Neruppu Da: The Cult of Rajnikanth
How is one to introduce Rajinikanth to an unfamiliar audience? Rather how is one to explain him? To call him a mere 'actor' would be demeaning him. He stopped being merely an 'actor' long long ago. He has even outgrown the term 'Superstar', though it was first used as a title in India for him. The cliched term that is bandied around nowadays is 'phenomenon', though what exactly is this 'phenomenon', one can't say for sure.
To begin at the beginning, there is the man. A balding 65 year old Tamil movie actor, with an enviable track record of delivering monster hits for over three decades and a fan following like no other. His films have set the box office record for highest grossing Tamil film on four different occassions. But a man is more than his Wikipedia snapshot.
So there is the myth. Over the years stories have been whispered, joked about and circulated, becoming building blocks for a monumental edifice. His off-screen persona serving as an enticing counter-weight to his on-screen characters. Every aspect of his personal life has been mytholigized, moving his story into the realm of legends. His rise from a humble bus conductor in Bangalore to being the benchmark for superstardom; the annual pligrimages to the Himalayas, made incognito and without the razzmatazz that follows even the smallest activities of movie stars; the defiantly proud bald patch and droopy skin when his contemporaries seem to have invested in a hundred different surgeries; the simple pancha and shirt that he wears irrespective of place or occassion.
Then, there is ofcourse the myth of the myth. Fandom as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each generation brought up on the tales of the preceding generation. A build up of stories and anecdotes, media profiles and Twitter tributes, that ends up making 'maddening fandom' a default setting. The man and the myth end up becoming the same.
Does this explain adequately explain the hysteria that a Rajnikanth release evokes? Probably not. Rajinikanth maybe gold standard (or gold maybe Rajinikanth standard, as the joke goes) but he has had his share of failures too. The much hyped Baba (2002) crashed and burned, as did Kochadaiyaan (2014) and Lingaa (2014). Two massive box office failures in a single year for a 65 year old leading man would normally signal that his best days are behind him. But we are talking about Rajinikanth. So Kabali, which releases in a week's time, comes with unprecedented hype. Its 1 minute long teaser (there is only one teaser and no trailer) has become the highest watched Indian teaser on YouTube and the one Rajini dialogue in it has already become a part of Tamil pop culture. The crazy, hip-hop centred soundtrack is setting radio stations on fire, and Rajini mania is undying. It is almost as if everybody desperately wants a Rajinikanth movie to succeed. Why?
Maybe it has to do with the fact that we have become a part of his myth somehow. It has stopped being about the man or the actor but is now about the entire....experience, for lack of a better word. The drama and mayhem that ensues before, during and after his releases. A festival that comes every few years, where one participates not for religiousity of it but for the festivities themselves. Maybe it has do with his off-screen simplicity and the desperateness, as in his movies, to see the good guy triumph at the end. Or maybe, we are all just off our rockers.
Rajinikath then cannot be introduced or explained. Only experienced and understood. You cannot however watch a Rajinikanth movie while snuggled up in your bed. It has to be a communal experience. So, when Kabali drops on the 22nd, go and catch a 'first day first show' in any theatre near you, and experience what Rajinikanth is. Then, we will sit down and talk.