Lessons from Rajni
December 15, 2009 Leave a comment
Tamil film star Rajnikanth celebrated his birthday recently. As is the case every year his fans celebrated the birthday with boisterous enthusiasm with clarion calls seeking him to “plunge into politics”.
I am a bit intrigued by the usage of “plunge” whenever politics is concerned. I have a sneaky feeling that this usage is unique to India, more specifically to the southern state of Tamilnadu. The connotation that politics is a kind of a deep gorge or well that one has to “decide” to plunge is a matter of considerable intrigue for me. Anyways that is not the moot point of this note.
Before proceeding further as a matter of abundant precaution I wish to clarify that I am not a head-over-heels fan of Rajnikanth. I like his comedy and I think of him as a decent performer. There are many references about his philanthropic activities and his genial, approachable nature. I don’t have any reasons to doubt these though I am not enamored by them as well.
Rajni made an entry into the tinsel world in the role of a shady about-to-die character that didn’t have much scope for attention. Infact for those who care about ‘omens’ his entry was as bad as it could possibly get. The film that he made his entry in was a kind of a musical and the title that splashed across him at the point of his entry was ‘Sruthi Bedam’ roughly translating into ‘wrong notes’ (of music).
He slowly built his career through a series of multi-starrers and in the process he found his magic formula. And the rest as they say is history.
When I attempt to understand his success, I am of the view that there are very important lessons that India can learn from Rajni.
a) Understand the expectations others have for you : Very early in his career Rajni understood what the audience wanted from him. He came in at a time when MGRs reign as a hero was coming to an end and people were getting tired of Sivaji’s uni-dimensional fare of over-the-top histrionics. The basic kernel of any Rajni movie is simple. He kept the plot as simple as possible as a result he could strike an easy chord with audience of every age group and every socio-economic background
b) Create a niche for yourselves : It is a well known fact that the so-called ‘style’ was Rajni’s niche in the earlier part of his career. While his cigarette flipping routine and the smirking smile were part of his style ensemble he also developed an image of fearless warrior replete with leather jackets and gum boots.
c) Maintain the excitement : As I wrote before, the plot of any Rajni movie was as simple as it could get. Rajni however ensured that whatever was missing in terms of content was suitably replaced by the variety. The variety that he created in his fights though not appealing to those intellectually inclined created quite a sensation. I can’t think any kid of the 80s who did not model himself after Rajnikanth.
d) Continuously revisit your strengths and create newer ones : After 80s the impact of his ‘style’ particularly of the cigarette flipping routine became a bit stale. Rajni recognized this and he responded by carving a new niche, which, till date is ruling the roost in Kollywood. The new niche he created was loosely known as ‘punch dialogue’. Lest people misunderstand this as some dialogue uttered during a boxing match, it was nothing of that sort. This is supposedly a ‘catchy phrase’ which the hero is expected to utter frequently throughout the duration of the movie. It also gave huge headache to the ‘dialogue writers’ but if they happen to get one, it also gave them the liberty to slip it in throughout the movie at places where they couldn’t think of anything better. Rajni as the pioneer of ‘punch dialogue’ identified the waning influence of his first niche and created another much before the earlier niche had fully lost its fervor. This way he managed to retain his captive audience
e) Emphasize your weakness and make it your strength : There was an unwritten rule in Kollywood that heroes should be well groomed, fair, tickling moustache and the leading ladies buxom and fair. Even today the rule stays for the leading ladies while Rajni changed the rules for the hero. By no stretch of imagination does Rajini fit into the description of a hero. Certainly not in comparison to a Kamalhassan for instance. Rajini’s dark colour and his ruffled hair was every bit the undoing of a hero. But Rajni as clever as he was, he kept emphasizing his ‘weakness’ and converted that into a major strength. Even in the early stages of a career there were many duets penned which included references to his colour something unthinkable in the context of how desperate the film stars are about their image. By constantly emphasizing his weakness Rajni dared to be different and in the process he challenged these ‘rules’ of the film world. It also helped him to establish an instant connect with the audience. In Rajni the common man saw himself – someone who is dark, unkempt and simple. And the common man was happy for Rajni’s success because Rajni proved that one could be successful without the forced pre-requisites. Rajni’s success soon became the common man’s success.
f) Keep an escape route for all troubles (or) Adapt to the twists and turns of life : Rajni’s quasi involvement in politics was certainly the low point in his career. There are many versions as to why he had his run-ins with Madam Jayalalithaa but he made his biggest faux paus by openly aligning himself with the DMK. Over a period of 4 years, Rajni tried to position himself for a possible political career (the ‘plunge’ as it is referred to) but couldn’t quite muster up courage to actually to get launched officially. He also realized that he was merely being used as a “medium” and no one would really leave the “political space” for him to occupy. Whether it was due to the massive failure of his movie ‘Baba’ or the realization of how he was being used, Rajni started withdrawing from the quasi role. His escapes to the Himalayas proved to be a perfect alibi for him to maneuver himself out of trouble many times. The importance of retaining such an ‘escape route’ for all the troubles can never be underestimated. And in his last movie, ‘Kuselan’ Rajni did one better by clarifying that his ‘political dialogues’ in movies were just ‘film dialogues’ and not purported for any reading between lines. In one stroke Rajni virtually exonerated himself for all political machinations that were ascribed to him. A master stroke indeed.
As Rajni enters his 60th year and simultaneously romances Aishwarya Rai for his upcoming movie ‘Endhiran’, his success underscores very valuable insights about creating, maintaining and importantly redeeming one’s career.
One of his famous ‘punch dialogue’ used to be ‘En vazhi thani vazhi’ loosely translated into ‘My way is a separate way’.