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Monday, November 18, 2019

Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography


SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography |

Author: Naman Ramachandran
Publishers: Penguin/Viking 
Edition: Hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-670-08620-7
Pages: 290 
Price: Rs 699

Two essential aspects of the Rajinikanth story make any attempt at constructing a narrative instantly fascinating. One, the rags to riches tale of a bus conductor who went on to become one of the most luminous icons that Indian cinema has ever produced borders on the fantastical.Two, the reasons behind the fanatical following that Rajini commands is difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on.

On the first count, Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography is a lively recap of the life and times of the Superstar, crammed with anecdotes, analyses of the career-defining films and the assessments of those who have known and worked with the star.

Film critic and journalist Naman Ramachandran, who, we are told, “was placed on Planet Earth for the express purpose” of writing this book, has delivered a highly readable account that is made all the more entertaining by the fact that he combines the enthusiasm of a self-avowed fanboy with the clinical detachment of a professional critic.

From the personal to the professional, and the commercial to the spiritual, all of which are essential to the understanding of Rajinikanth the man and the actor, Ramachandran goes over every facet of the superstar’s life. He draws upon the reminiscences of Rajini himself and his relatives, friends and associates.   

The book contextualises the apotheosis of Rajinikanth within the tradition of Dravidian politics, the history of post-Independence Tamil cinema marked by the MGR-Sivaji Ganesan duopoly and the perspective of the pan-Indian Hindi movie industry. Rajini not only starred in many remakes of Mumbai hits of the 1970s and 1980s on the way to becoming the pivot of the Tamil cinema business, he also acted in several Hindi films without quite replicating his southern success.

On the second count, while Ramachandran does devote many a page to grasping the precise nature and substance of Rajini’s stardom, he faces the obvious obstacles. How do you explain in accessible terms the humongous appeal of a man who isn’t a handsome hunk and thinks nothing of appearing in public without a starry mask?

The author quotes a fellow journalist to assert that “Rajinikanth is the end of analysis”, but he does offer interesting glimpses into how and why this Kannada-speaking man of Marathi descent has swept away all competition in Tamil filmdom in a career spanning over three decades. Always a workaholic known for his professionalism and speed, he had as many as three dozen releases in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada in 1978-79.

This was a crazily frenetic period. MGR had just bowed out to concentrate on politics. Rajini and his contemporary Kamal Haasan (he had 33 releases in 1978-79) moved into the breach. Rajinikanth, generous to a fault, is unstinting in his admiration for Kamal Haasan. “I grew as an actor watching Kamal Haasan acting,” he tells the author. “I had the good fortune of being able to observe Kamal Haasan from close quarters…”

His humility notwithstanding, there can be no denying that the box office clout that Rajini wields is second to none. Ramachandran does provide insights into the making of the superstar who went from being a mere mass entertainer to a veritable cultural behemoth, but offers no overarching explanation. Actually, there can be none.  
The first time that Rajini was labelled a ‘Superstar’ was in mid-1978, the year of Bairavi. Distributor S Dhanu put up a 40-foot cutout of Rajini at Plaza theatre in Madras. The civic authorities ordered the cutout to be pulled down on the grounds it was a safety hazard. Dhanu reinforced the cutout and so it stood staring down on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. The man in the cutout quickly seared himself into the collective consciousness of Tamil movie fans. But this book isn’t just for Rajini fans. This “definitive biography”, if not the last word on the Thalaivar, is a welcome primer for anybody seeking to grasp what has gone into the making of this supernova: a bit of good fortune, loads of hard work, punishing and health-threatening schedules, the sustained support of talented co-workers and a whole lot of the kind of magic that defies scrutiny and comprehension. Rajini just happens. This book is a fitting celebration of a showbiz marvel.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017