AFTER RAJINI WHO?
Rajinikanth is a legend. A demi-god. His popularity, his fan following and the crazy rituals that precede the release of any Rajnikanth movie are unparalleled. He is in essence a myth in the making, if he hasn’t already become one. Stories about him, such as getting the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu stuck in a traffic jam simply by standing in the middle of the road and the nation wide riots across Malaysia when the premiere of his Sivaji:The Boss (2007) was delayed by a day, have become legends in their own right, creating a vast and very enriching modern day folklore, that are as entertaining as the man and give us an idea about the kind of following he commands. But what must be accepted here and cannot be denied is that the the man will not live for ever. Sivaji Rao Gaekwad is 61 years old, and even though he still brings the same exuberance and energy that he had when he burst onto the silver screen in the 1970s with his cigarette flipping and raw evil laughs, he is getting old. He may have just two or three movies under his belt, before he retires. And when he does retire, what will be felt most profoundly is the vast void he has left behind in Indian and especially Tamil cinema. This is what warrants the question, who will be the next Rajinikanth?
The implications of this question are many. The first is economic. Rajinikanth is a one-man industry. The most bankable star in the country. He commands an exorbitant price (he was reportedly paid Rs.40 Crores for Endhiran) but delivers record shattering blockbusters. He is the only actor in the country for whom producers are willing to shell out 150-200 Crores to produce a movie. And he has been constantly been delivering hits for over three decades now. When he departs the scene, will there be, or is there another, who can stand up and take on these burdens as effortlessly?
The other implication is quite simply sentimental and emotional. Rajinikanth is a god. A phenomenon. Entire generations of film goers have been enthralled by his antics, have whistled at every punch dialogue and clapped at every punch. In a country filled with mass entertainers, he was quite simply, the best. Once Rajinikanth bows out, who out there will make us laugh, cry, dance and sing with as much style, swagger and histrionics?
This is not the first time such questions have been raised. When the legendary MGR departed from the film scene to become the Chief Minister, such questions came up repeatedly. It was Rajinikanth who stood up and filled that void. But the void left behind by Rajini will be bigger and more difficult to fill.
Kamal Hassan belongs to the same generation as Rajinikanth and in the Dualist outlook of Tamil cinema, provides the ‘class’ to balance Rajinikanth’s ‘mass’. Suriya and Vikram, both among the finest actors in the country at the moment, do not have the necessary fan base required to reach Rajini levels and have never really aspired to do so. They have stuck to what they know best, acting, and have done stupendously for themselves. Vijay, may have the necessary fan base, but lacks the charisma and vitality of Rajinikanth, and has not been able to win over new fans outside the Tamil audience, a key ingredient to Rajini’s success. That leaves one candidate, Ajith, who has a dedicated fan base and after Mankatha last year, is on a roll. But his fan base is arguably smaller than Vijay’s and he too has not managed to win audiences outside Tamil Nadu. For now, it seems as though the field is wide open but there is no one to take up Rajini’s mantle.
The dilemma faced by Tamil cinema at this point of time is neither new nor unique to it. Hollywood faced a similar dilemma in the 1970s, with the decline of possibly its last true Superstar, John Wayne. Actors there have managed to carve niches for themselves but no one has managed in last 30 odd years to reach the awe-inspiring position of John Wayne. Hindi cinema faced a similar issue when Amitabh Bachchan slowly receded from the top hero position in the 1990s, though that void was eventually filled by Shahrukh Khan. But with SRK’s current position being very shaky and the sudden rise of Salman Khan as a blockbuster machine, the field is again wide open. But, this dilemma is most acute in the other three big regional industries, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In the Telugu industry, when NTR left the silver screen to try his hand at politics in the 1980s, Chiranjeevi was crowned ‘Megastar’, though his popularity and image could never match NTR’s. Now, with Chiranjeevi too effectively out of movies, there appears to be no one who can consistently deliver hits and have mass appeal at the same time. Mahesh Babu could possibly be a contender to be the undisputed Superstar of Telugu cinema, with two back to back blockbusters, a massive following outside Andhra and the ability to deliver hits that make even the LA Times take note. (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2011/09/dookudu-daring-dashing-showtimes-reviews-prince-mahesh-samantha.html) But, as always, consistency is the key. Kannada cinema too faces a dearth of hit machines, with the demise of Dr.Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan, with even Puneet Rajkumar and Sudeep failing to continuously deliver and Upendra being too eccentric to count. But of all these industries, it is the Malayalam industry that will feel the absence of its big two (Mamootty and Mohanlal) most acutely. For the last two decades, these two superstars have been the be all and end all of Mollywood. And they have not allowed any newer or younger actors to prosper under their shadow. It seems unlikely that once they depart, anyone can so completely capture Kerala as these two have.
What is noticeable above is a trend. As movies start becoming more and more story and script-oriented, they tend to rely less and less on the ability of one single person to carry the whole movie and deliver profits. Maybe there is no answer to the titular question. Maybe there shouldn’t be one. But what we can say for certain is that, once Rajinikanth gives his final scene, the Age of the Superstars will well and truly be over.