I’m not a southern film expert, like, AT ALL. But I do know enough to suggest 5 films that might help you to understand why Rajini Sir is such a big deal, and what he means to people. Because I just went through that journey myself and these are the 5 films that helped me. And apparently his next film is going to be big BIG (since just the first look poster got a cross-language release), so now is a good time to study up.
I just found out that Procrastinatrix watched Petta as her first Rajinikanth film which made me give an internal scream of agony. I’m not even a Rajini fan, but I’ve seen enough in my lost wanderings through Tamil cinema to understand that he has earned his fame and place. And in order to fully appreciate why he is what he is, you need to watch the films that really helped build him up.
Rajini came from a middle-class Maharashtrian heritage family living in Bangalore. He wanted to be an actor and struggled with small theater troupes and so on while working as a bus conductor. He finally got admission to the new Tamil state acting school (best film school in south India) and managed to pay tuition and get through it by borrowing money from friends and family. While at school, he met K. Balachander, the greatest director in Tamil film, who came to give a speech to the students. Balachander cast him after he graduated as the “villain” figure in a few movies. Rajini was immediately “different” onscreen. He was older, he was darker, and he had this fast way of delivering lines and making gestures. While the other actors were graceful and elegant, Rajini felt like a man who didn’t have the luxury of wasting time.
As his popularity grew, directors began casting him in the “hero” roles. Rajini became a hero for the underclasses. A lot of his hits were remakes of Bachchan Hindi films, but with Rajini the “Angry Young Man” means something different, something a lot more class and caste based. His dark skin is not a small thing, nor is his rough look, or the way his heroes tended to play working class. He had a few hits playing romantic roles, or upperclass roles, but generally it is when acting as a champion of the lower classes that he has his greatest success. Recently his two most important films were Kabali and Kaala, both of which aggressively placed him as a Dalit and a rebel. The director, Pa.Ranjith, used the existing Rajinikanth identity as the angry underclass and took it for his own ends to talk about the oppression of the Tamil community in Malaysia, and then the Dalit community in Bombay. I started with those movies out of pure luck, and then worked my way back through a few other important Rajini films to fully understand how this angry old man became an icon for underclass revolt.
The best place to start with Rajini is where he started. Rajinikanth’s first significant role was opposite Sridevi in her first significant role, in a K. Balachander classic. It’s available in full on youtube, I highly recommend it. Moondru Mudichu.
Rajini worked with K. Balachander for a few more years but he found his real popular fame only after leaving Balachander. I haven’t actually seen any of the films from his first era of popularity, but I think they actually aren’t that important? The early movies, they show Rajini as an actor, what made him special. The middle movies, they were quick star feature films similar to what you would see for any rising star. It is the third era that I start to find really interesting. Rajini became such a big star, so massive, that the films built around him weren’t like regular films. There were normal characters and situations, and then Rajini striding over all of them like a God. And at the same time, still putting in the occasional serious deep performance. To me, Rajini is at his best either as a pure actor, or as a pure star, not in that messy in between area. For the best example of him as Pure Star, Baasha from 1995 shows him at the peak of his second wave of fame, when he was famous for being Rajini, not for being “a movie star”. (bonus for SRK fans, it is the inspiration for Dilwale)
I’m going slightly out of chronological order for the next one. Because you have to fully understand the fame and power Rajini Sir had in the 90s in order to appreciate the leap he was taking in agreeing to work with a protegee of Balachander, Mani Ratnam. Rajini is the lead of Thalapathi no doubt, but it is a humble hero. Tragic, troubled, a “loser”. And yet also the most noble one of all in his own way. It wasn’t just humility on screen, I read a story from the making of the film, the crew was late getting to the location shoot one day and arrived to find a bum sleeping on a bench. They shook him awake and told him to get out of the shot, only to find it was Rajini. He didn’t want to be late for shooting so he had arrived at the location at 6am, discovered no one was there, and curled up on the bench for a nap while he waited for everyone else. Watch Thalapathy and witness a mature powerful actor who is still humble enough to take direction and lose himself in the needs of the film. Oh, and it’s on Prime!
Robot/Enthiran is the biggest hit of Rajinikanth’s career. And, to me, it is an example of what happens when people abuse his stardom. It’s a good role for him, a double role, and he is onscreen basically the entire time. But there is no character there, nothing for Rajinikanth The Actor to grab hold of. And there is no commentary on his fame, no message to his followers, nothing for Rajinikanth the Star to use. It is a spectacle with a message about morality and science, and Rajini is there to be part of the spectacle, no more. Don’t watch this film first whatever you do, Rajini will seem like a joke if you watch it that way. But if you watch it after the other 3 I list, it will make sense and you will understand why he is seen as such a hero.
And finally, Kabali! If you watch one Rajini film, make it this one. I love Kabali and I think it is the perfect way for Rajini to be used, both as an actor and a star. And Rajini must have agreed because he worked with the director a second time in Kaala, which I don’t love as much simply because the plot is a little underdone. Although the revolutionary message (especially in the rap songs on the soundtrack) is even stronger. Rajini is old now, there is no getting around it. But with age can come power, there is a whole generation who has grown up looking to him to lead them, as the hope for the underclass. If a film picks on that, connects him with the youth who love him and show the real responsibility he feels for them, and the weight of all he has seen and survived, his angry underclass hero becomes distilled and stronger in old age. That’s Kabali. A young man who was angry at the injustice done to him and those who he loved, who fought against it, who paid the price, and has come out the other side still ready to fight even though he knows what he might lose, even though he knows what he might be leading others to lose, because he believes it is better to fight back than to live small lives in fear. And beyond Rajini, the film did what it set out to do. I had no idea about what was happening to the Tamil community in Malaysia, I don’t think most people do beyond Tamilians. I watched this movie, and now I care. Rajini may be an old man with a confused idea of politics (his public statements aren’t always great), but he picked and supported a movie that was there to serve the most oppressed of his fans. And he filmed in Malaysia and met them and comforted them and inspired them. That’s not nothing.