Overrated, Not: Rajinikanth | Swaddling
In ‘Overrated, no,’ we revisit things that were so good, they quickly turned bad, and explain why they deserve a comeback.
In the mythology of Rajinikanth, very little remains to be said. Entire pages have been devoted to a man who, for many, is a god walking the Earth. There are all the trappings of a hero’s journey in his story: beginning with his humble origins in Maharashtra as a bus driver, ending with his inimitable name, his dialogues and his euphoria-inducing moves through the country. There’s nothing quite like attending a Rajinikanth movie “FDFS” – first day, first show – where the title card “Super Star Rajni” and iconic music ignites a frenzy of deafening cheers, hooting, whistling and dancing among the most enthusiastic.
And yet, a complicated legacy endures. This is partly due to the fact that in Tamil cinema the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred to such an extent that idolized stars use their on-screen personas as a pipeline to politics. At first, Rajinikanth built himself on screen as someone with “mass” appeal; unlike his contemporary, Kamal Hassan, who is associated with “class” films. The iconic hand gestures, the conniving sneer, the cigarette, and later, the sunglasses toss are all hallmarks of a man whose legend eclipses that of most. What made Rajinikanth’s image unassailable was his explosive and over-the-top persona; his films are full of generous rewards for audiences willing to suspend their disbelief for a few hours at the cinema.
In the popular imagination, however, the man was reduced to a kind of caricature. It was when his superstar rose to prominence beyond the far reaches of the south that the stereotyping and crude humor began: the genre of “Rajinikanth jokes” stood on an uncomfortable line between affectionate tribute and mockery. derisory. “He is the very end of analysis,” author Manu Joseph once wrote, adding that Rajinikanth is “the hero of the semi-literate” and a “beloved clown.” Besides the obvious elitism and classism, Joseph’s words echo widely held sentiments about Rajinikanth: that he is one for “the masses”, and therefore not one whose name is compatible with taste or taste. ‘momentum.
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And soon enough, critically masked high-society snobbery quickly descended on the star’s work; trashing each of its films, dialogues and movements as being regressive, simple and crude. This, notwithstanding the fact that Amitabh Bachchan’s rise to stardom stemmed from the same genre of “mass” films. The difference in their respective treatments, however, is that Rajinikanth is from humble beginnings and Bachchan is already from legendary ancestry.
The grouse against Rajinikanth so seems like you can’t take him seriously. That, unlike the more serious films of his contemporaries, whether in the South or beyond, Rajinikanth is not just unserious. He’s an idiot.
This bashing, in particular, had the effect of stripping his aura. But this assessment completely misses that the magic of Rajinikanth lies in the suspension of disbelief, the larger-than-life iconography, and the vision of what realizing working-class dreams would look like: the man who can, and does, evolve into a hero. Even so, Rajinikanth’s role in Chandramukhi (2005) meant a marriage of ‘class’ and ‘mass’ – retaining the signatures of the icon while transposing it into a different context than the one in which we are accustomed to seeing it. Like the scholar SV Srinivas the dish, his character in the film represented “the ‘death’ of the Rajinikanth characters, if only to disavow that possibility.” By reinventing not only himself, but also genre and form, he opened up possibilities in film and popular culture that turned the wheel even against ridicule and discredit.
Also, in recent years, Rajinikanth has moved into slightly different territory – thanks to directors like Pa Ranjith. His detractors, and even some fans, had words for that too: he became stereotypical, posed and boring. But there are not too many others of his stature who appear in three-piece suits in front of a portrait of Ambedkar, embodying a Dalit character who resolutely asserts his identity. Far from being an abject recipient of violence, he embodies an emblematic hero of Malcolm X, Che Guevara and the revolutionaries whose images frequently appear on the screen.
However, what makes Rajinikanth endure is that he is also infallible. Over the past decade, many have noted his internal struggle between clinging to his youthful antics or playing characters his own age. Here is a living legend in turbulence with its own image; regardless of the box office, however, the title card cheers remain as resounding as ever.
And even for someone whose the myth transcends his personal flawsvery little is equal to its delivery in Kabali (2016), for example, telling the antagonist why he’s wearing a costume, with his trademark sneer to boot. All against a backdrop of electric guitar riffs, these moments are the very essence of his films. They represent not only stories, but aspirations. By simply staying true to the power of storytelling, Rajinikanth fortified the cultural heritage of films, transforming it from a mere viewing experience into a veritable ritual with which people forge meanings.
If Rajinikanth has taught us anything about dreams, it’s that they can and often do come true.