Friday, May 04, 2007

The enigma that is `Superstar'

Unprecedented speculation and expectations surround Rajnikanth's soon-to-be-released film, Sivaji.

As much as Rajnikanth's on-screen charisma is talked about, his off-screen persona is widely discussed too; a combination many believe to be the crux of the power he wields in cinema.

Lights on! Rajnikanth in a still from Sivaji.
If, like the film Being John Malkovich, one could find a portal that leads us into the consciousness of one of India's highest paid actors, then, in all probability, there would be a mad scramble to become the epitome of success and one could finally explain the conundrum that is Rajnikanth. `Superstar' isn't simply an epithet that follows his name, but now a way of life for millions of fans around the world. Japan's mania for the star is a case in point.
With his latest film Sivaji due for release, and his previous film Chandramukhi still running in theatres two years after its release, speculations and expectations have reached an unprecedented high, as the industry and the audience are agog with curiosity to see how the film would fare at the box office. Style, mannerisms, punch dialogues, and action sequences are a given in any Rajnikanth film, but so is emotional drama, elaborate comedy sequences and songs filled with innuendoes. With a crew of some of the best technicians in the Tamil film industry, Sivaji promises to have all of that and more.
Behind the scenes
While most of the production team remains unanimously tight-lipped about the story, they are all equally garrulous about the filmmaking process with the Superstar. National award-winning cinematographer K.V. Anand, who has also worked with Bollywood superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, says, "Most cinematographers face a challenge if the artiste is not on time, as it affects lighting conditions. With Rajnikanth, that problem never arose as he was either on time or early. Professionalism and humility are his main assets."
A thought echoed by two-time National award winner Thota Tharani. "My relationship with Rajnikanth goes back many years. There has never been any pressure working with him and we share a very healthy relationship, where we discuss the set design, throw ideas and suggestions at each other, and work harmoniously," he says.
One might think working with a star who carries so much public adulation might be tedious. Top it off with director Shankar, known for his assiduous and meticulous working style. But those involved with Sivaji beg to differ, as they talk about the professionalism and challenges this combination brought forth. For Nalini Sriram, a costume designers in the film, the experience was well worth the effort, despite the fact that her first Rajnikanth film turned out to be as big as Sivaji. This did give her a few "sleepless nights", but more than anything else, she feels "privileged and grateful" that she worked with Rajnikanth. "There is this quietness at the core of his being, which I have never really experienced with any other actor. Work was so uncomplicated during the filmmaking process that I can scarcely believe it in retrospect," she says. As for actor Shriya, Sivaji will probably be the milestone in her career. "The first shot with Rajni sir was for the song Vaaji Vaaji, and I was understandably nervous. But that was the only instance. Both the director and the Superstar were extremely encouraging. I think the USP of Sivaji is the fact that it is a complete entertainer and will appeal to audiences of all ages," she says.
If a Shankar film spells extravaganza, then that has just doubled with Sivaji. Anand reveals that his most challenging sequences were the action sequences and the picturisation of the song, Sahana Saral. "For this song, we erected a set that was entirely made of glass. We had to constantly be careful of our own reflections on the glass while shooting for the song," he says. "I think that of all Rajnikanth films, Sivaji will be the most expensive in terms of set design, the opulence of which will be evident on-screen," says Tharani.
Trade Talk
As much as Rajnikanth's on-screen charisma is talked about, his off-screen persona too is widely discussed; a combination many believe to be the crux of the power he wields in cinema. S.C. Babu, CEO of AVM Productions, says, "The Rajnikanth phenomenon can hardly be explained; one can never put a finger on a particular reason for his success. His magnetic on-screen presence is perfectly balanced by his off-screen humility. For producers, there is always a guarantee that a Rajni film will be a sure-fire winner. AVM, in fact, has witnessed this over the years, and Sivaji, our ninth Rajnikanth film, perfectly blends into our diamond jubilee year."
But what is it about the actor that even after 160 films and at the age of 60 continues to beguile people? Film historian Randor Guy explains, "Most of the movie-goers today are from the lower rungs of society, and they are able to relate to him easily. He is dark and he began as a bus conductor and made it to the top. He has developed a style for himself, his gimmicks on screen are a major plus, and you have got to appreciate his talent and flair for comedy. One can't really make it to the top based on just publicity and fan following."
Film historian, Film News Anandan agrees. "When K. Balachander met him and asked him to act, Rajnikanth is said to have acted like Sivaji Ganesan. Balachander then advised him to develop his own style and talent and not imitate others; an advice he took seriously, and one I believe forms the foundation of the success he enjoys today."
Whether or not Sivaji will be a hit is the question on everyone's lips. But as Randor Guy recalls, "Harry Cohn, the man who built Columbia Pictures and one of the dreaded producers of his time said: `Whoever says a movie is going to be a hit is either the world's biggest idiot or is planning to buy all the tickets himself'."
With a Rajnikanth film, however, Harry Cohn could well be proved wrong.

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