What do we really want from Rajinikanth?
We want Rajinikanth to entertain as we experienced once. We, however, also want him to evolve. With Petta releasing on Thursday, we talk to directors to find out if both are possible
"Superstaru yaaru nu kaetta, chinna kuzhandhaiyum sollum"... When Vairamuthu wrote these lyrics for Rajinikanth in Raja Chinna Roja in 1989, it rang true. I was one of those 'chinna kuzhandhais' then, and I'm pretty sure I'd have said 'Superstar na Rajinikanth.'
However, the problem is, the onscreen persona of Rajinikanth has more or less remained unchanged since then, barring a few exceptions. After back-to-back films with Pa Ranjith (Kabali and Kaala), I truly believed that Rajinikanth version 2.0 was finally here. And I was jubilant knowing his next film was Petta, with Karthik Subbaraj, who has a knack for dishing out unique content within the constructs of commercial cinema.
Then, the first looks, teaser, and trailer came out. The unanimous response to these was about how it marks the comeback of the 'vintage 90s Rajini'. While it is still early to say if Petta will be a Rajini film or a Karthik Subbaraj padam, the reception so far does point towards the former.
But why should Rajinikanth make a 'template Rajini' film, again? Don't we actually have a bunch of well-made commercial entertainers from the 90s to fulfil our thirst to see the 'vintage 90s Rajini'?
"What I actually want to see is the 80s Rajini. The one who did a Thillu Mullu and a Moondru Mugam," says director Guhan Senniappan, who recently made the web series Vella Raja, adding, "Personally, I want to cast him in an out-and-out villain role where he also plays his age."
An aspiring director, Siddharth Subha Venkat, has a similar wish. "I want to write a role where he doesn't have to wear a wig at all," he says.
When talking about actors playing their age, it is impossible not to think of Amitabh Bachchan, and his connection with Rajinikanth. Quite a few of Superstar's blockbusters in the 80s were remakes of the former's films, and the careers of both these superstars were on similar paths, till Amitabh took a detour and started playing roles suitable to his age at the turn of the millennium.
Nearing the age of 70 himself, is it time for Rajinikanth to follow suit? 8 Thottakal-director Sri Ganesh vehemently opposes the notion. "Why should he? I recently heard he was 70, and I can't actually see Rajinikanth as a yesteryear star."
Veteran director SA Chandrasekhar, who directed Superstar in the 1985 hit Naan Sigappu Manidhan, agrees. "Rajinikanth sir is not an actor who can be boxed in a time frame. He has been the same always. A lot of things have changed around him, but he has remained the same."
Chandrasekhar adds, "His humility is what sets him apart. Seeing Rajini sir's behaviour from close quarters made me understand the importance of being grounded. The bigger his films, the simpler he gets."
But again, should every Rajinikanth film be a big spectacle? Can't we ever see him just be an actor who drives a story, and not the star who sells it? Why do we still hark back to Kaali from Mullum Malarum while talking about his best acting performance?
"Mullum Malarum is my favourite performance too, but it doesn't mean his performance in a Sivaji or Padayappa is below par. These films work only because of Rajinikanth's style of acting. This in itself is a hallmark for the actor in Rajinikanth," says Barath Neelakantan, who is making his directorial debut with the Arulnithi-starrer K-13.
With the kind of content-driven films that have emerged successful over the past few years, Tamil Cinema seems to clearly be on a path to shrug away the 'star' films. So why does even the most discerning cinema-goer turn the other way when it comes to a template Rajini film?
"I believe all of us have two sensibilities. We see different kinds of films, we appreciate them, but when it comes to a Rajini film, it becomes more of a celebration. We actually shifted our shooting to the night call sheet (for Kurudhi Aatam) to ensure we can watch Petta first day, first show," says Sri Ganesh.
Personally, I find this dichotomy a bit disturbing, especially since this same leverage isn't extended to other actors when they do a typical masala film defying logic or their age. Rajinikanth is clearly in a place which is completely isolated from regular criticism, and market constraints.
Barath believes this to be the case. "Rajinikanth is someone who is above the market, and he understands how things work, and probably he himself wants to do the typical 'Rajini film'. While I would like to see him in a role similar to Clint Eastwood from Gran Torino, or Amitabh in films like Piku and Cheeni Kum, my eight-year-old daughter would not get as excited over them as she did after watching the Petta trailer."
Well, I might be 30 now, and have developed a personal taste in cinema, but for a generation who are just finding their way around it, Vairamuthu's lyrics still hold true —"Superstaru yaaru nu kaetta, chinna kozhandhaiyum sollum."