The Tamil superstar has created a persona for himself which is bigger than the characters he enacts
|Adishakti actor Vinay Kumar (left) in Impressions of Bheema and Rajinikanth|
When I left for Pondicherry, Mumbai was alive with Rajinikanth mania. The day after I arrived at Veenapani Chawlaâs theatre centre, Adishakti, I was taken to see Sivajiâ"the Boss as a special treat. We arrived too early for the 6 oâclock show. Enough time to flick flies and look around. Underneath the name of the cinema house appeared the legend âPartially air-conditionedâ. A mild discussion ensued. Spatially partial â" like the Rs 7 ticketwallahs hot and humid, the balcony types cool? Or temporally â" like switch on during dance and fight scenes, switch off during comedy and sentiment?
A Frenchman from Auroville caught sight of us. His face broke into a we-are-in-it-together-are-we grin as he sauntered across to where we stood. Fixing his eyes on Vinay Kumar, Adishaktiâs irrepressible actor made of rubber and other such flexible materials, he said, âWhat are you doing here?â
âI came for my wife,â the Aurovillian explained. âSheâs Tamil.â
âBut you are such a good actor yourself!â
âWhat is Rajini?â
Vinay smiled but with some strain.
âHeâs not an actor at all.â
Vinay stopped smiling. âHe doesnât have to be. Heâs Rajini.â
The Frenchman raised an amused eyebrow, shrugged a French shrug and left.
After Sivaji â" the Boss, I was treated to two more Rajini films on DVD. Adishakti actors spent their mornings doing rigorous body and breath exercises. Evenings were devoted to textual analysis â" Hamlet phew! Post-dinner we had Rajini with tall glasses of our chosen brews.
Vinay Kumar presided over these gatherings, (which included Angel the golden retriever) patiently translating every line and scene. I remember only one. In Arunachalam, Rajini, playing the eponymous hero, wishes to book an entire five-star hotel because he has to squander away an obscene sum of money to fulfil one of his dead fatherâs three dying wishes. The hotel manager bows low and says itâs not possible. Some foreigners are staying in some of the rooms and they canât be turned away. Rajini gives him an innocent, lop-sided smile and says innocently, âBut Gandhi told them to go away long ago. Why are they still hanging around?â
So now I know what Rajinikanth is all about. Rajadhyaksha and Willeman have got it all wrong in their Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. They are looking at Rajinikanth with the Auroville Frenchmanâs eyes. Having dismissed his cigarette-flicking trick in half a line, they say, âWith make-up covering his dark skin making it look slightly purple, heavy-lidded eyes affecting a macho gaze and a manic infantile energy, his acting can appear embarrassing but is much appreciated by teenagers.â
Thereâs a distinct touch of malice in that pronouncement. Rajiniâs skin does not look purple. His gaze, heavy-lidded or otherwise, makes female hearts jump. His energy is in-your-face and infectious. His acting embarrasses only those who wear their glasses too close to their eyes and look for Mani Kaul or the mutterings of the method school in Rajinikanth. But Rajinikanth is a folk hero in an urban fairy tale. He is, as Vinay Kumar declares delightedly, pure style.
He has created a persona for himself which his directors are wise to exploit. Forget what âcharacterâ he is playing, he will flip cigarettes in the air or bounce chewing gum off his palm to land neatly in his mouth. He will begin rich, get thrown out on the street and rise again on his own merit. He will toss any number of hefty men over walls and cliffs, through glass doors and windows like so many bundles of straw if they mess with him, emerging unscathed.
With women he is the humble, bumbling bumpkin pleading his case. But when he walks (always in a long shot), it is with measured steps and subtle swagger, a man of the world. I canât help thinking heâd have been magical in Guru.
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