About a quarter of a century ago, new titles with an accompanying soundtrack were created to introduce a reigning star on the Tamil silver screen. The music was composed by Deva. This was for none other than ‘Super Star’ Rajinikanth, in the super hit Annamalai.
Taking on his friend-turned-archrival, a humble milkman rises like a phoenix from the ashes. But when his old friend needs him at the very end, everything is forgotten, and he turns saviour. The actor in Rajinikanth had a bit to do with the film’s success. But the script had a lot to do with the star within the actor.
Till date, the stylised title and track has introduced the actor in each of his movies. The movie’s titles follow. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind about which should come first. And in Kabali's case, we see the star's title intro track shifting after 24 years to Neuruppu Da. The movie's titles, as always, follow.
A human brand
It is not as if Rajinikanth has not had ‘flops’ in the past, though they would arguably be bigger than some movies considered to have had an average run. The expectations from a Rajini starrer have come to be such. He is a huge entertainment brand, and a brand is best defined by its consumers. I am but one of them. And this brand has mass appeal, cutting across strata.
To decode brand Rajini, I commissioned a story to a former colleague, Judy Franko, around the time another of his megahits Sivaji was released. We ran this headline on the trade publication’s cover: ‘What makes Rajinikanth, Rajinikanth?’ I asked him to ask some advertising brains and brand custodians just that. The answers ranged from the interesting to the obvious.
The rise – and rise – of a common man to super stardom, his simplicity, nobility of thought and action, larger-than-life on-screen persona, and the list goes on. Till date, he remains the only bankable and sizeable star in the language I know of who hasn’t done a brand endorsement save for social causes like polio vaccination. But when you have everyone from Air Asia to Airtel to Muthoot riding on your movie, why run after the money and attendant liability?
Around the same time, a fellow journalist wrote a blog, on the madness around Sivaji, and the herd mentality driving people to cinemas. She had accompanied her friends or colleagues too, though she didn’t know Tamil. A TV company executive on the other hand accompanied me during the rainy opening weekend to Aurora cinemas in Mumbai. He was Bengali and didn’t get a word of the dialogue either. But it wasn’t difficult for him to follow. In the right spirit, he thoroughly enjoyed the show on the first row.
Closer to Kabali, there is one story on a new news website posing the question: 'The economics of Kabali: What happens if Thalaivar's movie flops?'
There is one commonality between the two. The blog named earlier and the site cited lower, could both have done with the resultant trolling and attendant traffic, at that particular point in their existence. In the era of click-bait, nothing is beyond doubt.
When brand Rajinikanth rises, as it does from time to time, it raises with it all boats, including those trying to leverage it through critique.
The actor’s two flops in 2014, Kochadaiyan, which was an animated film, and Lingaa, directed by the established KS Ravikumar who has handled the star’s past hits like Padaiyappa and Muthu, drew in their fair share of post mortems too. They were not made for brand Rajinikanth, much like Enthiran. Yet, when web portals have segment editors who have no clue of what they are talking about, it shows. A Rajinikanth hit – or flop – is not an opportunity media can afford to miss.
But Kabali – hit or flop – is more in the league of Rajinikanth. And hence, unlikely to fail.
The social Rajinikanth
Since the days of e-mail and SMS forwards, Rajinikanth jokes have thrived. They merely adapt to mediums of the future, seamlessly. The success of Rajinikanth memes have as much helped grow the legend, I would argue, as they allow for a few laughs at his expense. But when a product labeled brand Rajinikanth reaches too far out to the future – ahead of its time – it shows.
One movie I called out as being out of line with the Rajinikanth DNA, was the megahit Enthiran (Robot in Hindi). It succeeded despite that, thanks to the star value and mammoth marketing efforts.
Writing a guest editorial for Campaign India in October 2010, I ended with the lines: “Kudos to the producers of Enthiran and the director for making the world take notice of Tamil, and Indian, cinema. In doing so, they reduced my Baasha to a Robot.”
It was a super hit. I suspect that the Super Star brand and his custodians perhaps got carried away with what the brand power could carry off with the next films. Without doubt, he can deliver any role as an actor. But there is an expectation among audiences that come to see a Rajinikanth film. The heavier the expectations, harder the disappointment. With Thalaivar, the expectations are ‘super heavy weight’.
If London 2012 was the first social Olympics, Kabali is the first total social Rajinikanth-release. And it’s delivering, in real time. Tickets are being traded, exchanged, even sold. Snapshots are shared. Pleas for protection against piracy are a reality too. Kabali is truly a ‘We’ creation.
Authenticity at the core
From the first poster to the first teaser, everything about Kabali signals a return to the core of brand Rajinikanth’s DNA. And brand Rajinikanth is the epitome of mass, Tamil cinema.
When there is a legend to leverage, it makes little sense to prove a point by tweaking it to represent something else. If legend can be tweaked to manifest the contemporary and ride on it, as Enthiran did, do so by all means. But staying true to the larger brand helps.
Kabali, whose lead actor has had a stamp released in his honour in Malaysia, has adhered to this. And the producer is reaping the rewards, rightfully.
(Gokul Krishnamoorthy is managing editor, Campaign India. Updated on 2 August to reflect that the music introducing Rajinikanth in Kabali's titles has changed to Neruppu Da.)