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is also probably why there are surprisingly few books written about him, not worth it when anything you write could be out of date a week after it is published.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).
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.