It is going to be 45 years since a Telugu speaking neighbour pestered me into watching 16 Vayathinile. He knew I had given up watching Tamil films, after getting frustrated with the reigning screen gods, fighting a losing battle with the bulge and receding hairlines. While Kamal Haasan and Sridevi had author-backed roles, there was Rajinikanth effortlessly playing a village lout mirroring mischief and menace.
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I made it a point to watch Moondru Mudichu and Avargal where he played an antagonist — not the regular kind with a bunch of underlings and a scantily-clad siren swaying in the background, but heartless and vile in thoughts and actions. No screen villain has given me goose bumps like Rajini in these two films. Add Gayathri to that list. Fifteen films starring Rajini were released in 1977 and most of them had him playing characters with shades of grey, all of which he performed with aplomb.
The year 1978 was a mixed bag for Rajini, who either essayed a villain or played second fiddle to Kannada stars like Krishna and Vishnuvardhan. Producers were wary about backing him as a protagonist. Producer Kalaipuli S Thanu, who was then a distributor, had agreed to distribute Bhairavi after he was handed a few ‘stills’ of Rajini striking a pose with a gun, whip, snake, and a goat on his shoulder. Posters were printed and ads were given in newspapers with Thanu adding the moniker ‘Superstar.’
A 35-foot-tall poster of a towering Rajini was erected in front of a theatre. Thanu had not watched the film until the day of the release. “He was sporting black pants and a pink T-shirt. The theatre manager introduced us when Rajini wanted to meet the distributor,” remembers Thanu.
Rajini shook hands and said, “Superb poster, terrific publicity.” Bhairavi was his first hit as the leading man.
“There was a fire in his eyes,” the late legendary filmmaker K Balachander had told me, whilst rubbing his fore finger with his thumb, when I asked what he saw in the young man with beady eyes and unkempt hair, and who wanted to be an actor despite not being able to speak Tamil.
To his credit, Balachander did not try to change anything. His only advice to the actor was to suggest he learn Tamil. Rajini learnt Tamil and imbibed bits from his screen idols: the gait and laughter from Sivaji Ganesan, tossing the cigarette from Shatrughan Sinha, the brooding, palpable but not overt menace from Amitabh Bachchan. And from Raj Kumar, he learnt humility, addressing fans as God. (Rajini once told me that he ran away from home just to meet Raj Kumar at his Trustpuram residence.)
Many actors do not know how to use their hands, when not on their hips or in their pockets. The twirling of the sunglasses, tossing cigarettes and lighting a match in style solved that for Rajini, till he became comfortable on camera. He was not a trained actor, nor was he trained in dancing, stunts and the usual performance paraphernalia that budding actors equip themselves with. Rajini is instinctive, which worked to his advantage. Mullum Malarum buried any doubts about his emoting abilities. Later, Aval Appadithan underlined this skill, though the character was still in his comfort zone.
The year 1980 was particularly hard on Rajini; a mix of success, over work and his inability to handle all the attention, and success. There were rumours about physical confrontations with journalists, bouts of bad behaviour and reports that he was being treated for a mysterious illness by a renowned doctor. He had just emerged from treatment when he joined the shooting of Billa, a remake of Don. “I was convinced only he could do the role even though we did not hit it off initially,” producer K Balaji once told me. Later, it became a ritual for Balaji, M Saravanan of AVM Productions and Chinnappa Thevar to do one film each with Rajini and Kamal for a few years.
Murattu Kaalai, according to pundits, underlined Rajini’s moniker as the Superstar. I suspect it was the phenomenal success followed by the tepid response to Johnny that made Rajini realise he had a responsibility towards his fans. His choices became clearer though he did stray into an occasional melodrama like Engeyo Ketta Kural.
Balachander’s last directorial with Rajini was Thillu Mullu, after which he realised that he could no longer write films that would satisfy his fans. Instead, he started producing blockbusters with him. Filmmakers Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra too realised that it was more difficult to write a script for Rajini than Kamal. At this stage, producers like Saravanan and Balaji stopped approaching the duo as they became unaffordable.
When I first met Rajini in 1981 for an interview, he was staying at Poes Garden in Chennai. He was excited about conversing in Kannada and full of questions about Bengaluru. He drove me to the sets of his first multi-lingual, Garjanai, in his white Fiat constantly waving and urging fans on bicycles not to come too close.
A fight sequence was being shot in a glass house in Arunachalam Studio in Chennai. He was pleasant, answering questions between shots and frequently enquiring if I was comfortable. During the course of the shoot, a stunt man suffered a deep gash while punching glass and Rajini was deeply anguished, after which he was restless until he returned from the hospital.
Later, whenever I bumped into Rajini in AVM Saravanan’s office or on location, he would smile and ask “chennagiddhira? (how are you?)” in Kannada. When I once visited AVM to interview him for a Bombay tabloid, he suddenly asked, “Why don’t you ask me about people like Vivekananda?” I told him readers might not be interested, like how they would not be interested in a philosopher’s opinion about cinema. He glanced at me, smiled and answered my questions.