There can only be one Rajinikanth: What sets the actor apart is his ability to retain superstardom across decades
Rajinikanth is the only actor in Indian cinema to have acted in all formats which are available in cinema: Black and white, colour, animation, motion capture, 3D and the works.
(This 2018 piece is being republished on account of Rajinikanth's 69th birthday.)
When Rajinikanth said, “these number games are child’s play. I’m the only one, Super One” in 2.0, it didn't sound exaggerated at all.
India is a country filled with more than 133 crore people speaking multiple languages and among them, less than 6% speak the Tamil language. But that hasn't stopped a sixty-eight-year-old man who hails from Tamil Nadu to become the biggest superstar in the country.
A few may say that Amitabh Bachchan is the country’s biggest superstar. Even Rajinikanth politely asked a reporter to not compare him with Amitabh in an older interview. “Amitabh is an emperor. I’m just a king so please don’t compare me with him," he had said.
But over time the Khans took over Amitabh’s position in Hindi cinema, whereas Rajinikanth is still the number one superstar in the south film industry, with producers confidently investing massive budgets on his heroic films. Rajinikanth’s 2.0 is the costliest film — and also the highest grosser this year — ever made in India and it shows the kind of market he established over the years. Not only Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth’s contemporaries like Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal, Mammootty, and Chiranjeevi have not been able to match the actor’s stardom so far.
Rajinikanth’s journey has been far from a bed of roses. The actor broke usual norms and formulae to fetch his superstardom. When Rajinikanth made his debut in the Tamil film industry (1975), the biggest quality for any hero was that they should be fair-skinned. Rajinikanth eventually proved that skin colour had nothing to do with acting.
When Rajinikanth forayed into the Tamil industry, directors and producers had already founded their successor to MGR, the biggest Tamil moviestar who ruled the industry and the state for a long time. In fact, a majority of Tamil people also thought this good looking, superbly talented actor will be the next superstar of Tamil cinema: his name is Kamal Haasan. However, Rajinikanth slowly laid a path for himself and eventually conquered the industry.
Rajinikanth himself said: “This generation doesn’t know how big Kamal Haasan's stardom was in 1975. He was a rockstar who enjoyed craze across the country. I was just a beginner at that time and thanks to K Balachander sir, got an opportunity to become a hero. I still remember we acted together in a lot of films in the early late '70s and had Kamal asked his directors to not cast me in those films, they would have obliged. Instead, Kamal particularly wanted me to play an important role in Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu. Later, it was Kamal who also asked me to act only in solo hero films, which helped me create a market for myself”.
So how exactly did Rajinikanth became a superstar? “Well, stars in other languages were surprised to know that I achieved stardom in an industry which has an extremely talented actor like Kamal Haasan. I didn’t do much, just changed my route. I preferred not to follow Kamal Haasan’s formula and changed my path,” said Rajinikanth. If you look at Rajinikanth's career, he is an excellent performer and some of his films like Mullum Malarum and Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai showcased his award-winning acting skills. But the actor clearly understood that Kamal is already an expert when it comes to performance-oriented films so Rajinikanth followed the commercial star-driven films.
From the outside, it might look easy when Rajinikanth flipped cigarettes on screen but to achieve perfection, he would rehearse a lot. Though stylish mannerisms come naturally to him, he continued to experiment in each film. When political parties opposed to him smoking in films, Rajinikanth replaced the cigarette with chewing gum in Sivaji. Again, these things might not look like a big achievement but it is, indeed, the small things that mattered.
Looking back, Rajinikanth is the only actor in Indian cinema to have acted in all formats available in cinema. Black and white, colour, animation, motion capture and 3D, name any technology and Rajinikanth would be associated with it.
Rajinikanth is the torchbearer as far as the expansion of the Tamil market is concerned. Whenever a Rajinikanth film releases, it would open a new market to Tamil cinema. For an example, Muthu (1995) is one of the biggest hits in Japan, an untapped market for Indian and Tamil cinema at that time. Rajinikanth used to act as a second hero in a lot of Hindi films in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which helped him later with films like Enthiran and 2.0.
The way Rajinikanth gets up after each failure is as good as his on-screen heroic moments. When Baba (2002) tanked at the box office, everyone wrote him off. Critics and the trade had said his career is finished. But with Chandramukhi, he proved everyone wrong by scoring a massive hit. The film competed with Kamal Haasan’s Mumbai Xpress and Vijay’s Sachein and went on to become the biggest hit.
Rajinikanth is a super smart strategist as well. Before his biggest blockbuster Baashha, the actor used to do multiple films a year. Post Baashha, Rajinikanth understood that he has achieved a massive stardom and should not lose it any cost so the actor reduced signing more films, which created huge curiosity. The release of his films became a massive celebration because it happened only once in two or three years after Baashha and Muthu.
Rajinikanth also stopped meeting the media after Baashha so if audiences and his fans wanted to see him, the only way would have been to watch his films on the big screen. Today, a lot of stars like Ajith and Nayanthara are following this strategy to maintain the craze and stardom in the industry, but Rajinikanth foresaw it much before.
Sometimes Rajinikanth’s experiments backfired as well. For example, when his commercial potboiler Lingaa flopped, Rajinikanth decided to act in script-driven films like Kabali and Kaala. Although critics welcomed this decision of Rajinikanth, the general public was not happy because they wanted to see him only as a superstar and not as an actor. It could be why 2.0 is being celebrated across the nation, and is one of the biggest films of the year.
As Rajinikanth once said, he is not an elephant who struggles to get up after falling down. Rajinikanth is a horse and thus, he swiftly overcomes each defeat. At the age of 68, Rajinikanth is still the reigning superstar. There can’t be another star like him in Indian cinema because, in a social media world filled with hatred and negativity, it’s impossible for someone to create and retain superstardom like him.
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