second lead who, slowly, came to over-shadow the real leads of the film.  There was no one particular film that made him into a hero rather than a villain, or a star instead of just an actor.  The audience responded to his gestures, his dialogue, all the rest of it.  Even when he was in the role of the heroine’s brother, the hero’s side-kick, the villainous rapist, he stole the film.

What I found very interesting was the way the southern industries interacted and failed to interact as shown by Rajinikanth’s career.  He progressed more rapidly in Tamil films (partly because of Balachander’s support), but in Kannada films he was still just a villain or a second lead.  Leading to conversations like a fellow actor telling the director “he’s a hero in Tamil, let’s try and make sure he doesn’t lose this fight too badly”.

One thing Ramachandran is very clear and sure about is how the LACK of interaction with the Hindi industry lead to Rajinikanth’s fame.  As he describes it (and this is only one source, so I am willing and interested in hearing counter-arguments), the strong Tamil language issues in Tamil Nadu, the violent protests against any threat of Hindi being brought in to wipe out Tamil and the other Dravidian languages, which went back at least as early as 1935, lead to a strong resistance to Hindi films in the state.  The Tamil film producers were in an enviable position of having a set of films that had proved their popularity in the Indian context, but would never be seen by the Tamil audience.  That is, the Hindi blockbusters of the 1970s which played well up and down India, except NOT in Tamil Nadu.  The stories had a proven popularity, you just had to translate them to Tamil, dialogue and camerawork and everything else copied exactly, and poof!  Instant hit! And when recasting an Amitabh Bachchan film (the most successful kind of film in that era), Rajinikanth was perfect.  He could easily play the working class anger that made Amitabh so successful, and the towering perfect hero.  At least, that’s how Ramachandran sees it.  Hindi was the larger more original industry, Tamil and Rajinikanth succeeded partly because they could imitate it.

Image result for amitabh bachchan rajinikanth films

(And they only overlapped in Hindi, Kamal and Rajinikanth came to Amitabh’s industry to work, he didn’t come to theirs)

Even while making this argument, Ramachandran still points out how the Tamil remakes changed things, made them their own.  Especially in terms of Rajinikanth’s stardom.  His films started to be filled with freeze frames, with intertextual references, with moments of breaking the fourth wall.  The basic plot might have come from Hindi, but it was the changes in the Tamil version that made the films remarkable.  Baasha, Ramachandran argues, is a remake of Hum (the Hindi version of which also starred Rajinikanth, but in a much smaller role).  But it is the new touches, most importantly the flipping of the chronology to make the second half a flashback, which made it such a hit.

In the same way it would be easy to dismiss Rajinikanth himself as either “the Tamil Amitabh Bachchan” or “the modern Shivaji Ganesan”.  But neither of those would be right.  Rajinikanth is himself.  Yes, those who came before him, or came with him (Amitabh, Kamal Haasan, even the comedian Nagesh who gave him advice during his early Balachander films) influenced him in some ways.  But he is still and always himself.

Like Amitabh, Rajinikanth is scrupulously hardworking and responsible on set.  But while Amitabh does it in a dignified and gentlemanly manner, Rajinikanth does it in a humble way.  For instance, Mani Ratnam told a story of filming Thalapathi with him.  They wanted a sunrise shot for a particular sequence, so he and his crew were out there at 5am.  Rajinikanth showed up at the regular call time to find them packing up already.  They told him to be back the next day, and explained about the sunrise lighting they wanted.  The next day, Ratnam and Santosh Sivam (the cinematographer on Thalapathi) showed up at 5am to find someone in their shot, a figure sleeping on a bench.  Ratnam sent Sivam over to wake him up and ask him to move along, only to discover it was Rajini.  He had gotten there at 4:30, calmly settled down on the bench to sleep and wait for the rest of the crew.  I can’t imagine Amitabh Bachchan curling up and falling asleep on a park bench.

Image result for amitabh on set

(Amitabh visiting a set, with his distinctive 3 seats piled up to create a comfortable seat for his height)

Deepa Sahi talked about how sort of lost Rajini seemed with his fame when they were working together on Hum.  He told her “I have a tennis court, I don’t know how to play.  I have a swimming pool, I can’t swim”.  Every night he would go to his room and have two drinks from the most expensive bottle of scotch he could find.  And then he would give the rest of the bottle away to a crew member, a different crew member every night.  He had the wealth, he knew he had it, but he didn’t want to come to rely on it, to let it change him.

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25 thoughts on “Hindi/Tamil/Kannada/Malayalam/Telugu Film 101: Rajinikanth’s Life, Part 1 Bus Conductor to Movie Star

  1. While the local language is Kannada, Bangalore is part of the state of “Karnataka”. Also “the” Tamil Nadu is just incorrect. As is Deepti Sahi. It’s Deepa.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Same with “the” Punjab. I’ve been meaning to type that out in a comment for a long, long time but somehow I always get distracted by other things.

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        • Actually, I looked and in this case the “the” is correct. Because it is the article for “city”, with Tamil Nadu used as an adjective. “The city of” takes a definite article because “city” is a regular not proper noun, but the preposition “of” makes it specific. Like, “the house of my father”. The change that might be needed is swapping out “Tamil Nadu” for “Tamilian”. But I don’t like that, because “Tamilian” can be used as a language adjective and I am not sure if “Tamilian City” means exactly the same thing as “Tamil Nadu city”. Surely there are cities outside the state borders of Tamil Nadu that speak Tamil, and cities within the state borders that do not speak Tamil.

          Generally in English “the” is used as an article for a region, while the official name of a city, state, or country is considered proper and takes no article. So, in America, “The Midwest”, “The East Coast”, “The West Coast”, “The North”, “The South”. It’s really tricky with India because the state borders do not line up with regional borders most of the time. I mean, that has all kinds of problems, but it also makes grammar difficult. Kerala is easy, because Kerala is Kerala, the formal name of the current state and the name of the region. But Punjab is difficult because it is both a state and a region. If I am talking about the Kapoors, for instance, I would want to say “They came from the Punjab” or “The Punjabi region”, because their family is what was then called “Punjab” in British India, but is now “Punjab” in Pakistan and there is a whole other “Punjab” that is in India. But if I am taking about Amritsar, I should say “It is in Punjab” since it is presently clearly within the formal state borders. That is a mistake I am sure I make often, because I am so used to using the regional description instead of the formal state borders since it comes up more often as a region than as a state.

          Sorry, that’s probably a lot more than you cared about, I used to be an English tutor so I get really involved with these grammar questions and thinking about where they came from and why.

          On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 9:36 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Oh. Interesting. I’ve never seen it used that way before, at least not in India. People tend to say “They’re from Punjab” or “They’re Punjabi” – I’ve never heard or seen “the” being used before so maybe that’s why it sticks out for me.

            Depending on the age of the person, if it’s clear they were born after the partition, the first statement means current-day, Indian Punjab. If they’re older, they’re from what Punjab used to be pre partition. The second statement means they’re of Punjabi heritage but they could be from anywhere, including and most likely Indian+Pakistani Punjab. Post partition Punjabi folks from Pakistan are identified more by their nationality (in India) than their Punjabiness.

            Lots of people – including my very Punjabi parents – aren’t even aware that Punjabi is so widely spoken in Pakistan. To them, Pakistan = Islam = Urdu. And to LOTS of Indian people including my friendds (ie people my generation), esp in the South, Punjab the state = Sikhism = Punjabi the language. I always have to tell people that I’m Punjabi but not Sikh.

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  2. I knew some of it but the real story seems even more fascinating. Just as the person.

    Did you read the news story about AB Sr doing a bilingual in Hindi and Tamil.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the heads up, I just looked up the story and I am curious to see how it pans out.

      On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 10:48 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Thanks for summarizing the book. I’m looking forward to further installment/s. Also, seeing that photo of Ranveer and Amitabh made me think how cool a gender-swapped version of All About Eve would be. Has that ever been re-made as an Indian movie, in any region, as far as you know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • As far as I know, no straight up remake. But plenty of movies about evil ambitious woman and so on. Basically every Madhur Bhandakar movie.

      However, now I totally want to remake All About Eve!!!!! Rekha would be a perfect Bette Davis, but she’s the wrong age. Maybe Rani? And Alia as Eve, make that babyface evil. Ajay would be good in the love interest part. Or Arjun? Someone who can project “smart and mature and reliable”. Or one of the younger guys, there is supposed to be an age difference. Shahid might work, or Kunal Kapoor? And Tabu and Anil as the best friend couple that Eve tries to break up. No, Anil is too old for Alia. Maybe Swara Bhaskar and Randeep Hooda? And Irrfan Khan can play George Sanders, and Lisa Haydon can play Marilyn Monroe. Ugh, the original is SO GOOD!!!! Now I just want to watch that again.

      On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 10:54 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Rani as Bette, Saqib Saleem (I had to look him up–I loved his chemistry with Rani in Bombay Talkies) as the boyfriend. Arjun R could be good too though. I like all the other casting. Anil could be an interesting George Sanders type also. Lisa Haydon would be perfect in the Marilyn part!

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        • Karan Johar as George Sanders. He IS George Sanders. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure that out.

          And then I want to replace Lisa with Sid playing Marilyn. Or maybe not? I never quite got a handle on why George Sanders liked Marilyn in the original. He seemed more cynically amused by her than attracted.

          On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 11:07 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I think he was definitely attracted, and also contemptuous, and enjoyed bringing Marilyn to that kind of serious theater people party, and seeing how uncomfortable it made everyone. No one can play a heel like Sanders. Karan works, but it would be a different vibe–less sinister, but otherwise cynical and funny. I still think Lisa would be fun as Marilyn. Would be interesting to see them play off each other.

            I wanted gender swapped though–so Shah Rukh as Bette, SSR as Eve, Rani and Arjun R as the other couple, and Vidya as the boyfriend (I just really want to see Shah Rukh and her do something together). If not Vidya then Konkona. Kajol as George Sanders, and Sid as Marilyn. Could swap Kajol and Rani’s parts, I can see pros and cons either way.

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          • Gender swapped is interesting, because my gut reaction was that you can swap out the two leads but no one else. So much of the story is about Bette having achieved an equal level of power with the men around her and having this awkward relationship with her best friend who is “just” a housewife and so on. And Eve being evil partly because she works on how uncomfortable Bette’s power makes the men around her. But I think you could still make it work, so long as it was seriously re-written. Vidya (or whoever) is an Ekta Kapoor style producer, tough and successful in a man’s world. And a little uncomfortable with dating SRK because it feels like she is being minimized to being just his girlfriend instead of a person in her own right. And therefore is tempted by a fresh faced young actor who doesn’t overshadow her. Shahrukh’s best friend is married to a successful female director and is the primary caregiver for their children and is happy with his choices, but also sometimes feels awkward about them. He nags his wife to spend more time with the kids and generally makes her feel guilty, which is why she likes being with a man who encourages her to work harder and pursue her dreams and forget her family. And I’d vote for Swara as George Sanders, I think she could really dig her teeth into it. Oh! And Rajkummar as Marilyn! If you style him right, he could be believable as a dreamboat, and he would have so much fun playing the male ditz. Or keep Lisa and make Swara a lesbian, that would be a combo I would love to see play together.

            On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 11:35 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Actually, there is an interesting set of events in rajini’s life which was brushed away earlier as mere gossips and rumours. But with his apparent political entry, one of his rival political parties to be- The Dmk indirectly(The very party which rajini publicly endorsed against jayalalitha in the elections, at the height of his popularity in 1995 following baasha’s release) have dug up some dirt on Rajni and made it public via a DMK leaning media house(vikadan tv) following a speech he made last year praising MGR for finding him a suitable bride in the form of his present wife Mrs Latha . Dmk fearing that Rajni is trying to repeat an Mgr in tamil nadu politics (he has been making a lot of references to the original matinee idol of tamil nadu in his increasingly political speeches of late) released a video via vikatan tv about an apparent cold war which happened between rajni and mgr in the early 80s. When MGR(Quote-Unquote) broke up with jayalalitha over the former’s refusal to marry the latter, he was also going through a turbulent period in his personal and professional life . He was ousted from DMK of which he was the poster boy and also gained popularity by portraying the dravidian hero on the screen.He had new political ambitions and couldnt afford marrying jaya as his 4th wife since that would be a suicidal decision on the political front which would have rendered him unpopular with the majority conservative voters in tamil nadu.
    Mgr launched a new movie “ULAGAM SUTTRUM VALIBAN”(1972) and needed a new charismatic heroine to replace Jayalalitha in his films. So he recruited “Latha Sethupathy”( NOT THE SAME AS RAJINI’S WIFE) a 17 year old from ramnad royal house as his heroine. The movie was a runaway success and launched MGR’s political career. Mgr continued to act till 1977( He became the chief minister of tamil nadu in 1977) with Latha being his go-to heroine in most films till then.If rumours are to be believed, Mgr had signed a contract with latha giving Mgr almost exclusively the rights to choose or reject films for her to appear other than those pairing him with her. She became the highest paid actress and the biggest star in a short time and MGR(the aging superstar) also benefitted from the prestige of having been on the receiving end of the faux-romances onscreen with the hottest heroine of the times, thereby also enhancing his youthful screen hero image. With his defection to politics however, Latha was left to her own choices and she began forming successful combos with the lead heroes of the day. Late 70s saw the meteoric rise of rajni, who became the defacto superstar in MGR’s absence and was on the verge of pairing a hit pair with latha. ACCORDING TO rumours Mgr was not happy with latha pairing with rajini. and prevented her from acting with himfurther after one film.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! This is exactly the kind of background I was interested in learning more about.

      The book argued that Ramya in Padayappa was a reference to Jayalithaa, during Rajini’s pro-DMK period. Does that make sense to you? Or was the author reaching to make the argument?

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  5. Another Rumour mill suggests that Rajini too was smitten with Latha during the shooting of Shanker Salim Simon(1980), and had plans of marrying her. TO this, MGR (this is sort of an urban legend) had goons pick up rajini and brought him to his bungalow in ramavaram ,madras , and had his senses beaten out of him.( this may be just a gossip). He( Acc to this story) was saved by the intervention of K balachander and kamal hassan(both were close to MGR) But rajini had had enough of the movie industry after this incident and spiralled into depression and hastily decided to quit films altogether in the early 80s. But following a spiritual rebirth after being initiated into teachings of ramana maharishi( a hindu saint), he decided to stay and the rest is history. The funny fact is rajini later went on to marry another namesake latha ( A student who went to his house to interview him and also was the relative of actor Yg mahendra).

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    • I think in the next section, I touch on some of this. Only without access to the rumor mill, all I was able to learn was that he had a period of depression and overwork, took a break from films, came back, got married. And become increasingly spiritual.

      On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 11:21 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. This Mgr-Rajini rivalry story was dismiiseed as a silly rumor till last year,until vikatan tv brought back forgotten reports about rajinis brush in with law on multiple times,including A DUI and a violent drunken misdemeanor at Hyderabad airport all of which corresponds to the period in which he is said to have had depression. The vikatan tv video also mentions the MGR-LATHA=RAJNI tussle in passing ,but does mention any incident of violence between the superstars, but also thereby giving credence to the stories of the rivalry over a heroine.

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    • That matches the impression I had, that his early years on film had no scandals or stories of unpleasantness, and nor did his recent years, it was just the few years when he was working the most before the break.

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  7. Rajini of the early 80s looked like a hunk with long hair, but towards the end of the decade he became very slim.. almost having a famished look. The stress migh have affected his health later on, or is it the after effect of the so called physical and emotional trauma he received earlier on in the decade. Check his images from the 80s and the 90s , you can see a contrast in his physique

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    • The book (which could be wrong) suggested that it was the other way around, his unhealthy period was when he was eating too much, when he got healthier he started meditating and yoga and making his life more minimal, which lead to a leaner build.

      On Thu, Aug 30, 2018 at 11:35 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  8. The Madras Film Institute was a popular and prestigious at that time. It’s alumni includes famous actors from Tamil and Telugu – other than Rajini, there were Chiranjeevi, Mohan Babu, Nasser, Rajendra Prasad, etc.

    Accommodating 4 languages was not surprising as Madras was the center for movies of all four languages until late 80s.

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    • Looks like Rajinikanth and Mohan Babu were in the same batch, which is interesting. I think their films ended up competing in later years.

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      • Mohan Babu & Rajinikanth have been good friends for decades till date – their families (kids) share a good bonding. Rajini makes personal visits to MB’s home in Hyderabad.

        No, their movies never competed. MB also started as a villain, then turned hero, but never became/considered a star – only Chiranjeevi-Balakrishna-Nagarjuna-Venkatesh were the top guys in late 80s and 90s until Mahesh-PK-NTR generation came up.

        Liked by 1 person

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