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Book excerpt: Rajinikanth, the raw, irreverent hero of the subaltern

In this extract from her biography of the superstar, author Vaasanthi Sundaram outlines Rajinikanth's rise as the result of more than just his dynamic presence and notes the role played by social, cultural and political change.

Vaasanthi Sundaram

Actors who were baffled at the way he stormed the field could only attribute it to ‘sheer luck’ or the fact that he was ‘blessed’. Rajini was lucky in a sense. His arrival coincided with a massive change that the Tamil film industry was undergoing in terms of production, content and storytelling.

Tamil commercial cinema was dominated by MGR (who also belonged to the DMK), Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, Jaishankar and such others. From the 1950s till the early 1970s, films that projected the resurgent Dravidian symbolisms and party ideologies with melodramatic acting and theatrical textual Tamil scripts dominated the scene. The Dravidian movement used films and film songs sung and acted by MGR, the hero, to take its ideologies to the masses. The audience lapped it all up during the period that was charged with and inspired by revolutionary ideals. MGR always played the do-gooder, a protector of damsels in distress, a non-smoker and non-drinker. His promoters envisaged his characterization with a view to projecting him as a future chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He became a symbol for the party. MGR fan clubs were created to muster votes.

The DMK came to power in 1967, and later, when the DMK split and MGR formed his own party, AIADMK, in 1974, there was no longer any need to use cinema to take the ideology to the masses. Veteran actors MGR and Sivaji had outgrown their romantic hero roles. Even their most ardent fans were tired of the same old plots with heroes giving sermons about good behaviour.

By the time K Balachander came on the scene, the cinema-going public was ready for a whiff of fresh air. Balachander was born into a Brahmin family in Nannilam, a small town in Thiruvarur district. He completed his graduation and joined the accountant general’s office in Madras as a clerk. A theatre enthusiast, he had been writing plays with themes that interested the middle class. He was not part of the Dravidian movement. The movement had empowered the backward classes. Now a vibrant middle class, aware of equal rights and gender issues, was ready for a conscious questioning of traditional mores and values. Balachander was able to capture the shifting mood of the audience and write plays that spoke to them. His characters were bold, irreverent, and asked pertinent questions. The dark actor was not always the villain and the fair one was not an angel. There was no age taboo for love. He painted prostitutes as prisoners of circumstances and not as social outcasts. The woman was no longer just the loyal faithful wife who did not cross the threshold of her house.

His plays were huge draws and when he ventured into cinema, his films were box-office hits.

It was at this time that music maestro Ilaiyaraaja and director P Bharathiraja also entered Tamil films. They set new trends in music composition and storytelling, respectively. Bharathiraja shifted the lens outside the studios and set his stories in the countryside. Theatrical dialogue backed by ideological underpinnings was replaced by colloquial banter. For the first time, the urban audience could smell the freshness of the village air and hear the chirping of the birds.

This is when Rajinikanth entered. His entry marked a clear break from the conventional fair-skinned hero who was a paragon of virtue. Rajinikanth was dark, he smoked and drank on screen, and could play dark characters and get away with it. His rawness and irreverence made him a hero of the subaltern.

Excerpted from Rajinikanth: A Life by Vaasanthi Sundaram with permission from Aleph Book Company. Click here to buy your copy.

Related topics

Indian cinema