The dark knight of Chennai

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:02 hrs

If you are still around reading this review, then Rajinikanth (along with minor help from assorted Marvel Comics sidekicks) was the demolisher of the prophesied Mayan apocalypse. If you choose to believe, then you would be surprised at the size of the legion of fellow believers. But beyond the cult, who is this Rajinikanth? Wildly popular though he is, the reclusive actor has proven very difficult to pin, or rather pen, down. There have been a few half-hearted attempts over the years to track his story and, finally, here is one that has made a fair effort. Rajinikanth — The Definitive Biography is by Naman Ramachandran, a film critic who has also been active as a producer and screenwriter in television and film, both in India and abroad.

The origins of Rajinikanth are today almost a part of Indian folklore. His legion (of which Ramachandran confesses very early to being part of) would have you believe that even his physical birth was a celestial event by itself. Rajinikanth though was born a mere mortal as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad into a lower middle class Marathi family living in the city of Bangalore. What is true was his fierce desire to make it as a film actor that propelled him to chase the mirage of stardom in tinsel-town, leaving behind the “safe” occupation of a bus conductor.

In 1973, Chennai, the hub of the film industry in south India at the time, became home to young Shivaji as he enrolled in the first batch of the Madras Film Institute to learn acting. Metaphorical fate did its bit as the Shivaji, who was on borrowed time and money, was spotted by the legendary film director Kailasam Balachander. Balachander, who has always had an eye for the unusual, decided to cast Shivaji in his 1975 Tamil film Apoorva Raagangal. It was a rarity in those days for a dark-skinned actor to find work in the industry and Shivaji was christened “Rajinikanth” (which means the colour of night) by Balachander in reference to his skin colour, the fact that he was playing an equally dark character and to avoid a naming conflict with the legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan.

Rajinikanth’s life and this book is essentially a story of two parts — the meteoric rise of a genuinely gifted actor and later Rajinikanth, the phenomenon. It is the former that, sadly so far, had not been documented while the latter has found plenty of play. To give Ramachandran credit, he has dug extensively into monochrome film archives and fading memories of industry old-timers to piece together the rise of Rajinikanth, the actor.

Rajinikanth brought a new dimension to an industry that at that point in time was in metamorphosis. It is nothing but a delight to delve in detail into the bouquet of roles that the early Rajinikanth found himself attempting. And added to it are nuggets about the life of the man behind the scenes, which includes his favourite brands of alcohol over the years.

The rise of Rajinikanth, the phenomenon, is meticulously chronicled. Though the author does not say so in so many words, the latter half of Rajinikanth’s career is a story of pragmatic acting choices that leaned towards building Brand Rajinikanth. The actor hardly found takers in Bollywood and northern India for a long period but then, call it fate or whatever, he found himself in a time of metamorphosis again, this time in the form of exploding television, media and the Internet. Today a Delhiite will pay to watch Ranjinikanth, just to get a taste of the cult branding, complete with the cigarette flicks, unreal fight sequences and tacky one-liners.

Since the author is confessedly a die-hard Rajinikanth fan, you have to live with sycophancy in the writing. What makes it bearable is the meticulous research, which has yielded enough tidbits from the real life of Rajinikanth to keep you engrossed. You will be left disappointed, though, that the author skims over the elephant-in-the-room, Rajinikanth and his political ambitions in Tamil Nadu. With time rapidly running out for the actor to make a move — he turned 63 this month — one would have expected the book to offer some clues. Sadly, the author and his interviewees stay well clear of what appears to be a riddle that we have to probably wait for the actor himself to answer.

When you unwrap the book from its packaging, you might be taken aback to find a glittering sketch of the actor with his trademark smile emblazoned in gold. But if there is ever a story and a persona who can pull off a gold glitter hardcover, it surely is Rajinikanth.

Author: Naman Ramachandran
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 244
Price: Rs 699

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