The biggest movie star you've probably never heard of.
When Rajinikanth is around, the camera spirals, dips, dives, and soars during the most banal dialogue scenes while the cinematographer works the zoom lens like a trombone. The editing is hyperkinetic with Rajinikanth thrashing thugs so fast that you don't even see how he hits them. All of his movies are named after his character, and every single one of them starts with a musical number in which he introduces himself in the most insane way possible. In the first scene of Padayappa(1999),he's asked, "Hey man, who are you?" and his answer is a four-minute musical number in which he plays the harmonica, flips through the air, oversees a massive martial-arts demonstration, and then morphs into a baby. At the end, the village chief says, "Padayappa, that song was excellent," at which point the music revs up again, Rajinikanth climbs a 30-foot-tall human tower and smashes open a clay pot, fireworks explode, and the director's credit flies out of it.
But as ridiculous as Rajinikanth is, he's also in on the joke. In Sivaji: The Boss (2007) he's a software engineer returning from overseas to battle political corruption and Wall Street-style fatcats. From a fight in a music store in which Matrix-esque bullet timing allows him to bash five miscreants with a guitar then do a series of dance steps before they hit the floor, to a musical number in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao in which Rajinikanth, in whiteface, sings: "I had a dark complexion then/ Now I am awesomely white!" the whole movie is a combination of fist-pumping populism and wink-at-the-audience masculine camp.
And that's what Rajinikanth offers his audiences: style. The Superstar doesn't just mop his brow with a towel; he flourishes it like a bullfighter. Putting his sunglasses on is an operation as complex as a Vegas floorshow. His action scenes are so mannered that they're like watching a new form of macho Kabuki. As one song about him proclaims, "Your gait is stylish/ Your look is stylish/ Your thunderous action is stylish/ Whatever you do is stylish." While Bollywood movies, more and more, copy Hollywood conventions and morals, Rajinikanth stays respectful to his parents, chaste with the ladies, and firmly on the side of the little guy.
As Bollywood movies drop choreographed musical numbers in favor of MTV-style montages, Rajinikanth stays committed to old-school masala filmmaking. He's "exuberant, mesmerizing, and victorious," as one lyric says about him, but he's also an unreconstructed Indian, a homegrown hero who will never go Hollywood. A Rajinikanth movie without his "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!" billing, without his crazy-making opening number, without his fingers pointing like whips, without the world's most complicated plot, without the dshoom dshoom of him punching giant thugs into exploding electrical lines—that's just not a Rajinikanth movie at all.
Laugh at him all you like, but on Oct. 1 Rajinikanth is going to play a robot onscreen in Enthiran, and it is going to gross all the money in the world. Because Rajinikanth, like a Tamil Nadu Cyrano de Bergerac, is the epitome of manly Indian style and, like Cyrano, when one day he goes to his grave, he'll cling to the one thing they can't take away from him, the one thing that has mattered most to him in his life: his panache.
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Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.