As Rajinikanth ages, he needs the trappings of ever-more expensive films like 2.0 to give him the wings to fly.
The most important special effect in Rajinikanth’s new 2.0 is not the army of robots, or the giant mobile phone eagle or the robotic Amy Jackson. The most stunning special effect of 2.0 is Rajinikanth himself, reverse-aged into being the superstar we all expect him to be.
Superstar is a word that comes cheap in India’s Bolly/Tolly/Kollywoods but there is only one Thalaivar. Many of us who don’t hail from the South cannot quite understand him or his appeal. We seek to compare him to other superstars – Jackie Chan or Amitabh Bachchan. But Rajinikanth comes from a different petri dish altogether. In an article, which dubs him ‘The Last Indian Superstar’, social scientist Shiv Visvanathan says, “The miracle of Rajinikanth is that he’s the guy next door who could be the God next door”.
Amitabh Bachchan, in contrast, is now a superbrand. While thousands gather outside his bungalow to mark his birthday, they will just as easily dump a Thugs of Hindostan because they adore his celebrityhood but are bored by his histrionics and cannot be distracted by special effects.
But when Rajinikanth’s Enthiran released, a fan standing in line told Open Magazine: “It’s not about the movie, it’s not about the story, it’s about Him”. There’s even a film about his fandom, For the Love of a Man, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
That’s the difference. Yet the trailer of 2.0 suggests that as Rajinikanth ages, he needs the trappings of ever-more expensive films to give him the wings to fly. His on-screen avatar can stand in a chakra (or is it a tutu?) of fire-spewing weapons and promise “I’ll set your screens on fire”, but it takes more and more out of him each time to do it.
In 2011, Rajinikanth fell sick while shooting Rana, a period film produced by his daughter. As he went in and out of hospital, rumours flew about food-borne illness, exhaustion, bronchitis, liver problems and even kidney failure. He flew from Chennai to Singapore. Narendra Modi visited him. Rajinikanth sent out a 4-minute digitally recorded message to reassure his fans. But in the end, Rana had to be shelved. Now comes 2.0, which at an estimated $76 million takes the crown for the most expensive Indian film ever made. Given the drubbing that Thugs of Hindostan just took at the box office, uneasy must lie the head that wears this crown.
2.0 could well deliver what Thugs could not. Rajinikanth’s Rajini Makkal Mandram or RMM fans put him in a league apart from Amitabh Bachchans and Aamir Khans who in the end are just stars not demigods.
What’s fascinating about Rajinikanth is that unlike other ageing superstars, he feels no particular compunction to make his real-life persona match his on-screen persona. In real life, he looks like many other men his age – bald, glasses and perhaps a safari suit. He does not feel compelled to disguise that persona from his fans. He is confident that they will accept the alchemy of movies that will turn him once again into Rajini Superstar and the audience will not remember or care that even the hair is make-believe.
This is not Dev Anand buttoning his collars ever higher to hide the creeping onset of age, surrounding himself with ever-younger leading ladies as if that would somehow bolster the illusion that he had stopped time. As Waheeda Rehman recently said, “(Male actors) think, ‘We will look as young as the age of the actresses we work with’. There’s an insecurity.”
But the question is how long can Rajinikanth stop time with special effects? Our movies do not allow stars to age gracefully, trapping them in a Botox bubble of denial. Women are just aged out while men strap on wigs, belt in their paunches and still act as if they are 29. Aamir Khan had already crossed 40 when he was an angry post-grad student in Rang De Basanti. These days, stars are increasingly better preserved but a Shah Rukh Khan’s strangely bionic body, while an oddity worth of admiration, is almost as surreal as 50-plus Manoj Kumar playing a college student in Clerk. It’s only a rare star like Bengal’s Sabyasachi Chakravarty who said he needed to stop playing Feluda, the famous Bengali detective created by Satyajit Ray. “I know my paunch is an eyesore. So, I think it’s time for me to call it quits,” he said.
Where once aged male superstars looked like tired roués still romancing increasingly younger women, now they might look like artificially preserved Peter Pans. Neither is about aging gracefully. Rajinikanth though is uniquely positioned to make the jump from screen to real life instead of clinging onto screen glory with the help of special effects.
In 2018, an India Today power list ranked him at number 30 above many politicians like Shashi Tharoor. No wonder he sends pundits and politicians into a tizzy when he says during a Fandarshan that the system is corrupt even if leaders are good and tells his followers, “I will call you when there is war”.
Of course, he still remains untested as a politician. While his appeal is immense and his devout faith an asset, D. Ravi Kumar, general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, tells The Hindu: “He thinks politics is something like a film. You have to make it a success. What is his political commitment? What are his views on social inequalities and issues?”
He already found out during the Tuticorin protests that in politics, one can veer dangerously off-script when a 21-year-old asked him “Who are you?” and he replied “I am Rajinikanth”, and set off a hashtag trollfest. He’s promised to “rule like MGR” if elected, but he still sends out mixed signals about his political plunge.
This 2.0 might be another superhit on screen unlike Kaala, but, at this point, the real question is whether there will be a real-life 2.0 reboot for Rajinikanth off-screen.
The author is a social commentator and writer.