Sooriyano Chandirano/Yaar ivano sattena sollu...
(Is he the moon, is he the sun/quickly tell me, who is this one?)
-- Song introducing Rajnikant in Sivaji
It is the first Tamil film to be released simultaneously in the US, Canada, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia. With 270 prints in Tamil for the Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka markets, a record 140 for the overseas market, and as many as 300 prints of the dubbed Telugu version, Sivaji is the costliest Indian movie ever made-- at an estimated Rs 80 crore. (Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas cost Rs 50 crore.) This is not counting the superstar's remuneration that involves a share in profits besides fees. Across Tamil Nadu, five days before the date of release, Sivaji's tickets have been booked for two weeks. "So there's no question of the film not making a profit," says S.C. Babu, CEO of AVM Studios, the oldest surviving studio in the country. Such confidence springs from the fact that Rajnikant's last release, Chandramukhi, that grossed over Rs 70 crore in 2005-2006, is closing in on its 800th day. The over-hyped Baba flopped in 2002; but Rajni had compensated the distributors.
Made over 18 months, Sivaji has director S. Shankar teaming up with Rajnikant, the first time ever. Shankar, known for his extravagance, had earlier launched Aishwarya Rai in Jeans (1998), featuring a song shot across the 'seven wonders of the world'. He is also known for Indian (starting Kamalahaasan, dubbed as Hindustani in Hindi). With the celebrated A.R. Rahman handling the music, the Rajni-Shankar-Rahman-AVM combination hopefully will not sink under its own weight. Why such a budget? In a recent interview, Shankar said of the picturisation of a song, Vaaji, in the film, "It is a fantasy song. Neeta Lulla has done the costumes for this song, while for the other four songs Manish Malhotra has handled costumes. In Vaaji, Rajni and Shriya (Saran) appear as king and queen with over 100 dancers in the background and a Babylonian-type palace designed by Thota Tharani." Then there are some technical firsts. According to Babu, this is "one of the world's very few and India's first film to undergo scanning at 4K resolution for a very high-quality image that would be closest to that of an original negative".
Sivaji's story is a rehash of most of Shankar's earlier films where the hero is a one-man agent of change. From the neo-Nazi character Kamalahaasan plays in Indian to his last film Anniyan, featuring a schizophrenic Brahmin serial killer who butchers 'wrongdoers', Shankar has always offered fascist-fantastic solutions to what he perceives as social ills resulting from typical governmental inertia. In Sivaji, Rajni plays an NRI in his late 30s who returns to reform his country, building private colleges and industries. In a scene in the film, as Sivaji walks, mud roads turn into asphalt. He shows a blueprint that has a village transforming into a concrete jungle: development. Sivaji, a character tells the audience, holds a 'Bachelor in Social Service'. Between all this, he romances a helpful girl-- interestingly, the role is played by 24-year-old Shriya who last year played the female lead with actor Dhanush, Rajnikant's son-in-law.
Fans at Sathyam Cinema, Chennai, hold tickets for Sivaji
But what is it that makes Rajnikant, at age 57, such a phenomenon? Stars in Tamil (MGR), Telugu (Chiranjeevi, N. T. Rama Rao) and Kannada (Rajkumar) cinema have indisputably enjoyed megastar status. Unlike an Amitabh Bachchan or Shahrukh Khan, the southern stars have spawned fans' associations that have names, registration numbers, official stationery and even offices. Yet, Rajni stands notches above a Telugu contemporary like Chiranjeevi. Points out S.V. Srinivas, Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, who has been studying the superstars of south India: "Although the media is intent on giving the false impression that he is a 'Tamil' phenomenon, his films have been hugely successful across south India and bettered the collections of most local stars on a number of occasions."
Notes AVM's Babu: "The intensity of the fan following here is much higher. Since Amitabh is all over the media-- attending film festivals, launches, interviews, and selling all kinds of products-- we take him for granted. Whereas you see Rajnikant once in two or three years in a film. Even the sun and moon can be seen everyday, not the superstar." It is this scarcity of circulation of his image that imbues an aura and triggers an unprecedented demand each time a movie releases. Ahead of Baba in 2002, Tamil magazines cashed in on the Rajni hysteria with some 40 cover stories on the superstar in less than five months. Notwithstanding the odd appearance of the 'real' image of his cigarette-scorched lips, balding pate and grey, scraggly stubble, what counts is his screen persona--boosted in Sivaji by an airbrushed jawline and countless colourful wigs. Reinvented in every film, this persona retains certain constants-- mannerisms, style and gestures topped by what are known as 'punch dialogues'.
Srinivas believes that Rajnikant's significance does not merely lie in his widespread popularity beyond Tamil Nadu or even the cult following he has acquired in Japan after the success of his 1995 film Muthu, released in Japanese as Odoru Maharaja. He adds: "More than any other actor living or dead, he demonstrates how much of the pleasure of film-viewing is derived from the star. He is a pure agent of spectatorial desire. His films are an elaborate choreographed game of anticipation and fulfilment of expectation." Such is the pleasure Rajnikant offers, that French actor-director Alain Chabat, known for his Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, featured a five-minute fight sequence from Rajnikant's Muthu in his 2006 film Prete Moi ta Main (Lend Me Your Hand). In the film, asked what she is watching, the female lead character replies: "Muthu, a cult Indian movie," and adds when Rajnikant's face appears, "I love that scene!"
It is not as if Rajnikant films were always like this. Having worked as a bus conductor in Karnataka, Rajni began his film career in 1974 with what we may, in retrospect, term 'art' roles. Even then, Rajnikant introduced a distinct style--laughter, the manner of lighting cigarettes, flicking his hair, a certain pace, celebration of his dark skin, key one-liners repeated through the film. It was only in the mid-1980s that the superstar image got cemented, abetted by a particular style of camerawork, editing, sound and special effects.
Such a signature Rajnikant ensemble will only be boosted in Sivaji by Shankar's penchant for grandeur, computer graphics and technical wizardry-- elements that are not necessarily fused with the film's content. It will result, at once, in an awesome and awful film.