Monday, January 28, 2013

Man of the masses

Naman Ramachandran has written a riveting biography of Tamil superstar Rajnikanth 

Photo: Naman Ramachandran (right) with Rajnikanth  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Two years ago, London-based journalist Naman Ramachandran was in Singapore having a chat with his agent Jayapriya Vasudevan when talk veered around to the famous sons of Bangalore. Both had lived in the Garden City for many years. Then they suddenly realised that there were no credible biographies of one of Bangalore's most famous sons, Rajnikanth. After Naman returned to London, within a week, he was asked to send a sample chapter by Jayapriya. Thereafter, there was a bidding war and Penguin Books India won the rights. And the book's release date was also fixed: 12/12/12, which happened to be Rajnikanth's birthday.

Naman immediately flew to Chennai to meet the superstar. Unfortunately, Rajnikanth had fallen sick and was quarantined. So Naman met all the people close to him, including his mentor, the director-producer, K. Balachander, cinematographer Santosh Sivan, director Mani Ratnam, lyricist Vaiaramuthu, apart from actresses like Revathy and Khushboo. Naman also bought DVDs and saw each one of the 154 films that Rajnikanth made. Thereafter, after a year's research, he sat to write down the book.

The result is 'Rajnikanth – The Definitive Biography'. It is a riveting read and more so, for those who are rabid Rajnikanth fans. It is a story of how a bus conductor of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation goes to Chennai to try his luck in films. But, in order to have a technical base, he studied for three years at the Madras Film Institute. One day, he went and met Balachander for a role. The producer decided to take a chance with Rajnikanth. Balachander says, “At that time everybody was casting fair-skinned actors, be they hero or villain. But I wanted to be different with each film. So I thought, 'why not try somebody dark-skinned?'”

Naman was also keen to give a background to the story. “So, I provided a history of the Dravidian movement, Tamil and Kannada cinema, apart from Rajnikanth's interplay with politics,” says Naman. “When he showed a political message in 'Muthu' (1995), I described what was happening between him and [current Chief Minister] Jayalalitha at that time?”

When asked about the reasons for Rajnikanth's emergence as a star, Naman says, “For the first time on the south Indian screen there was a star who looked like a member of the audience. He talked like them and did not resemble a manufactured doll with porcelain looks.”

If you look at the history of Tamil cinema, this is the first star who is a man of the people. Earlier, the stars would come from upper middle-class Brahmanical backgrounds. “Today, if you see Tamil cinema, a lot of them look like the man on the street,” says Naman.

And of course, Rajnikanth has charisma. “Whenever Rajnikanth was in his frame, even if it is a crowded scene, your eyes go to him directly, in the same way it happens with Mohanlal,” says cinematographer Sivan. “This is a divine gift. You have it or you don't. To be frank, when I first looked at Rajnikanth through the viewfinder, I got goosebumps.”

Naman also got goosebumps when he finally met up with Rajnikanth, at Chennai, after the book was published. So what sort of a guy is the superstar? “He is humility personified,” says Naman. “He has no airs and does not think he is a superstar. At the age of 62, this is what is working with the audience. Where do you get this level of simplicity and honesty these days?” 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and Delhi) 

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