Even as parts of his body are discussed and public prayer meetings organised for his recovery, Rajnikanth now in the ICU of a Singapore hospital has to leave a voice message for his fans.
He is seen even now as someone who will scale walls and rescue others. Rumours about his health are part of this narrative and prompted his wife Latha to state, “…please do understand that he is a normal human being and like normal human beings he has a normal body that is prone to infection.”
I discovered the power of Rajnikanth when he was in another down phase. The superstar had a few flops, he was not yet into meditation and was attempting politics. While the rest of the film community got together to fight for the Cauvery water crisis, Rajnikanth decided to have a separate tryst with destiny. Offering one crore rupees with a flourish, he had said, “The people and I will take care of the money.”
Recognised for his philanthropy, it may have seemed like a hands-on approach but why did he choose the solitary star route and not join his colleagues on the same issue? It was the wrong question to ask.
Today, at 61, Rajnikanth is the biggest star in India. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan who began to play roles suited to his age, Rajnikanth refuses to be anything but a superhero. Curiously, unlike the Bollywood seniors who cultivate their personal appearance, the South star does not do so. He attends public functions as he is – balding, ageing, wearing clothes he is comfortable in.
|At L.K.Advani's book release in 2008|
No one parallels him in Indian cinema for while the Hindi film industry may have many rags-to-riches stories the stars ‘sanskritised’ themselves to become upwardly mobile. If like Govinda they wore gaudy clothes it was to register an identity of one merely mimicking stardom. Rajnikant’s films project him as being in charge even in situations where he is poor and homeless.
In reality, too, he is not an immigrant from Maharashtra anymore whose last job was of a bus conductor. There is not much to dissect in his story for many meet their windfall without dreaming about it.
However, there are two clear demarcations in his fan following. One has to do with his persona. Success happened to him suddenly. He was unable to fully handle it and was uncomfortable with the elite clique. He created specific mannerisms, the gunfire accent and speech, to get over the block of being different in certain areas and those appealed initially to the hick-town crowd.
Men like him have an earthiness that reaches out to the hordes. During the time he was striving for political space, there was a danger when it was assumed that nothing less than the chief ministership would do. Film stars in the South have indeed acquitted themselves well in politics, but the field requires team effort. Had Rajnikanth become Clark Kent the people would not accept it. He would go into oblivion for brief periods and get back on ‘public demand’. This may be a great strategy for the celluloid world, but would it have worked in dealing with the lives of real people? Demagoguery combined with special effects heroism seeks to legitimise make-believe.
It took years for him to be accepted on a national scale and by the swish set. Today no show goes without an imitation of his style. There is the consumerist aspect of being his sponsors by default. He will be invited at high table because he is the alien who commands money. His attraction lies in his brazen rejection of conventional attractiveness and making it into a lucrative USP.
Is it a matter of choice? Many talk about his simplicity, his sleeping on the floor instead of in an airconditioned make-up room, his accessibility. Could these not be part of the mannerisms he has acquired? Or could this be the only way he knows to live by standing out to get noticed?
His flamboyant manner of lighting a cigarette reveals that he has mastered a craft. He realised that no one looks at the ash on the carpet.
(c) Farzana Versey
Published in Khaleej Times, June 2, 2011)
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Sharing a personal sort of anecdote not in the piece:
Some years ago I had written a slightly questioning piece on Rajnikanth. His is the last word and as one of his characters said, “If I say it once, it is equal to saying it a hundred times.” My inbox bore the brunt of the anger. There were no plausible arguments, merely a barrage about my ignorance. “Don’t you know this is Rajni Sir?”
The worst possible indictment was that my views revealed I had a problem with dark skin. It was disturbing yet it opened up a whole can of regionalism, the Indian colour rating system and what makes fan clubs so potent.