Thamizh Talkies: The Superstar Rajinikanth challenge
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
On my recent visit to the gym, I heard a conversation about Darbar between my gym trainer and his client. I caught a few snatches of their chat amidst my warm-up, and when my trainer (a self-confessed Rajinikanth fan who saw Darbar FDFS) came up to me to start my session, I asked him which film he preferred between Darbar and Petta. He didn’t even wait a second to give me his answer. He qualified it further by saying how in Darbar, Rajinikanth worked for the film, but in Petta, the film worked for Rajinikanth as well. His answer resonated with that of many ardent fans like me who have by now watched Darbar and who feel that yes, while Rajinikanth still has what it takes to make a film work, it's always the director who will have to make the film work for a superstar like him.
To elaborate further and list out a few elements where Petta scores, well, to begin with, Petta didn’t reference Rajinikanth’s age when it came to romance. It was perhaps one of the best-handled scenes, done with such maturity and finesse by Karthik Subbaraj, along with the action sequences which carried enough strength. The focus of Petta was between three central characters (be it in the flashback or the whole film), and the story could be contained within one short paragraph (which is how it should be). Also, the dialogues--those verbal punches--nested well within Rajinikanth’s character, Pettaivelan. It was truly a film which 'brought back' Rajinikanth in full form. He looked charming enough, agile enough, and unapologetic enough to handle the 'mafia-ness' of it all. The punch lines were more of an extension of his role in the film rather than in real life. The music (Anirudh) and camera work (Thiru) was top notch. The icing on the cake was the added casting of Vijay Sethupathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, whose screen time critics may question, but my defining moment for his character Singaram, was the way he sits crouched on a chair like a coiled lizard, waiting for the climax massacre to happen. Petta also had a Tamil actor (Vijay Sethupathi) deliver Hindi lines and a Hindi actor (Nawazuddin) mouth Tamil lines, with aplomb. Above all, Petta had the Rajini swag intact.
So what should it mean for a director to be given a big budget and a bigger-than-the-biggest superstar as a hero? Why does the writing for a mainstream masala (which is not a bad word, and is a genre I’ve immense respect for) Tamil film, which I noticed with the recent Bigil and now with Darbar, have to be relegated to mere 'isms'? Read, preachy ideologies said as dialogues by the hero rather than plot or character-driven moments that bring the ideology alive. In other words, it’s not enough if you say it; this is cinema, you need to show it.
For example, Rajini’s Surya in Thalapathy does a lot of action but his inner fire, the fact that he is a blazing sun himself, comes through each time he’s interrogated in the police station. “Idhu Surya sir, urasaadheenga” or that sudden but threatening enough, “Dei thoduraa paakkalaam, thoduraa pakkalaam” or that “neenga senja nyayam naanga senja thappu”... All three dialogues have different modulations, different moods but set in the same police station. With just these three lines and the way Rajinikanth delivers them, you know that you don’t want to mess with Surya (or for that matter, Devaraj played by Mammotty). It is moments like these, dialogues like this and acting of this standard, which defines my Superstar for me.
Rajinikanth, and by that extension, a Vijay or Ajith, are not mere caricatures or 'kid-friendly' demi-gods. They are also characters in flesh and blood, which is why a Viswasam worked big time (Ajith in one of his best portrayals) and so did Mersal (especially the father character played by Vijay). Darbar turned out to be yet another Rajini ride, which had its fun moments, yes, but which I felt did no proper justice to the actor or cult superstar he is.
It is however interesting to observe that with time, it is becoming tougher to write effective films for 'mass heroes' whose existing iconic status has to be matched with scenes and situations which can increase their appeal not just among their fans but also with the general audience. A director who works with a mass hero has that much more extra to work on. When that extra something gets pushed under the rug of 'ticking boxes' (ladies sentiment, intro song, pre-climax build-up, interval block suspense, meet-cute moments with heroine), then the burden of making the film work rests solely on the superstar, who of course does his part tirelessly in film after film.
I’d love to see Rajinikanth act in the following directors' films: Maniratnam again, Karthik Subbaraj again, Manikandan, Vetrimaaran, Gautham Menon, Rajamouli... How about you?