The biggest movie star you've probably never heard of.
Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he's earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!"
If you haven't heard of Rajinikanth before, you will on Oct. 1, when his movie Enthiran (The Robot) opens around the world. It's the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It's getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It's a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn't just some film they're releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film.
At 61 years old, Rajinikanth has made more than 150 movies in India, and he isn't even a proper Bollywood star. He works in the Tamil film industry, Bollywood's poorer Southern cousin, best-known for its ace cinematographers and gritty crime dramas. But whereas Bollywood stars may have devoted fans, Rajinikanth is considered beyond reproach, beyond criticism, beyond good or bad. Ask Bolly-fans about their favorite stars, and they'll spout the typical griping—Hrithik is a little boy, Shah Rukh Khan is spoiled, Amitabh Bachchan wears a toupee—but mention Rajinikanth, and their eyes light up. He is so rich, he does so many good deeds, his films are all No. 1 superhits. Rajinikanth is not just some filmstar, they insist. Rajinikanth is a "real man."
Indian message boards are alight with Rajinikanth jokes, the equivalent of Chuck Norris jokes. ("Rajinikanth was bitten by a cobra. After four days of intense suffering, the snake died.") Onscreen, when Rajinikanth points his finger, it's accompanied by the sound of a whip cracking. When he becomes enraged, the director cuts to a shot of a gorilla pounding his chest or inserts a tiger roaring on the soundtrack. Echo is added to enhance his "punch dialogues," rhyming lines uttered at moments of high drama. "When I will arrive, or how I will arrive, nobody will know, but I will arrive when I ought to," he snarls, confusingly. Or, "I will do what I say. I will also do what I don't say." Then he punches some goon so hard that he flies through the windshield of a minivan and continues on out the back window. Can't argue with that.
Rajinikanth's movies are crammed with comedy, action, and musical numbers (usually by A.R. Rahman), and they take great delight in kicking narrative logic in the face. Chandramukhi (2005) sees Rajinikanth play a psychiatrist so well-trained he can read minds based on a person's facial expression. The movie starts with a marriage, becomes a haunted-house drama, pauses for a musical number in which hundreds of kites spell out "Superstar" in the sky, and then concludes with Rajinikanth fighting a half-naked martial-arts master on the roof during a fireworks display while hundreds of doves flap around. It broke Tamil box-office records, was the longest-running Tamil movie of all time—playing for 800 days at one theater—and became a cult hit in Germany under the title Der Geisterjäger.
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.