It’s a hot, dusty and quiet afternoon in Royapettah, one of Chennai’s favourite cinema hubs. The neighbourhood’s kebab shops are yet to open for Ifthar service, and its legendary Woodlands Cinema bears an even more desolate look. “Just wait a couple of days more,” quips a cheery box office attendant as I sit outside, waiting for my lone ticket. “Milk will flow down these stairs. Thalaivar’s Pal Abhishegam (customary milk-offering to a temple’s deity) is going to be bigger than before.” Why not? It isn’t every year that a Rajinikanth film hits the screens. So, when it does, the celebrations must understandably dwarf the larger-than-life cut-outs at these old-world multiplexes.
Yet, you will probably be forgiven if you forgot that in 48 hours, Rajinikanth’s next film, Kaala, will hit 600 screens across Tamil Nadu. There are few cut-outs of the superstar, hardly any big-ticket promotional events, and there is no Air Asia passenger jet painted in the film’s colours, as was the case with 2016’s Kabali. “It might well be a deliberate ploy since the filmmakers are keen to not hype the film,” says noted film critic Baradwaj Rangan, “Kabali (Rajinikanth’s previous release; 2016) had way too much hype, and audiences just didn’t like the film. Silence, however, stirs curiosity.” Kaala marks the second collaboration between the superstar and director P Ranjith, after Kabali.
IS RAJINI’S POLITICAL DEBUT TO BLAME?
Could the conspicuous silence this time, however, point to the possibility of the superstar’s fading enigma? “Most certainly,” asserts industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai, “Rajinikanth’s brand value began eroding when he announced his foray into politics earlier this year. After the events of last week, it has further plummeted.” Pillai refers to Rajinikanth’s Tuticorin visit last week, where he infamously blamed “anti-social elements among protesters” for sparking off the Anti-Sterlite riots. Pillai continues: “Rajini used to have universal appeal cutting across party lines. But actors who join politics, and then release films, seldom enjoy success. Although Kaala will have a great opening, there are questions on how long the film will be able to sustain that momentum.”
AGE A FACTOR?
Fading brand value or not, political commentator Sumanth Raman says it’s not so much about Rajinikanth the cult icon as it is about a 67-year-old superstar in the twilight of his career, now trying to make a mark in politics. “We have to face the reality that Rajinikanth will probably never make another Baasha or Enthiran again,” he says, “Kabali, for all its hype, wasn’t even half the hit that Enthiran was. But the superstar’s declining brand value isn’t as much a consequence of his political ambitions as it is to do with his age.”
There’s nothing Rajini ‘can’t’ do or so the pun goes, but experts point out that the superstar’s declining brand value might be victim to the times he finds himself in. “When MGR (MG Ramachandran, former actor-turned-politician & TN Chief Minister) made a foray into politics he wasn’t subjected to the same media scrutiny as Rajinikanth is, today,” says Pillai, pointing out that social media has equal part to play in the superstar’s tryst with a more mortal image. “There’s also this problem of Rajinikanth starting to play socially and politically conscious roles,” says Rangan, pointing out to his roles and look in Kabali and Kaala. “From an analytical point of view, it’s great to see him play his age and tone down on the action sequences. But the fans still want the dialogues, entertainment and basics.”
WHERE IS THE MONEY?
Unlike Kabali, Kaala may not have sold 200 crore rupees worth of branding and distribution rights before its release. If reports are anything to go by, the film’s entire budget itself totals to Rs 80 crore, which in itself is lukewarm for the superstar. Less successful films of his, like Lingaa and Kochadaiiyaan had bigger budgets. In 2015, film distributors of Lingaa demanded that Rajinikanth compensate for their losses after the film bombed at the box office. This, while relatively lesser Kollywood actors like Vijay and Ajith have had their 2017 releases Mersal and Vivegam made at estimated budgets of around Rs 130 crore, with both films faring well in the box office. “An entire generation of audiences in their teens now have younger actors to idolize,” says Raman.
KEEPING THE FAITH
Theatres and audiences, though, have kept the faith. Nearly 48 hours before Kaala’s release, 26 multiplexes across Chennai and its suburbs are running houseful for the first weekend. “There is still crazy fanfare, with most fans wanting to watch the film on the first day itself,” says Swaroop Reddy, the Director of Chennai-based SPI Cinemas, “We expect Kaala to account for the same number of shows per day as previous Rajinikanth films.”
Forty-three years after the superstar made his debut in 1975’s Apoorva Raagangal, June 7 could well be his moment of truth. Kaala could have the final say on whether or not Brand Rajini will survive — an outcome that will matter not only to the superstar himself, but millions of fans, followers, party workers and soon-to-be voters.
First Published: IST