Long before formula became the norm in Bollywood, all it took to capture the pulse of a generation was the flip of a cigarette and the swagger of an outlaw. He came with good intentions and without good looks, and gave the odd cine-goer something phenomenal to aspire to.
Rajinikanth at 26 defined hope for legions of everyday losers, and his films became the world they hoped for - justice was never delayed and every man was his own Robin Hood.
|As Baasha (1995)|
A throwback to India of the '80s and '90s could explain how the superstar became the stuff of legends. His films became a fantastic escape for the frustrated Indian who could do little about repressive regimes, roadside bullies, even the free market.
When millions saw Rajinikanth, the good Samaritan, moonlighting as a vigilante fighting rapists and ganglords, they traded reality for a superstar in the guise of Robin Hood.
Their worship of the Tamil anti-hero spawned films like Nallavanukku Nallavan (1983), Naan Sigappu Manidan (1986) and later Baasha (1995) and Rajini fans became a cult no one could control.
Rajini's punches in slow-mo became their release, his hallmark one-liners became their motto. Thalaiva (the leader) was the underdog's superstar because he was one of their own.
But somewhere down the line, the gangster behind the cool, dark shades gave in to the good guy and the script overdosed on the latter.
Rajini was now reduced to playing the ideal - without a shred of evil - and the silver screen lost one of its best grey characters. With every film, Thalaiva's fans settled for the perfect brother, son and lover in ventures like Annamalai, Sivaji-The Boss, Padayappa and more recently, Robot.
Cut to 2016, Rajnikanth is suited up and once again sporting the cool, dark shades to play Robin Hood reloaded as Kabali. With a beard to match his suave avatar in the film, the actor nearly looks like the underworld don he was in Baasha.
At 65, the superstar is finally playing his age in a role fit for Rajini - the actor. Kabali, in just 60 seconds, manages to give fans a tease into the mean Rajini they were waiting for. Even as the larger-than-life underworld don, the superstar appears closer to a man whose journey his fans can identify with.
Coming decades after his first stint as Robin Hood, Rajinikanth's Kabali may inspire another generation to make their own way. The teaser alone crossed five million views in less than a day of its release, and the Thalaiva appeal doesn't seem to fade away.
As Kabali says, magizhchi. It is indeed a pleasure to have the gangster back.