It is India’s most expensive film ever made and stars a 57-year-old cult regional star.
And now Sivaji – The Boss, a Tamil film starring Rajnikanth, is raking in money at the box office and playing to packed houses.
It cost 650 million rupees ($16m) to make and brought Rajnikanth a pay cheque of 200 million rupees, making him the highest paid film star in a movie-mad country.
Since being released on 15 June, some 800 prints of the film have flooded theatres across India and other parts of the world with large Tamil populations – North America, the UK, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Tickets worth 17 million rupees were sold out in the southern Indian city of Madras (Chennai) alone within days of the film’s release.
At the core of Sivaji’s success is obviously Rajnikanth, lovingly called Rajni by his fans, in what is his 100th Tamil film.
A Rajni film offers what comic super heroes like Spiderman do – goodwill and hope
Film maker KV Anand
“A Rajni film remains a selling proposition,” says Tamil film historian Anandan.
Sivaji is a colourful spectacle, awash with the razzmatazz of whirling song and dance sequences and comic acts.
In the film, playing on the current flavour of middle-class India, Rajnikanth plays an altruistic non-resident Indian who does not forget his humble roots and returns home to Chennai to set up educational institutions for the underprivileged.
The local bureaucrats and greedy businessmen thwart his good intentions. Rajnikanth wreaks vengeance on the villains’ ill-gotten wealth and emerges victorious. His noble intentions are hailed and he gets the girl in the end too.
Rajnikanth’s female fans love his goofy antics
Typically, a Rajnikanth film is a celebration, a roller-coaster ride into the fantasy world of riches, improbable designs in plot, silly gags, volatile dramatics and the undying goodness of spirit.
“A Rajni film offers what comic super heroes like Spiderman do – goodwill and hope,” says filmmaker KV Anand.
Sivaji follows the successful formula of the star’s capers that made him a super star.
These were stories of Rajnikanth playing a working-class hero, irascible and ready to avenge the wrongs visited upon his family and friends by rich and cruel villains. He would win the beautiful heroine using traditional macho methods.
Rajnikanth’s films often show him taking on the might of a powerful and domineering women opponent, a hint at his open political confrontations with the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha.
His unique style gives him a momentum to perform unthinkable feats. Youth and kids want to participate in his identity
“Just as James Bond’s questionable brand of machismo has its followers in Britain, Rajnikanth’s chauvinism and bravura stokes the fire in Tamil youth,” says Chennai-based analyst D Narayana Reddy.
No wonder he remains one of India’s biggest super stars, often overshadowing his Bollywood counterpart, Amitabh Bachchan.
His fans tattoo themselves with his name, write his name in their blood and have opened some 15,000 fan clubs all over the country.
They worship him like a demi-god when he appears on screen, performing Hindu rituals of showering him with flowers, garlanding his billboards, even bathing his visage in milk in the halls.
Rajnikanth’s dramatic deliveries and comic gestures appeal to children too, who are enthralled by his antics on screen.
Sivaji is Rajnikanth’s 100th Tamil film
“His unique style gives him a momentum to perform unthinkable feats. Youth and kids want to participate in his identity,” says Rajan Krishnan, who teaches anthropology in Columbia University.
Despite his fame, Rajnikanth as a person remains somewhat enigmatic.
He guards his privacy fiercely, unlike other stars who advertise and endorse products.
His larger-than-life screen presence has also spawned political ambitions – there has been widespread speculation that he would opt for a career in politics one day.
Tamil Nadu has a prolific film industry – it produced 126 films in 2006 and has had some 62 films released in the first half of 2007.
The state has a history of three film stars turned chief ministers, including Jayalalitha.
Critics say that in trying to appeal to a new audience, Rajni’s tale of social vendetta is turning stale.
But for his adoring fans, he carries a profile similar to that of a rap star – a bling master in outlandish costumes, whose chutzpah and appeal transcends the ghettos of Tamil Nadu.
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