The World Is Not Enough
It’s the stuff of comic-book cliché, the classic tale of a mild-mannered everyman without a vain bone in his body, the last person you’d look at in a crowd, a man who has the ‘aging relative’ look down pat… yet when Sivaji Rao Gaekwad ambles out of his wigless real life and swaggers onto the silver screen, there has to be a faster-than-a-speeding-bullet moment where he steps through a phone booth, for the transformation is incredible. Growing instantly to several times the size of life, this man is so suddenly, awesomely mega that… that he’s CAPITALISED, for god’s sake.
And his latest film sees him at his most magnificent. Shankar’s Enthiran (or Robot or Robo, depending on where you watch it) is a remarkable technical achievement, a $35 million film that, while touted as Asia’s most expensive, has effects comparable to Hollywood’s $150 million behemoths. A spectacle it truly is, yet the film’s true strength lies in turning the myth of Rajnikanth on its head, in stripping him of his ‘punch-dialogues’ and his ‘entry shot’ and making that all-powerful persona worshipped by millions into an ordinary protagonist, one who can barely make a fist.
And while the man plays a believable scientist, noble to the core, it is his creation — a robot made in his own image, a Rajninstein, if you will — who does what Rajni routinely does in his films: the impossible. Thus is the fantasy — that invariable, bullet-halting, cigarette-juggling superhuman fantasy lying at the core of every Rajni blockbuster — given a shred of credibility, turning the unbelievable into, well, the legitimate. As the robot imbibes feeling and grows increasingly, wonderfully evil, narcissistically developing enough Rajnis to keep his fans in throes of ecstasy, the scientist himself is man enough only to run from a fight.
It is an immensely clever subversion, further enhanced by the fact that audiences can, in this film, finally root for the bad guy. I’ve heard tell of a tiny local theatre where a drunkard, incensed by a vamp berating the superstar on screen and leaving him without a place to sit, yanked out his own and flung it at the curtain. It is the irrational, irony-free adulation reserved usually for the gods, and that devotion would mean immediate hatred for any antagonist daring to stand in their hero’s path. Yet when it is Rajni himself, everything’s allowed.
We of the Bollywood habit, not blessed as often by this man’s screen-conquering presence, roll our eyes and laugh and make Chuck Norris jokes. Yet a film from this man, a smirk, a swagger, a line of ridiculously contrived dialogue, come as opiate to millions of people. We routinely celebrate escapism in our cinema, but Rajni stands higher up on this peak than any man in Hindi cinema. Is he then India’s biggest star? Please. He’s too big for competition. Even with a heroine who can’t act, he’s delivering the country’s biggest hit, the mediocrity simply bouncing off his bulletproof grin. Smashing.
Oh, and like the very best superheroes, he doesn’t wear a cape.
First published Mumbai Mirror, October 6, 2010