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Rajni’s evolution, an economic perspective

This is not a review for Endhiran.

Well that doesn’t mean I won’t be talking about the movie. I would of course. But I would be talking of random aspects which I thought of at various points through the day, while watching it and while discussing about it. Reviews are but a way of either selling a movie or degrading it, and the former is not necessary for a Rajni movie while the latter would amount to blasphemy.

And also excuse me for the title. Being an MBA student, I am obliged to use terms like “economy”, “branding”, etc in whatever I write.

One thought which kept playing in my mind throughout the movie was the evolution of Rajni. My friends from the north keep asking me what’s the Rajni craze all about. Why does the man signify so much to his fans, much beyond what any star ever has. Well the answer I can think of is, the man has always portrayed what an ordinary man aspires to be. Rajni attained stardom playing Kaalaian in Murattu Kaalai, at a time when TN was primarily agrarian and people associated themselves with a lifestyle where the fields and the livestock played a huge part of their existence. At that time, for a man, the greatest glory possible could be to tame the wildest beast in the local Jallikattu. It would be his ultimate claim to fame in his small little world of village fairs and festival time games.

Then came the time when factories were opening up in large numbers in the state. Large number of men from poor families worked for paltry wages in these factories, oppressed many a times by the management due to lack of proper labour rights. This was the time when Rajni did a slew of roles where he was a factory worker, many a times leading the workers against the oppressors in the management and fighting for their rights. Mannan, Uzhaippali and many other such movies became hugely successful as the people in these segments could connect with the character.

India was opening up around 1992. The cities were no longer the same, what with capitalism getting a lease of life, and the permit raj going out the window. This was the period when Madras (as it was called then) was transforming like crazy. New jobs were created, new opportunities discovered and in the process some of the people who were still happy leading life the old way were being treaded upon. Annamalai was the struggle of one such person. There were many Annamalais in the city then, leading a happy life in a comfortable home, where the cattle was considered part of the family. And then suddenly they became impediments to growth, what with the real estate boom happening. In Annamalai Rajni shows the anguish of one such guy. When his friend’s family snatch away his ancestral land, he fights back, and the common man cheered every time he saw a victory.

If there was one group of people who grew with Madras, that was the auto drivers. According to stories of pre-90s Madras often narrated by my father and how it has changed since, the number of autos went up exponentially in the 90s. Becoming an auto driver became the livelihood choice of so many city youth who were seeking self-employment after not being able to get a job anywhere else. Many of the auto-drivers were people with considerable amounts of education who had no other option but to choose this profession to make ends meet. And if one thing made them hugely popular in the state, it was Thalaivar playing an Auto-driver in Basha. By enacting a role which was so central to the city’s functioning and which was such an integral part of the fabric of the city that it was almost always ignored and overlooked, he caught the audience’s pulse. Rajni played the ideal auto-driver who is courteous, doesn’t overcharge his customers, and is good to a fault. And before you know, he had the whole auto-driver community in his pocket too. Well aspiring super-stars make note, that’s how you acquire whole segments of fans.

Now with Padayappa I am facing serious difficulty. It’s too important a movie for me to conveniently ignore (as I have done with hundreds of other movies), while it just doesn’t fit into my model. But then, by the time Padayappa released, Rajni was too big a star for him to seriously consider following any trend. Actually the reason Padayappa did so well was because it had all the elements that people had come to love in a Rajni movie. And according to me, it also signified the end of an era.

Post 2000 Thalaivar really didn’t do too many movies. But in the two most notable ones, he again played roles in line with the current economic trend. I am referring to Sivaji and the latest Enthiran. We could see Rajni becoming a software engineer, a term unheard of when he started his career back in 1975. That brings me to the thought which really took me off writing this post. Rajni’s latest avatar.

When the Robots were making sexy formations and ransacking the town, Rajni coolly sits at his terminal and examines the source code, while trying to incorporate a bug in the system, terms and actions which are like day to day mantra for the Chennai youth of today. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought that the same Rajni who tamed raging bulls to obtain hoots and whistles back in 1980, could get an equally good response displaying sharp programming acumen in 2010. Then only I realised that Rajni is nothing but a superimposition of the wildest desires of the youth of any period on the screen. That’s why he is always hot, that’s why he has remained a superstar.

And of course his age is not going to limit his popularity in the future too. Right when he is at the top of his game, comes the next superstar movie, Sultan where he dons the digital avatar. And with that comes the independence of keeping the brand and legacy alive without having the physical necessity of the Superstar’s presence on screen. Some good things are forever. I seriously hope superstar is one of them!!

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