For millions of fans, Rajinikanth is simply Thalaiva (leader), a man who inspires frenzied adulation unlike that seen anywhere else in India, an inheritor of the mantle held by a long line of icons, from Sivaji Ganesan to MGR.
The Dravidian movement was atheistic, so what explains Rajinikanth's demigod like status?
'When Dravidian atheism said "No God", it never said "no hero"', according to For the Love of a Man, an award-winning 2015 documentary that tries to explain his unique fandom.
The Rajinikanth story is well-known. The bus conductor from Bengaluru who stormed Tamil cinema with a string of megahits, trademark dialogues, mannerisms and gravity-defying feats to become one of Asia's highest-paid movie stars with a fan following even in distant Japan.
A rags-to-riches tale that is the stuff of cinematic legend and even a chapter in school text-books.
Rajinikanth, 67, now stands at an interesting crossroads in his career. His Rs 540 crore film 2.0, out on 10,000 screens this week, is the costliest Indian film ever made.
The release comes at a time when the star is contemplating an entry into politics.
Both of the state's Dravidian parties have lost their iconic leaders, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, in the past two years. Can Rajinikanth 2.0 fill this vacuum in a state addicted to messianic political cults? The superstar announced his intent to join politics on December 31 last year, but is yet to launch a political party.
Ironically, for a man of the masses, he can often be inscrutable — a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. His interviews are often film promotions. He rarely speaks about his early life and of the world outside cinema.
India Today cover story, One Man Army, for December 10, 2018.
That's what makes his India Today interview so unique. Over the course of an hour at Brindavan, his three-storeyed home in Poes Garden, Chennai, Rajinikanth spoke candidly to Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa and Deputy Editor Amarnath K Menon not only about his life and films but on a range of issues like secularism, corruption and his political vision for the state.
Rajinikanth's off-screen persona, shorn of star accoutrements, is a stark and constant reminder of the illusions of cinema.
Chengappa, who interviewed the late star-turned-politician MG Ramachandran, notes the difference between the two icons. "MGR would never be photographed without his trademark wool cap and dark glasses. Rajinikanth, on the other hand, has no such hang-ups." The star's political fortunes now ride on the success of 2.0 — if it breaks the box office, it will fast-track his entry into politics.
His legion of fans are going to be the key movers. His fan clubs, the Rajini Makkal Mandrams, were relaunched in January this year and will likely form the bulwark of the star's plan to contest all the state's 234 constituencies in the assembly election in 2021.
His goal will be to stage a thunderous MGR-like political entry while avoiding the mistakes made by recent star-turned-politicians like Vijayakanth.
The star is conscious the road ahead is not a 'path of flowers', as he says, but seems to be working to a plan to cultivate a voter base and convert his star power into political capital before the formal launch of his own party.
Rajinikanth 2.0, the superstar-turned-politician, clearly promises to be the role of his life.
In the alphabet soup of the politics of the state, his entrance is bound to increase the turbulence.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, One Man Army, for December 10, 2018)