Rajinikanth – Destiny’s Own Child?

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 2nd April, 2021. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-rajinikanths-dadasaheb-phalke-award-richly-deserved-146395

It was few days into June in the year 2007 in Mumbai. Those were heady days for the Indian economy with frenetic activity in retail, real estate and in fact almost all spheres in India. Malls and multiplexes within them were the cool things those days. In the midst of that, I saw some huge excitement around the release of a Tamil film in Mumbai, probably for the first time.  FM Radio stations were talking non-stop of that film, adding to the build-up. The film was Sivaji – The Boss, directed by Shankar and the reason for the excitement was Rajinikanth, who by then had transcended the Southern borders and was a phenomenon across the country in what I would say the phase-4 of his still running career.

The film got a huge theatrical release even in Mumbai.  When I went to watch the film over the weekend at the nearby multiplex, there were kids, teenagers, young couples, middle aged folks and senior citizens of all hue, who had thronged to watch the film. The buzz was palpable and unprecedented. I have not seen any other Indian actor who commands such a following across age groups, across class divide, across genders, in short across anything, till today.

I don’t think anyone would have foretold such a rise for Rajinikanth way back in 1975 when he literally “entered” into the world of films with Apoorva Raagangal pushing a huge gate in his entry scene. That scene in a sense remains metaphorical of his career in films. He had to push hard the prevailing stereotypes for an actor to establish himself in phase -1 of his career where he was doing support roles, many of which alongside Kamal Hassan, who was already an established star. Much credit is due to director K.Balachandar who saw something in him which others didn’t and mentored him as he evolved into a bankable hero. In this period, what made him stand him apart was not so much his acting prowess but, his screen presence and mannerisms which became to be branded as “Rajini style” in years to come.

The same “Rajini style” packaged with some raw energy on screen carried him through to become a sole hero in films in what will be the phase-2 in his career. Even as he started delivering hits as a hero, there were still questions around his acting skills. Comparisons naturally ensued. If it was MGR Vs. Shivaji in the previous era, it was Kamal Vs Rajini in that era. In those pre-social media times, there were endless arguments on who was better with Kamal camp emphasising on his versatile acting talent while the Rajini camp was pitching in for his wider appeal among masses. But given an opportunity by way of meaty roles, Rajini did prove himself as a consummate actor in films like Mullum Malarum,  Aarilirunthu Arubathu varai, Engeyo Ketta Kural, Thillu mullu to mention a few. Yet, Kamal, the “Class actor” Vs Rajini, the “Mass hero” debate went on unabated. After every film release of either of these stars, I remember our group of film buffs in our engineering college re-opening the debate and ending without a conclusion. There were no hashtags way back then to monitor the trends and announce victories.

It’s in the mid 90’s post Baasha, however, that something changed. Rajini’s appeal then started transcending all boundaries. Young and the old, privileged and not so privileged, urban and the rural, educated and not educated, men and women, Software geeks and accounting professionals – he endeared himself to one and all. Soon, Kamal Vs Rajini debates ceased to exist.  Rajini films were simply too entertaining and he himself became that mass entertainer. While most of Rajini’s films then followed a standard template of “riches to rags to riches” hero, in real life though, from one phase to another his career graph went only one way – Up.

From then on, what happened to him and his career are stuff that dreams are made of. Looking back, here was a guy who was defying all established norms and conventions for a Tamil film hero. Rajinikanth was not conventionally “good looking”. He was not fair skinned or even brown skinned – again a much needed specification for heroes at that time. His grip on the Tamil language and dialogue delivery were not up to the mark. He had not come from the “stage” background which was very common for most actors those days. He did not possess the best dancing skills either. And finally in terms of histrionic skills, there were better heroes around.  In short, he did not fit into the established grammar of a hero. Yet, he became the reigning Superstar of Tamil cinema. In all of these phases, he had the backing of talented screen writers and directors who knew how to package Rajinikanth on the big screen.

All the so called inadequacies didn’t prevent him from making a lasting impact on the audience. For sure, he picked up on his acting skills as time passed by.  He made up for the lack of everything else with his sheer screen presence. He turned his dialogue delivery style into his own with his baritone voice. On screen, he was always a man of high energy. And there was an element of style in his movements which people simply loved. In his own admission, more than his strengths, he was aware of his short comings and decided to work within them.  And more importantly like MGR, Rajini had the pulse of his fans. He was very choosy about the subjects he did and the film makers he worked with. While he was hands off in making of his films, in this phase, Rajini always had the final say on what made it to the final cut.

This phase -3 of Rajinikanth’s career is interesting in more ways than one. Before, commercial films were labelled “Masala films” a category in which Rajini ruled. With his films like Baasha, Muthu and Padayappa, Rajini now created the “Mass” film category and owned it for a long time. Mass films came with “Mass scenes” which became iconic.  Normal lines when mouthed by Rajini repeatedly in a film became punch dialogues.  Today, almost all stars across languages have made mass scenes and punch dialogues necessities in their films.

It is this mass adulation of whatever Rajini did, that pitch forked him to become the phenomenon he is today. Beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu or even South India, his films are eagerly awaited even in Non-Tamil speaking states of India. Not to forget the surprising admiration he earned in Japan since Muthu. It can be safely said that Rajinikanth is the biggest entertainer Tamil cinema has ever seen till today and he continues to be so.

At 70, Rajinikanth is at the December of his career. However he is not done yet. The opening his film like Kabali got, is the envy of many young stars. Even today, the expectations and the frenzy his new film release generates across all age groups are unmatched. The last few of his films might not have matched his all-time hits of the past due to poor story lines and screen play but, Rajini himself gave a good account for himself with his performances.

It’s only apt that the Government of India chose to honour Rajinikanth with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award now as he completes 45 years of stardom in cinema, that too without a break.   Notwithstanding the timing of the award which has set some tongues wagging, Rajinikanth the phenomenon truly deserved the Dadasaheb Phalke award or rather as the memes would go – Dadasaheb Phalke award truly deserved the Rajinikanth! After all, he is indeed Destiny’s own child, isn’t it?

33 Years of Nayagan and its lasting impact!

(This post was written for the News portal The News Minute and first appeared on the 24th Oct, 2020 and it can be read here.)

I remember the episode very well. Nayagan had just released for Deepavali in October 1987. There was no pre-release hype then as it is the case for new releases nowadays. However, the poster depicting a clean shaven Kamal with a bloodied nose intrigued us. To us, it was a “Kamal” film and in those days, we invariably caught up with all Kamal films.

Three of us friends watched the film at Anand Theatre in Madras and after watching, we walked down the stairs. The usual quick post-mortem of a film after watching it was missing and the mood was sombre and reflective.  There was an adrenaline rush inside among us with chests all pumped up.

We got to the gate and hailed an auto to get back home. As was wont those days, the usual argument with the auto driver about “meterukku mela pottu kudunga” ensued. Just this time, there was a sense of belligerence in us.  We were not in a mood to succumb to the auto driver’s fleecing tactics.

Writer Balakumaran style dialogues flowed from the three of us in turns. “Niruthanum. Ithu ellathayum niruthanum. Ethukuyya meterukku mela pottu kudukkanum? Ungalaala Madras pere kettu poyiduchu!’ (Everything should be stopped. Why should we pay above the meter? It’s because of you that the name of Madras is spoilt) “Nee enna vena sollikka. Meterukku mela pottu kudutha varum, illa varaathu” (You can say whatever you want, if you don’t pay extra, the auto won’t come) said the auto driver. This ticked us off completely. We got into the auto and told him “Vandiya police stationukku ottuyya’!  Innikku oru vazhi paakaama vidarathu illa!” (Drive the auto to the police station. We have to resolve this today). Clearly, the film had awakened the sleeping Velu Nayakkar in us!

The above is a factual narration and not an imaginary story. I heard similar episodes from others too. The story of a slum dweller taking on the system and becoming a towering and benevolent don, that too in an alien land, which is what Nayagan was all about, clearly touched a raw nerve with Tamil cinema goers.  One the one side, if the character had such an impact on many of us, on the other side, the way the film was made had a huge impact on Tamil film aficionados.

Just the opening shot of a boy running with the sound of his huffing and puffing in the background blew us away. Within a few minutes we could realise that we were not watching another regular film. This was when we watched Nayagan the first time. Once back in college after Deepavali holidays, we would watch it many times over and keep talking about different aspects of the film endlessly. I guess it was not just us. I have often seen many Tamil filmmakers in the past three decades saying that Nayagan was one of the most influencing films in their lives and career. Tamil cinema, in that sense, can be divided into “Before Nayagan” and “After Nayagan” era in terms of filmmaking.

Starting from Kamal’s acting, his get-up, Mani Ratnam’s staging of scenes, PC Sreeram’s epic camera work (for which he got his first National Award), Ilaiyaraaja’s magical score, Balakumaran’s earthly writing, Thotta Tharani’s art direction, the acting by the supporting cast like Saranya, Janakaraj, Delhi Ganesh, Karthika, Naasar and others, and finally Mani Ratnam’s style of filming – it was a case of all the elements coming together impeccably with precision.  Nayagan sowed the seeds for “The Mani Ratnam film” as we see it now.

Months after Nayagan’s release, even as it ran for silver jubilee in theatres, the film kept coming back in our lives.  So, for our engineering college cultural festival, when we were thinking of a theme for our Tamil skit, we hit upon a novel idea. “What if a Nayagan like character lived amidst us in the college?” was the starting point. The next few days in the evenings extending to night we sat to write the script.  Since we had decided to base the play on the movie, we just had to plug in local issues within the movie template rather than re-invent the wheel.  We didn’t realise that we had stumbled upon the now famous Lollu Sabha format then.

Velu Nayakkar in our play was a local don in the campus. Students knocked at his doorsteps to get their college related problems “sorted” out. He helped all students but at the end could not prevent a “CUP” (which was the slang for “arrears” in our times) for his own son. That was the one line concept. We started filling in the scenes.  Campus politics, tyranny of the mess food, unfriendly and strict professors all found their way into the script.

Having fixed the flow, we got down to writing the lines paraphrasing the original film lines so that people could relate to it easily. We scanned the town to lay our hands on the audio cassette of Nayagan film soundtrack to get the lines right. Those were pre-Google times.

The skit was a resounding hit and we won the first place. Bolstered by the success, we went on to stage a few more plays but the first Nayagan experience still remains etched in our memories just like the film is, even after 33 years!

Coming back to the scrape with the auto driver, when we told him, “Vandiya police stationukku otuyya”, he turned around coolly asked, “Entha station? Ashok Nagara? K.K.Nagara?” (Which station? Ashok Nagar or KK Nagar?) We should have known that the auto driver would have also watched Nayagan a few times and was imagining himself as another Velu Bhai who was not going to take anything lying down!

Pic credit: New Indian Express

Ilayaraja 1000!!!

Boxing a tribute for a man who just completed a journey of 1000 films as a music composer in my usual limit of 1000 words is going to be tough. Even tougher is going to be the task of choosing from his expansive body of work for driving home a point. So it is with much trepidation, I sit to pen this tribute to the Maestro Ilayaraja, – as per me the best “all around” Indian composer of film music of our times on his 1000th film as a music director. The film Thaarai Thappattai (names of folk percussion instruments) and its maker Bala are indeed lucky to be a part of this milestone.

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For those in their 40’s and 50’s and who grew up in the south of Vindhyas and Tamil Nadu in particular, Ilayaraja (Raja from now on) would have been a fellow traveller in life with his music. Tamil Film music has 2 eras – one before Raja and the other after. For the very discerning and ever critical ears in South India inspite of Raja making waves early, I would say he was on “probation” probably till his 100th film – Moodu Pani.  That was a good 5 years since he made his debut in Annakili. Till then, there was a feeling that though he was good, he was repetitive and can’t see beyond Tharai Thappattai – folk style I mean. But ever since this landmark of 100 films I must say there was no looking back. And as we stepped into the 80’s Raja with his music was like “Narasimha Avatar” – Omnipresent. Thoonilum Irunthar, Thurumbilum Irunthar!!!

Honest Disclosure. I am an unapologetic admirer of Raja’s work. A lot has been said and written about his modest upbringing, his travails as a struggler in Madras,..,… and how he became what he is today. So not going to dwell on those. This piece is entirely going to be on my connection with Raja and his work.

For me the tipping point was Raja’s music in Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal.  In a middle class household with just a radio to define the entertainment quotient, my first brush with Raja was the Sunday afternoon programme in Trichy AIR called Neengal Kettavai where the top 10 songs of that time were played. I remember many weeks when the entire 10 songs were of Raja’s. Then gradually technology presented many options to be in touch with Raja.  From his initial style of churning rustic tunes and melodies, gradually his repertoire extended to Western Classical melodies, tunes laced with Carnatic scales and other contemporary stuff.

I started this intended hagiography like piece on Raja by saying that he is the best “All around” music composer of our times. His music was melodious at times, haunting at times, chirpy at times, romantic at times, melancholic at times. I am now at a loss of better adjectives. Enough to say that his music went beyond just great songs. Many aspects of his work prove this beyond doubt.

  • Like there is no other composer who can “Value add” to a song situation better than Raja. There are examples galore:
    • In this song from the film Nayagan, the situation is of a duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja comes with this peach of a melody – Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham,..(listen here) which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers but with a subtle trepidation. The song moves you to no end and grows on you. Amazing stuff!
    • Another example is this song from Punnagai Mannan. The film opens with this situation I think. 2 Lovers try to spend “quality time” together in a forest kind setting before they call it “Quits” forever. The song is supposed to walk us through this rather traumatic situation. Raja lifts the song situation few notches above with this layered piece Enna satham inda neram,…(listen here)
    • Now look at the very many melodies he churned for plain vanilla duet situations which according to me are equally masterclass – Thendral vanthu ennai thodum,.. or for that matter Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa for example.
  • Like Raja’s knack of weaving the story line in the songs. In a sense using the songs to convey a sense of foreboding.
    • If you listen to this song from Moondram PiraiKanne Kalaimane,…. A lullaby song which could have been just that. But Raja (combined with the words of another genius poet Kannadasan) weave a kind of pathos into the lullaby situation and prepare us for what would be coming.
  • Like using a song as a theme in the Background score. Raja is a trail blazer in this.
    • Best example being Then Paandi Seemaiyile,… in Nayagan
    • Another song is Poongaatru thirumbuma, from Mudhal Mariyaadhai.
      • As the film traverses from good times to sad times the mood of the theme song changes.
    • Like being spot on in the choice of singers to suit a particular actor/character/mood.
      • Though those days the choice was limited for singers unlike these days of “Super singers emerging from reality shows” – Raja was canny in his choice. So while he went mostly with SPB/Yesudas for Kamal, It was always SPB for Mohan. And as Rajinikanth transformed from being a villain to an anti – hero to a superstar – Raja also moved from Malaysia Vasudevan to SPB. And he sang himself for the rustic Ramarajan and the likes!
      • When the mood is of sensuousness his call was to Janaki for the female voice. In Idhayathai thirudathey while most of the songs are sung by Chitra the one song (Om Namaha,…) which is a very romantic sensuous number he went with Janaki. By the way this song is another testimony to Point 1 as above.
    • Like Raja being the best in business in India as far as Back ground score is concerned. Apart from his songs, his background score elevates the movie to a different level. I have seen this in many films. But the following examples sort of seal the point.
      • Film is Maniratnam’s Thalapathy. Rajinikanth, Mammooty, Nagesh, Kitty and Arvind Swamy are engaged in a heated argument in Arvind Swamy’s office. Watch this clip. And watch how Raja’s BGM at the end of the scene lifts the drama element of the scene. Best part is for most part of the scene there is no BGM but the timely intervention is what makes it brilliant. This is just pure brilliance.
      • In this very heart rending scene in Kamal’s Apoorva Sagotharargal – it is interesting to see how Raja value adds with his BGM.
      • The Background score in Bhagyaraj’s film – Vidiyum Varai Kaathiru is a case in point where the BGM keeps you on the edge of the seat.
      • Even in his latest outing Tharai Thappattai his BGM is haunting and at the same time outstanding. Watch this.
    • Like without making it obvious, using classical ragas in many of his songs with small tinkering in the scale.

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Can Rajini???

The feeling is almost the same. That feeling when India fails to win inspite of Sachin (or for that matter Kohli now) scoring a masterly century under trying circumstances in a second inning of a test match. Because others fail to do their bit of scoring a few runs required at the end or the bowlers failing to take the wickets in time.  The feeling after watching Lingaa, the latest outing of the “Superstar” was no different.  Rajinikanth in a dual avatar punches above his weight in the film but the story, the script, the director, the music and even the dialogues which lack the usual punch have let him and his fans down badly. Frankly Rajinikanth, coming after an illness which forced him to take a break from movies amazes with his energy and tries to lift the tiringly long movie from ruins. So cannot blame him if the film disappoints his fans but eventually it is his film and so the buck will stop with him I guess. The verdict was clear when my 7 year old daughter who doesn’t get tired of watching the many re-runs of Robot or Shivaji started pestering me as to when the interval would come :(.   Lingaa may still end up being a top grosser at the box office but would not end up in the echelons of Rajini’s best outings.

Most of Rajini’s films in the last 2 decades were based on a central template of “Riches to Rags to Riches (R2R2R)” replete with punch dialogues and other formula items. I hear that Rajini is very careful in giving a go ahead to a script and chooses his director carefully. So when directors gets a chance to make a film with Rajini as the lead, they first consider themselves very lucky. And while directing Rajini, they look at themselves as among his Numero Uno fans first and his “Director” later. So they invariably get conscious of the trappings around Rajini’s image and try their best to stay close to the central theme and the formula.  So whether it is Muthu, Baasha, Annamalai, Arunachalam, Padayappa or even Shivaji they all follow the “Rajini patented R2R2R2” leitmotif. It was a welcome relief to see P.Vasu in Chandramukhi and Shankar in Enthiran (Robot) deviating from the R2R2R theme and still emerging successful.

The question is how long is Rajini or his directors going to flog the same template? As long as it continues to work and rakes in moolah would be the answer I guess. But first with Kochadaiyan and now with Lingaa I feel that the fatigue is setting in. As we saw in Lingaa or for that matter a few years back in Baba (Rajini’s 1st unqualified failure in 25 years) just the Rajini factor may no longer be enough to sustain that Thalaivar aura. The script does play a role. So, what next for Rajinikanth?  As part of the barrage of unsolicited advice he must be getting day in day out, here’s mine.

Looking ahead, he could look at two other people in India who have similar stature and faced similar conundrums in life.

Comparing Rajini’s career with that of Sachin Tendulkar’s may be odious but may be worthwhile. I was always of the opinion that Sachin who carried Indian Cricket on his shoulders for years delayed his retirement from Cricket few years late. He could have retired much before giving us the opportunity to see his stumps cartwheeling against rookie bowlers. As the cliché goes, it is better to retire when people ask “why” and not “when”. Similarly for Rajinikanth it would have been better if he had called it a day after Enthiran. A film in which apparently he was not the 1st choice, but made it a humungous hit with a stellar performance thereby unleashing the larger than life “Rajini phenomenon” and ofcourse the myriad jokes. Director Shankar whose initial choices were Kamal Haasan and Shahrukh for the main leads resorted to Rajini after he realized that only he can make producers fork the mega budget that film called for. Signing off in style post Enthiran on that “high” would have been a fitting climax for an individual who was an outsider in the industry. Now that he didn’t, with Kochadaiyaan and now Lingaa, the conundrum for Rajini begins, I reckon. Decades ago when their careers were going parallel, Kamal started venturing into producing his own films.  I remember reading an interview where Rajini was asked if he will get into production. His answer that time displayed profound wisdom and maturity. He said that he was not keen on producing films because if the 1st movie becomes a hit, the temptation would be to make a bigger hit and if it flops, then the desire would be to deliver a hit. So he felt that it would be a bottomless pit and was happy just acting in movies. Well, I guess with his growing stature and compulsions he had to tweak that philosophy of his. But now I feel he should have applied that wisdom while signing up new movies post Enthiran.  Now that things have come to this head, he can look up to his friend and another successful individual Amitabh Bachchan and take some cues.

Amitabh a mega star and brand in his own right, these days cherry picks his movies and roles where he doesn’t have to play the main lead but where he can leave an impact on the role and the film. This way he is not weighed down by the expectations from a lead actor but at the same time is able to satiate himself of his creative urges and that of his fans’ unending appetite to see him on screen. One or two movies a year in cameo roles till his health and will permits could be a middle ground for the Superstar.

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The moot question is, Can Rajini look at the above options?? Or will he dig into the R2R2R2 template yet again?? Only time will tell.  Well as the folklore goes, “If Rajini can’t, nobody can”. Isn’t it?

On that note, “Dear Birthday, Belated Rajinikanth wishes” 🙂 🙂