We all know of the screen names that people get. K Balachander and Bharathiraja are two directors known for giving their screen actors a name. But no other screen name has had such a following, adulation, admiration and I would dare say, worship, as much as Rajinikanth. As I write his name I am reminded of my childhood days.
There was this General Knowledge book which was part of the compulsory according to the curriculum. This was in my 4th or 5th grade. There were images of different celebrities on one side and we had to write the correct name corresponding to the image. I had no idea about the others but when I saw Rajinikanth's image my joy knew no bounds. I remember this incident very clearly. Under his image, I remember trying at least 5 different fonts to write his name. That is the effect of the charisma he exudes on screen. I even have had dreams where I talk to the Superstar. In fact, I have longed for it! I still secretly do. All of this is way, way before I started to follow cinema with an aim to appreciate it. This was during a time when I celebrated him for what he was on the screen.
There are different kinds of fandoms. One is of the kind that follows the celebrity everywhere - physically and digitally and gathers information about his/her personal and reel life. There is another that doesn't miss the FDFS (First Day First Shows) of the actor/actress. There is another that looks for ways and means to make other films have a bad time - by creating memes, or foul word-of-mouth. Then there is one, the likes of me, that secretly enjoys every move of his on-screen, cherishes the goosebumps all within the self, gapes at the actor and blushes when he winks at the camera. I remember watching Petta, completely agape! My mouth was open for almost the entire run time of the film! After my experience (sadly only from a TV) this was the time I got goosebumps while watching the Superstar on screen. I will be speaking for many when I say that Karthik Subbaraj (the director) brought back the Thalaivar from the days of Baasha for every Rajini fan all over the world.
Let us have a look at his career now. He started off playing a not-so-positive role in the film Apoorva Ragangal (1975), a film by the legendary K. Balachander. Thereafter, he had acted in various films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada in mostly negative shades. He even acted in a Bangla film! His first film as a solo hero came in the year 1978 playing Mookaiya in Bairavi. It is also for this film that a 35-feet cut out was raised for Rajinikanth. The tradition of intro-songs for his entry started with the film Vanakkathukuriya Kathaliye released in the same year. Since then, rarely will you find films which don't have a separate intro-song for his entry. In the early 80s, Rajinikanth remade a lot of Amitabh Bachchan's films. Many of them were successful too.
Even though he had been called the Superstar in many of his earlier films, it was only in the year 1992, with the release of the blockbuster Annamalai that he got established as a mass Superstar in South India. The film had a dream run at the box office. He went on to collaborate with the same director Suresh Krishna for his next film too (Veera). Though the film didn't do as well as Annamalai, it was a hit nevertheless. It was after this film that Rajinikanth announced that the next film would be also with the same director and the name of the film is Baasha. It would not be out of place to have a peek into how commercially intelligent Rajinikanth was when it came to choosing his film scripts.
In the book My Days with Baasha, director Suresh Krishna (who also wrote the book) talks about why Rajinikanth chose to do Veera, a remake of the Telugu film Allari Mogudu. The director Rajinikanth had earlier already discussed the plot outline of Baasha and the former wanted to make that film. However, Rajinikanth said that the audience has not yet come out from the dream run of Annamalai and it is only sensible that they do a lighter, comedy film before teaming up for a commercial bonanza which would have a greater impact. Hence, after Veera, Baasha was born. True to his prediction, Baasha, saw the collection that no other film saw in Tamil Nadu till then. It grossed a whopping 18.5 crores in Tamil Nadu.
Look how sensible and smart Rajinikanth is. He knew that Annamalai would be a huge deal and would linger in the minds of the audience. Coming up with another film on the same lines of revenge would dilute the potential of the new project. Hence, Veera was released before he came back with a bang as Baasha.
Following Baasha, it is only Padayappa that came anywhere close to the success of the former. With a stellar cast of Sivaji Ganesan (his last film), Ramya Krishnan, Nasser, Abbas, Lakshmi and others supporting Rajini, the film was a blockbuster. This film is one of the very few films in Tamil cinema that has a well-written villain role for a woman which was played to perfection by Ramya Krishnan. I can go on and on about how just his cameo gives cinema a boost unparalleled by cameos of any other actor (refer Ra.One and Chandramukhi).
Here is an open challenge to all the readers. Show me an actor in the past 45 years who has always remained way, way above the competition that comes across in the industry for the coveted Superstar post. In fact, even the term got its sheen and glamour because of his electrifying and mesmerising on-screen persona.
It is not that Rajnikanth can't act. His classics like Mullum Malarum and Aarulirunthu Arubathu Varai (one of my favourites) show his mettle in acting off-beat roles with realism and charisma. With his terrific sense of what the audience wants from him - which is evident in the way, he has chosen his scripts of late, Kaala, for instance - his inimitable style, charm and magnetism on-screen, his signature movements and his characteristic guffaw are some of the very few tangible reasons why, if and when he leaves the cinema industry, the void can't be filled. One may argue that Vijay and/or Ajith can come up to that place. Sorry boss, there can always be only one Superstar and he is the one and only Thalaivar.