Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Rajinikanth: The man, the myth, the legend

It is going to be 45 years since a Telugu speaking neighbour pestered me into watching 16 Vayathinile. He knew I had given up watching Tamil films, after getting frustrated with the reigning screen gods, fighting a losing battle with the bulge and receding hairlines. While Kamal Haasan and Sridevi had author-backed roles, there was Rajinikanth effortlessly playing a village lout mirroring mischief and menace.

I made it a point to watch MoondruMudichu and Avargal where he played an antagonist — not the regular kind with a bunch of underlings and a scantily-clad siren swaying in the background, but heartless and vile in thoughts and actions. No screen villain has given me goose bumps like Rajini in these two films. Add Gayathri to that list. Fifteen films starring Rajini were released in 1977 and most of them had him playing characters with shades of grey, all of which he performed with aplomb.

The year 1978 was a mixed bag for Rajini, who either essayed a villain or played second fiddle to Kannada stars like Krishna and Vishnuvardhan. Producers were wary about backing him as a protagonist. Producer Kalaipuli S Thanu, who was then a distributor, had agreed to distribute Bhairavi after he was handed a few ‘stills’ of Rajini striking a pose with a gun, whip, snake, and a goat on his shoulder. Posters were printed and ads were given in newspapers with Thanu adding the moniker ‘Superstar.’

A 35-foot-tall poster of a towering Rajini was erected in front of a theatre. Thanu had not watched the film until the day of the release. “He was sporting black pants and a pink T-shirt. The theatre manager introduced us when Rajini wanted to meet the distributor,” remembers Thanu.

Rajini shook hands and said, “Superb poster, terrific publicity.” Bhairavi was his first hit as the leading man.

Where it began

“There was a fire in his eyes,” the late legendary filmmaker K Balachander had told me, whilst rubbing his fore finger with his thumb, when I asked what he saw in the young man with beady eyes and unkempt hair, and who wanted to be an actor despite not being able to speak Tamil.

To his credit, Balachander did not try to change anything. His only advice to the actor was to suggest he learn Tamil. Rajini learnt Tamil and imbibed bits from his screen idols: the gait and laughter from Sivaji Ganesan, tossing the cigarette from Shatrughan Sinha, the brooding, palpable but not overt menace from Amitabh Bachchan. And from Raj Kumar, he learnt humility, addressing fans as God. (Rajini once told me that he ran away from home just to meet Raj Kumar at his Trustpuram residence.)

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