Is Salman Khan the new Rajinikanth? His friends and business associates certainly hope so. They have been marketing him of late as a genre-proof marquee name, the actor who can transform the fate of a movie simply by being associated with it, the superstar whom audiences want to watch regardless of the contours of his role. Whether Khan is in Ready or Bodyguard or Ek Tha Tiger, he is Salman Khan first and the character afterwards. It’s likely that in the coming years, it won’t be necessary to remember which role Khan played in which film. Just like Rajinikanth, who has been playing a version of himself in several films for close to 40 years.

To be Rajinikanth is to become a superlative. It is seemingly impossible to talk about the man without lapsing into fawn-dom. An objective biography seems to be an oxymoron. Gayathri Sreekanth’s The Name is Rajinikanth, published in 2008, is a hyper-effusive and uncritical biography of the star, but hidden in its shambolic and unabashedly sycophantic prose are insights into his troubled life. There are gossipy details of his nervous breakdown in the late 1970s, alleged tensions in his marriage and an aborted attempt to become an ascetic. Detractors of the book have questioned the very premise of a Rajinikanth biography—the man is deemed to be beyond analysis.

Thus Sight & Sound critic Naman Ramachandran deserves praise for attempting the impossible—a biography of God, no less. However, even Ramachandran’s Rajinikanth (Penguin/Viking, 699), which claims to be the definitive story of the extraordinary and unique metamorphosis of a coolie and bus conductor from Bangalore into a southern superstar, cannot escape the Rajini cult. Who can blame him, given the mania that continues to surround the actor, whose ill-health in April last year led to the shelving of the action movie Rana? The biography, which contains valuable information about his acting career, notes in its introduction that “For his fans, Rajinikanth is God, and for the world, he is a cultural phenomenon transcending the trappings of a mere movie star". The book concludes that “Rajinikanth is immensely popular, a phenomenon—and there are no two ways about it".

As Chitti the Robot in ‘Enthiran’. Photo: Courtesy Srinivas Mohan. Copyright Sun Pictures

The Rajinikanth cult has produced a whole bunch of meta-referential moments in the movies in recent years, among them M. Sasikumar’s crime drama Subramaniapuram. One of the best commentators on the phenomenon is S. Shankar, the Tamil director of such blockbusters as Indian and Anniyan. Shankar first took up the subject in Sivaji: The Boss, whose title is derived from the actor’s real name, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. The plot is fodder for students of post-modernism in Indian cinema. Sivaji is replete with references to Rajinikanth’s hardscrabble upbringing, his older films and even his dark skin (he attempts to whiten his complexion at one point in the story). Sivaji dies in the movie and is resurrected—as a bald character (the actor has a receding hairline in real life and refuses to cover it with wigs), who is basically Rajinikanth on speed.

Shankar does one better in his dual-language science-fiction movie Enthiran/Robot, which was released two years ago. Rajinikanth plays scientist Vaseegaran who creates a robot in his own likeness—the first sign that this movie is a valuable entry into any study of the Rajinikanth phenomenon. Chitti, the robot, doesn’t only look like his creator, he also resembles the grey-shaded and often crooked characters played by Rajinikanth in the early years of his career. Chitti is initially “good"—he protects Vaseegaran’s girlfriend, played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, from gang rape on a moving train. In a stunning moment, he turns on his magnetic field when confronted by an army of sickle- and knife-bearing heavies, causing the weapons to cling to his back and making him resemble a many-armed goddess.

The meta-referencing gets out of control when Chitti decides to turn on his surrogate father. He creates an army of robots, all of whom look like him. When Chitti takes out his rage on the world, the hundreds of robots come together to form a giant Chitti—a sky-high Rajinikanth who looms on the horizon. Chitti is finally defeated but only after he has stolen the show from his boring creator. In the last sequence, Shankar puts Chitti’s talking head in a museum. The process of converting man into artefact is complete.