By Jyothi Venkatesh
You just cannot remember the name Rajinikant without a boisterous background musical interlude like when you watch the titles of his film flash when it starts unfolding on the big screen or the letters R, A, J, I, N, I etc drop one by one on the screen to herald his arrival as a superstar. It is well nigh impossible for me to believe that my dear friend Rajinikant who I know for the last 42 years is indeed turning a ripe 71. I have known him since he was just 29. What I like about the guy is that till date he continues to be the same old humble person called Sivaji Rao Gaekwad because he has not let success go to his head or his was unlike most of the other so called super star, whether in Bollywood or for that matter down South, whether you like it or not
In one candid interview with me, Rajinikant had even confided in me that with the kind of face that he possessed he did not even dream that he would end up as an extra in films. It was K. Balachander who gave him his screen name of Rajinikant. He has acted in over 150 films down South in various languages including Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, besides Tamil of course. Rajanikant is a Saurashtrian by birth.
“I do not want to sign films left right and centre and thus overexpose myself to the audiences. By God’s grace, I have everything that I want down South. I will not work in a film only for the sake of money. I should be given a meaty role, which will call forth performance on the part of an actor. I have turned down a couple of offers from bigwig producers in Bollywood because I did not want to get saddled with just the image of a tough hero. I know I am capable of doing different roles in films in Hindi too, as I have proved in Chennai with my Tamil films,” he had confidently told me when I had interviewed him way back in 1980 when he started getting offers to act in Hindi films.
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Luckily for him, Rajinikant found himself overnight in the enviable position of being sought after not only in Chennai but also in Mumbai. His climb to the top has been a hard one. His is a rag to riches story which perhaps has no parallel. At one stage in his life he had worked as a coolie and lived a hand to mouth existence. He also has worked as a bus conductor in Bangalore for five years.
Before the acting bug bit him, he had enrolled himself at the Adyar Film Institute conducted by the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce, it was actually K. Balachander, who till date he calls his guru (In fact Rajinikant has put up a photo-frame of K. Balachander in his pooja room at home) who had spotted him and gave him a break in Apoorva Ragangal (Tamil). Ironically the film had Kamal Haasan as the leading man and Rajinikant appears just at the end in a brief scene before he dies and walks away with all the accolades in his very first role in Tamil films.
Not only is Rajinikant modest and humble but he is also very honest to the core and does not at all consider Kamal Haasan his competitor in films. Rajinikant is honest enough to admit that it was only because Kamal Haasan’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye turned out to be a big hit that producers dared to cast him also as a leading man in Hindi films. “I do not deny that Kamal Haasan has been a pioneer in this manner. His success in Bollywood gave me the impetus to try my luck in Bombay.”
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It is 100 per cent true. Because before Kamal Haasan, no other Tamil super star could make it big in Bollywood including Sivaji Ganesan who came in a film called Dharti directed by Shridhar, (who had introduced Jayalalita with his film Vennira Aadai) with Rajendra Kumar and Gemini Ganesan, who came in films like Miss Mary, a remake of the Tamil hit Missiamma, Devta, the remake of the Tamil hit Kanavane Kankanda Deivam, Raj Tilak which was based on his own Tamil hit Vanjikottai Valiban and last but not the least he did a small role in Nazrana which in turn was the Hindi remake of his own hit Kalyana Parisu. Among the females Saroja Devi was seen in very few Hindi films like Sasural (1960), Opera House (1961), Pareeksha, Hong Kong (1962) and Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya (1963), while Jayalalitha was seen only in the Hindi film Izzat opposite Dharmendra.
Rajinikant does not mind calling a spade a spade. He confesses that he does not care much for art films. “Who is interested in seeing boring art films? I’d rather see a film made by Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai or for that matter even V. Shantaram than sit through a boring Mrinal Sen or Satyajit Ray film. I enjoy watching Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Zanjeer, Amar Akbar Anthony and Muqaddar Ka Sikander. I am in this profession only to entertain the audience.”
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Rajinikant is down to earth when it comes to confessing. If you ask him if he ever dreamt that he would end up as a superstar, he will confess that he never had thought that he would. “Let alone becoming a star, I didn’t even dream that, with the kind of face that I have, I would not even become an extra. Whatever is pre-ordained has got to happen. You cannot change your destiny.”
Though he confesses that he is a good friend of Shatrughan Sinha, Rajinikant hates to be dubbed as the Shatrughan Sinha of the South. “I hate to be labeled as somebody else’s duplicate. I have my own individuality. Shatruji and I are good friends. On his visit to Tirupati several years ago, he had even dropped in at my bungalow with his wife and twins. It is only the film industry which has typed me. I do not think that the public would dub me the Shatrughan Sinha of the South.”
In terms of sheer humility and down to earth nature, there is simply no one to beat Rajinikant. I remember in the early 80’s when Rajinikant used to sit with me at the bar of Sea Side Hotel in Juhu, he often used to spout philosophy in his own inimitable style. On one such occasion, when David Dhawan had come with a girl and occupied the table next to us, when I introduced him to David, during the talks, Rajanikant deplored the virtue of everyone in Bollywood having ego by stating to us both, “I go, you go, why ego?”
On yet another occasion, when I chided him for agreeing to act in Hindi films at a price which was even one sixth of what he used to charge the producers of Tamil films, Rajinikant simply shut my mouth by telling me, “Look here Jyothi. Today I am known only from Tiruchi to Tuticorin or from Kochi to Kanyakumari or from Vijayawada to Hyderabad or from Bangalore to Mysore. But by acting in a Hindi film even if I charge less, I am actually very practical because I make sure that I grow in stature outside India and my fans recognize me even in Canada and Greece. Is money more important or getting recognized all over the world?”
Rajanikant is quite bindaas and cares two hoots about his image off screen. “Today I am in a position to see through people and also know what they expect from me. Honestly I am not at all bothered about my image off screen. I sport a salt and pepper beard and show my balding head off because I like it and I do not see any reason why I should explain this to people. However as an actor of the masses, I will certainly live up to the expectations of my fans but strictly only on the screen”.
Rajinikant admits that it is true that these are times when he sincerely wishes that he should have been known only down South and not all over the entire world thanks to his stint in Hindi Cinema, because whenever he goes to Swami Dayanand’s Ashram in Rishikesh to seek salvation and peace, he considers himself often a major ‘hindrance’ for the other inmates.
Rajni sighs, “Even if I come to Mumbai, I am sorry I cannot walk to the Sea Side Hotel bar and sit there sipping whiskey like in the olden times, because I am told it may cause a law and order problem as my fans may throng to the hotel”. It is quite true. I remember when I went to Hotel Holiday Inn once to meet him in the evening clad in a pair of chappals, the darwan refused to let me in till I sternly told him that I was a journalist friend of Rajini who had been invited by none other than ‘God’ Rajini himself to his suite.
The self effacing guy who I still vividly remember having met for the first time almost 43 years ago in 1978 when he came to Mumbai to attend Kamal Haasan’s wedding to Vani Ganapathy, who happens to be my cousin and Kamal had introduced him to me asking me to escort him to Gandhi Market in Sion, of all the places for shopping for some lungis in Bombay, he has today grown in stature manifolds.
Today, the bus conductor of yesterday has also embraced politics in a big way and was even all set to emerge as the C.M of Tamil Nadu by floating his own political party, a decision he decided to drop last year, by his own admission. You never know, but I do miss the good old golden days in the late 70’s and mid- 80’s when Rajinikant and I used to sit on the lawns of his bungalow at Poes Garden or his bedroom and spend the nights drinking his favorite brand of scotch Black Dog, till his wife Lata used to remind us at 1 am that it was time for dinner! His favorite past time then was to peep into the mirror near his almirah, which when opened actually led to his bathroom.
I take this opportunity to wish my dear friend Rajinikant a happy and healthy 71st birthday and a clean tenure in politics though I still feel that politics is not his cup of tea .