Intro to Rajinikanth: 5 Films to Watch Before Darbar

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.

This isn’t the underclasses crawling and apologizing for their existence, or trying to turn rich and clean, this is a celebration of blackness, of dirt, of community, with Rajinikanth acting as the spiritual conductor. The title of the song comes from Ambedkar’s writings, loosely translated it means “Educate, Agitate”

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.

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18 thoughts on “Intro to Rajinikanth: 5 Films to Watch Before Darbar

  1. Peeps should watch Murattu-k-Kaalai (untamed bull)

    It is his first major hit as a hero. A slow rambling movie, but Rajini lives up to the title role

    Also I would recommend Thambikk(u)-Endha Ooru

    Probably the first movie where he played comedy, & imo his ‘acting’ downhill started after this

    Like

    • Mullum Malarum is a must purely for the songs alone.

      It is directed by Mahendran & I enjoyed the movie. Probably a movie before he became a ‘star’

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    • You can always start with Kabali and work backwards, that’s basically what I did. Or Thalapathi, that’s a bit of an easier watch than Moondru but has the same effect of showing his acting abilities and willingness to work with talented directors.

      On Thu, Nov 7, 2019 at 11:21 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Thalapathy is good

        Also Billa (remake of Don)

        and as I mentioned above, Mullum Malarum too

        Thillu Mull (remake of gol-maal a full length comedy), 47 Naatkal (double act) & Raghavendra (spiritual biography) together highlight Rajini’s versatility

        All above movies are eminently watchable

        And as I mentioned above, his first ‘mass’ movie Murattu Kaalai

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          • the screenplay of Nettrikkan is by Balachander. That is why the story is good

            Directed by some one else but still good movie & good acting

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          • Robot also is a double act
            Sivaji also is a double act

            Probably Rajini suits these kind of movies well, I suppose
            He plays well using the contrast between the 2 characters in the movie

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      • As part of my “pretending I don’t have to go to work today” routine this morning, I watched the speeches for the Petta audio launch on YouTube. I found Rajni himself to be extremely charming, sure of himself but not arrogant, and clearly beloved by the people in the room. This with not understanding 90% of what was being said. Bonus: Vijay S. and Trisha sitting next to each other, looking stunning. A mini-96 reunion!

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        • Rajini seems like a generally very decent person. His directors and co-stars talk about humility and respect for fellow artists, he himself tends to be very humble (consistantly has said that Kamal Haasan is a better actor his entire career). He married a nice college girl he met when she came to interview him for her college newspaper on set, and has two daughters who he supports completely. One of them is divorced (and now remarried), and they both work in his production house as directors/producers.

          But now he is entering politics and sometimes saying dumb things about politics. Because politics gives you lots of chances to be dumb about issues you are unfamiliar with.

          On Fri, Nov 8, 2019 at 9:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up with my intro to Rajinikanth being Padayappa so I think that’ll always be the ultimate Rajini movie for me. I think I’ve seen that movie so many times on tv growing up and I’ve never been bored of it.

    Wait, was Petta not a good movie? I thought it did fairly well and I was planning on eventually seeing it sometime in the near future. I really liked the cast and the songs by Anirudh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really wanted to add Padayappa here! But it feels like in terms of getting to know Rajini, Baasha is just as good and more representative. But Padayappa is so fun! And Ramya is such an awesome villain!

      I think Petta is a more of a “Rajini is perfect movie”, and (based on my own experience) that’s not the best intro. You have to see one of the films where he acts and has weaknesses and all of that stuff, before the big hero films.

      On Thu, Nov 7, 2019 at 2:56 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 2 people

      • I think Ramya is what makes Padayappa better than Baasha for me but they both work if you wanna introduce Rajini the star.

        Ah, gotcha. So is Petta a horror movie? I remember reading something like that but I wasn’t sure based on the trailers.

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        • Looks like it’s a twisty thriller type thing. Good movie, good role for Rajini, but not really useful if you want to understand why he is such a big deal.

          On Fri, Nov 8, 2019 at 8:56 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Hi, Niki! It is a twisty dark thriller, not unlike Karthik’s other movies in that way, but also with big, massy songs and action. Everyone gives good performances and the story throws in a couple of new angles, but I do think you have to go into this movie already “getting” Rajnikanth, and I don’t yet.

          Margaret–thanks for doing this post! I’ll check out a couple of these for sure.

          Like

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