My first Rajnikant film

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-10-19

Last week, Hassath took me to the Siri Fort auditorium to watch my first Rajnikant film, Sivaji, The Boss.

I didn't know what to expect—this was my first Tamil film. I knew what an iconic figure Rajnikant is in Tamil cinema, and Hassath had told me that the best way to watch his films is in an inexpensive local theatre in Tamil Nadu, so that the enthusiastic and vocal participation of the audience adds to the experience.

To my surprise (because I have never heard much Tamil), I was able to understand quite a lot of the dialogue and even some of the songs. The grammar and many words were recognisably similar to Malayalam, which I do speak. A happy coincidence, because the subtitles were awful. Bajji (an Indian dish) was rendered everywhere in the dialogue as Bajji (an Indian dish).

Sivaji is a rich software engineer who has returned to Chennai from the USA with the dream of providing free education and medical care to all. He is stymied at every turn by a corrupt system intent on extracting its pound of flesh, let down by the law, and driven to bankruptcy by his powerful and well-connected opponents. He retaliates the “Lion's way”—by blackmailing the same people into giving him half of their black money (i.e. undeclared income), then turning them in to the income tax officials anyway. He then launders the money and uses it to fund the universities and hospitals he wanted to open.

Along the way, he delivers cathartic beatings to a range of rowdies and villains, inspiring fear in his opponents and the unswerving loyalty of ordinary people all over his native land. The fight scenes are a thing of beauty. There are no adversaries, not even the top ten rowdies in Chennai, that can intimidate him. There is never any question that Sivaji will win; but he does it in great style every single time, and sustains just the right injuries needed to advance the plot.

There were frequent, lengthy digressions to song and dance sequences, each one an epic of visual excess. Every costume was fantastic, every colour intense, every dance set in a different world. I was startled at first by the sudden appearance of Sivaji in golden armour with a beard and a retinue of Roman soldiers who joined him in a dance, but I soon got into the spirit of things. By the time a chalky-white Sivaji and his traditionally-dressed bride-to-be are transported from a shop in Chennai to the Sydney harbour in snazzy western clothes, it took me barely a few seconds to readjust; and rapid costume changes and set transformations within a sequence didn't faze me in the least.

I noticed that the film was very aware throughout of its role as a Rajnikant starrer, and was not above making fun of itself or the Tamil film industry. The first dance sequence featured a few dozen overweight (but very energetic) men with Rajnikant's face painted in vivid colours on their stomach, in movie-poster style. Little in-jokes like this one (paraphrased) were scattered throughout the film, with appropriate pauses for applause each time:

[Rajnikant begins to threaten a hoodlum…]

Uncle: Wait, are you going to give the ‘punch’ dialogue?

Rajnikant: Yes, why?

Uncle: Every two-bit Tamil actor is using that dialogue now. Here, let me handle this one.

The Uncle (who plays a critical role as Sivaji's supporter and sidekick) then delivered a couplet whose impact would be lost in translation (and there are many such rhymes… which the film pokes fun at itself for). The film also ridicules capitation fees, the desire for fairer skin, paying attention to horoscopes, and a few other things besides.

For all its buffoonery, though, the central message of the film couldn't be clearer or more direct: We need free education and healthcare, which the state and private interests conspire to keep from us. Let's turn the tables on them, beat the rascals thoroughly if they so much as sneeze, and use their money to benefit everyone. It's a pity that all this hinges on a lone great Saviour… but at least it's Rajnikant.

I was thoroughly entertained for three hours, as every film convention I am used to was thoroughly trashed. I thought the film was very well put together, and that the (many) reviewers who criticise it as illogical and unrealistic have missed the point altogether. There's no use looking for bottles of hairspray growing on a cactus and being disappointed when you don't find any.

I also understand now why Rajnikant is a superstar in Tamil Nadu, but I'm not going to paint his face on my stomach… at least, not until I have watched a few more of his films.