To understand the hold that actor Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my former driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like the actor. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyperbole. What passes off as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue if restated in English.
Robert quit working for us for two reasons: He wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.
“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thalaivar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately,” said Robert, just before he quit.
It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day, first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighbourhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bengaluru, Chennai and beyond, and pleaded for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And the way I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaivar (leader/boss), laugh.
“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”
I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.
Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8am. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he took the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled them around my finger. Unlike what happens with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry at the mere twiddle of my thumb.
Robert braked his moped in front of me and sweated.
“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.
“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”
“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs.30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”
“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.
“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”
For me, Rajini movies aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogue, predictability and Rajini style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Baasha or Muthu.
For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films is strange. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names: Kumudavalli (in Kabali) or Tamizhselvi (Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu). The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padaiyappa.
But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot. You go for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde may hope Brexit isn’t “a 1914 moment” (which marked the start of World War I). The US may be caught in the throes of a fulminating narcissist. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.
Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogue that you know by heart anyway.
It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping, irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Baasha” or “Kabali-daa” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into that of a tiger, our eyes are riveted to the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s human resources development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar leaves the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.
Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about 10 times this week. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns