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.
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.