You just cannot remember the name Rajinikant without a boisterous background musical interlude like when you watch the titles of a film flash when the film starts unfolding on the big screen or the letters R, A, J, I, N, I etc dropping one by one on the screen to herald his arrival as a super star. It is well nigh impossible for me to believe that my dear friend Rajinikant who I know for the last 42 years has indeed turned a ripe 70. I know Thalaivaa, even before he had become the superstar from the time he was just 25. 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
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. By birth, Rajanikant is a Maharashtrian 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 wanted 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 big wig 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 Madras with my Tamil films,” he had confidently told me when I interviewed him way back in 1980 when he started getting offers to act in Hindi films
Luckily for him, Rajinikant found himself overnight in the enviable position of being sought after not only in Madras but also in Bombay. 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 has 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 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 has 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 as 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 Bombay gave me the impetus to try my luck in Bombay.”
It is 100 percent true. Because before Kamal Haasan, no other Tamil superstar could make it big in Bollywood including Sivaji Ganesh who came in a film called Dharti directed by Shridhar, (who had introduced Jayalalitha 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 Kan Kanda Deivam, Raj Tilak which was based on his own Tamil hit Vanjokkottai Vaaliban 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.
Rajinikanth 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 enjoyed watching Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Zanjeer, Amar Akbar Anthony and Muqaddar Ka Sikander. I am in this profession only to entertain the audience.”
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 super star, 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 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 as the Shatrughan Sinha of the South.”
Like I always say, 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, 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 Trichy 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 is 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 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 42 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 his 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 is even all set to emerge as the C.M of Tamil Nadu by floating his own political party on January 21 next 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 by late at 1 am that it was time for dinner!
I take this opportunity to wish Rajinikant a happy 70th birthday and a clean tenure in politics and tough I still feel politics is not his cup of tea, I hope the next time I visit Chennai will be when my actor friend rules the State as the Chief Minister, like Uddhav Thackeray is ruling Maharashtra as the Chief Minister