"At the strike of 4 am, when the whole world sleeps, we shall awaken to Rajini and Kabali."
I woke up to this message on Friday morning (Yes, the first screening of the movie was at 4 am). For the rest of the day, every conversation I had revolved around Kabali: "Did you see the crowd outside Kasi theatre when they were pouring milk over the Kabali poster?"; "Tickets are selling for Rs 1,000 da, and even those are so hard to get"; "My Uber cabbie has already watched the movie and I haven't. Gah!"
What is it about Rajinikanth that makes him such a phenomenon? Why is it that the moment the S in his 'superstar' logo flashes on the screen, crowds go into raptures of ecstasy? What makes Rajini fans jump up from their seats everytime he appears on screen? What makes them dance all the way to the front of the theatre just to kiss his feet?
Someone once said, "When a star is able to make his fans feel that their lives are better because of him, he becomes a superstar."
Going by the number of people who claim that Rajinikanth has changed their lives, there is no disputing why the man is a superstar. "He is one of the reasons I became a filmmaker. If someone from such humble beginnings can make it so big through sheer hard work, it shows that anyone can. Everytime I feel low, I put on a playlist of Rajini songs and dialogues. And that pumps me up, gives me hope," says filmmaker Vivek Ramanujam.
Rajini's life is like a Rajini movie in itself — a rags-to-riches story. The story of a man from humble beginnings who remains humble even as he rises up the rungs. And this synchronicity between the reel and the real versions is perhaps what makes him the darling of the masses. There is something so honest about him, it overwhelms you. You can see it in his eyes and in his smile. Any star can maintain a superstar persona. But Rajini is the persona. There are no two faces to his character. There's just one and that’s one heck of a face.
Talking about faces, Rajini isn't what one would call conventionally handsome. Many of his contemporaries are much better looking than him. But what he lacks in "good looks", he makes up with style. And that is something that doesn't come easy to most.
Everytime someone talks of Rajinikanth the superstar, the discussion also veers to Rajinikanth the person. The story goes that during the making of Annamalai, when director Suresh Krissna wanted to introduce the Superstar tag, Rajinikanth objected to it and said it would be a bit too much. There are other stories of Rajini letting a young Aravind Swamy sleep on his bed in his caravan while he lay on the floor during the making of Thalapathi.
There are varied reasons that his fans go crazy over him. "He's a star you can trust"; "He is honest"; "He is so stylish"; "His movies are amazing". But one reason stands above all — "He creates this vicarious feeling that your life is in your control. He empowers."
And that is most certainly true of his movies. He plays the underdog, the commoner, the auto driver, the milkman, the man with no voice. And he lends voice to this man. He makes him speak up, he makes him fight for his rights.
No conversation about Rajini is complete without mention of his dialogue. From his famous Baasha dialogue, "Naan oru thadavai sonna nooru thadavai sonna madhiri" (If I say it once, it's like I have said it a hundred times), to just the two words that have made such a buzz this year, "Kabali da", Rajinikanth is responsible for putting the punch in the punchline. The elan with which he says those words make them music to the ears for all his fans. Some have it as their caller tune, some have it as their ringtone and some even have it tattooed on their bodies.
But it's not the style and the dialogues that make him the man he is. It's not these peripheries that his fans define him by. In his reel persona they see a wishful version of themselves; in his real persona, they see an ideal version of themselves. Where the two personas meet is where the superstar is formed. A superstar who doesn't feel the need to extend his on-screen image to his off-screen life. A superstar who is comfortable in his own skin, who doesn't feel the need to cover his balding head with a wig when he attends public functions. A superstar without airs, who is genuinely nice to everybody he meets.
In the past few years, many actors in Tamil cinema have prefixed their names with sobriquets. There's Little Superstar, Ulaganayagan, Illaya Thalapathy; but there is only one star who, when he appears on screen, sends shivers down your spine. Only one star, who gives you goosebumps when he throws punchlines at you. Only one star, who you laugh with, cry with and dance with. Only one star — and we call him Superstar.