NEW DELHI : A year after his action drama Petta collected more than Rs200 crore, superstar Rajinikanth is struggling to connect with young audiences as his latest, action thriller Darbar readies for release this Thursday. The superstar plays a cop on a chase to hunt down a dreaded gangster in the AR Murugadoss directed film but industry experts say the magic is missing though like Petta, he is playing a character much younger than his real age.

“He’s surely continuing with his acting career even after announcing a political foray but it isn’t the same anymore," said a trade analyst on condition of anonymity. The fact that Darbar is yet to sell its satellite and digital rights is proof that the film hitting the screens right before the big Pongal holiday weekend in the south, is generating mixed buzz, the person said.

To be sure, the superstar has had more than a chequered box office record of late. Before Petta, Rajni’s science fiction flick 2.0 (2018) had grossed more than Rs600 crore worldwide but the analyst said that had a lot to do with the north Indian market captured by Akshay Kumar who played the lead antagonist in the film. In Darbar, Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty plays the villain, who doesn’t really command the same draw. His film before 2.0, Kaala (2018) hadn’t really set the cash registers ringing, making only Rs64.5 crore in India across three languages—Tamil, Telugu and Hindi over its opening weekend. Released before that, Kabali (2016) hadn’t stormed the box office either, making Rs48 crore from all its versions on the opening day. His Lingaa and Kochadaiiyaan, both released in 2014, had only managed lifetime box office collections of Rs149 crore and Rs70 crore, respectively, unprofitable considering their massive budgets.

“There is a whole generation among the youth that either doesn’t identify with him as a superstar or has only seen him play older characters, like in Kaala and Kabali," the analyst said. “What is also not helping is that he has come to be identified as pro-government these days and has remained mum on key political issues, something that has not gone down well with the youth," he added.

Rakesh Gowthaman, managing director of Vettri Theatres in Chennai, said films like Kaala and Kabali had not done much to further the Rajni cult among the 18-25 age group that has its own set of younger superstars to cherish. Over the past few years, actors like Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vijay Sethupathi have emerged as top draw among Tamil cine-goers.

“Incidentally, Kabali was the highest advance booking we have ever seen, we were sold out for the first three days within a couple of hours of opening bookings. Tickets will eventually be sold out this time too, but the pace is not the same," Gowthaman said. He added that since the Pongal holiday only falls on Wednesday next week, most people will be busy at work or with purchases this week and are unlikely to turn up for the film in huge numbers. The festival next week is more likely to bring good news for the superstar.

But there is yet another catch. In the north, Rajni’s film has to compete with Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhapaak and Ajay Devgn’s period drama Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, both of which are releasing this Friday. In the south, there is Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu’s action drama Sarileru Neekevaru and Allu Arjun’s Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo that are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday respectively.

“The US which is Rajni’s big domain will be heavily affected too, especially with Mahesh Babu’s film. The point, with Darbar or even Salman Khan’s Dabangg 3, is that the trend has changed and audiences do not want to watch big stars driving mindless masala narratives," the analyst said.

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