Rajinikanth Image Credit: Supplied

One cannot truly comprehend the sheer star power that Rajinikanth commands unless they’ve survived one of his hyperbolic productions at a cinema.

Flashing neon lights will systematically spell out ‘Superstar’ before any filmmaker dare use Rajinikanth’s name on screen; the title of the film itself is irrelevant in the face of the mass hysteria that spreads like wildfire across the cinema, with chants of ‘Thalaivar’ (Tamil for leader or boss) notching up octaves to reach a deafening roar.

With every stylised flick of his hair, his trademark deadly swagger, or the simple motion of cocking his eyebrow before delivering a line that could break the internet faster than a Kardashian could ever hope, Rajinikanth’s very existence on celluloid is reason enough to celebrate for his army of loyalists.

File: A fan offers flower to Rajnikanth's poster at the release of his film 'Kabali' in Bengaluru. PTI

Needless to say, the upcoming Kaala will hardly be an exception.

As urban legends go, even the late Sridevi was reportedly not immune to the actor’s appeal. According to an account in the Deccan Chronicle, back in 2011 when Rajinikanth had fallen critically ill, Sridevi undertook a week-long fast, praying for his recovery. The two stars shared a close bond through their struggling days, having worked in nearly 20 films since 1976’s Moondru Mudichu.

A star is born

Yet, long before Rajinikanth transformed into this on-screen juggernaut, the actor lived a simple life as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, taking up odd jobs to make ends meet, including a stint as a bus conductor in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

Rajinikanth’s foray into acting started out with small-time mythological stage productions during his early years (with a little financial help from his bus buddies) before he was discovered by Tamil film director K. Balachander. The acclaimed filmmaker, who was also instrumental in facilitating Sridevi’s transition from a child star to a leading lady, would go on to transform Rajinikanth into the superstar he is today.

Kamal Haasan, Jayaprada and Rajinikanth in ‘Ninaithale Inikkum’ (1979).

Under the guidance of Balachander, the actor mastered the Tamil language and made his film debut in 1975’s Aboorva Raagangal. The drama went on to win three Indian National Film Awards, including the accolade for the Best Feature in Tamil and established Rajinikanth as one of the handful of names to come out the industry at the time — next to Sridevi and a certain Kamal Haasan. His time on celluloid was limited to playing negative roles before filmmaker S. P. Muthuraman revamped his image in Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri (1977). And there’s been no looking back since.

It is often said that even though Haasan and Rajnikanth embarked on their film careers around the same time, often working together during the late 70s and early 80s, it was perhaps the latter’s rags-to-riches story — coupled with his unconventional looks and distinct screen style — that connected with the masses.

With Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Enthiran’ (2010).

“I think it was the fact that he wasn’t hero material,” says Dubai-based fan Shankar CV. “He wasn’t a Shashi Kapoor, a Rishi Kapoor or an Amitabh Bachchan. Yet, he carved out his distinct style and made it his own.”

Who can forget the cigarette flip in Moondru Mudichu (1976), which would go on to become his signature style for decades to follow, including an enhancement on the flip with a loaded gun in Geraftaar (1985).

With Sridevi in ‘Moondru Mudichu’ (1976).

Shankar, who has been a fan of Rajinikanth since he was 12 years old, also recalls his fleeting meetings with the actor over the years. “The first time I saw the star was in the middle of the pouring rain in Kerala, patiently waiting for his director to call a shot,” he recalls. “I met Rajinikanth again a few years later at the airport with a friend who happened to be a crew member on that film in Kerala. Imagine, not only did he remember my friend’s name, but he also recalled meeting me that day.”

Here comes a superstar

The actor continued to amass admiration with each passing role, with the only thing competing with his films appearing to be Rajinikanth’s growing popularity.

“It was his signature style that struck gold with fans,” says Dubai-based accountant, Rakesh Kumar. “Who else could whip up a tornado by simply twirling his foot, the way Rajini did in Chandramukhi (2005), or force a fired bullet to retreat by a mere look as he did in Sivaji The Boss (2007)?”

Rajinikanth in ‘Sivaji The Boss’ (2007).

While there may not be a single film that can pinpoint Rajinikanth’s transformation into the cult status that he commands today, there are several that come close, says Kumar, who calls the Mani Ratnam directed Thalapathi (1991) as one of the actor’s finest performances.

“The world had Chuck Norris. India had Rajinikanth,” says Srinivas Karuturi, a Dubai-based technology consultant. “There’s a whole aura that he has created around him that sets him apart from all the others. That’s Rajinikanth.”

By 1999, the reclusive actor turned even more media shy, getting selective about his film choices after the record-breaking success of Padayappa. Following a three-year hiatus, Rajinikanth returned with Baba (2002), opening to criticism and backlash from several who felt the film was negatively influencing youth.

In his debut film ‘Apoorva Raagangal’ (1975).

Another lore from the time narrates that when Baba’s failure resulted in losses for the film distributors, Rajinikanth reportedly dug into his own pockets and reimbursed the amount. To show their gratitude, a special thanksgiving ceremony was organised in the film industry dedicated to the superstar.

Rajinikanth waited another three years before returning to the big screen with a triple whammy, first being 2005’s smash-hit Chandramukhi, followed by Sivaji The Boss two years later and the sci-fi drama in 2010, Enthiran.

Health issues and a stint in a hospital forced the actor to cut back further on his work before returning with mediocre success in Kochadaiiyaan (2012) and Lingaa (2014). Yet, despite critics slamming his films, loyal fans continued to head in droves to catch their superstar shine on the silver screen.

With Rajinikanth now officially entering politics after his announcement in December, it is only fair to speculate that the 67-year-old superstar’s days on screen are numbered, with the upcoming Kaala and 2.0 the only two projects that have been announced.

Many critics speculate the actor, who always reiterated that politics wasn’t his “cup of tea”, had been grooming himself through the decades as he built his army of loyalists that would carry him home when the time comes. Whether this next chapter of his life succeeds or not, this trailblazer will continue to rule hearts on celluloid with his trademark swagger in check.

Rajinikanth's on-screen style 

Flipping the cigarette:

First seen in 1976’s Moondru Mudichu, the actor would continue this in films to come, including lighting a cigarette with his eyes and using a loaded gun.

The swagger:

In the early days, when Rajinikanth was still playing a two-bit villain in his films, the walk would become his signature style. In each passing film, the swagger only became more pronounced. Don’t believe us? Check out his films from Baashha (1995) to Kabali (2016).

Rolling his sunglasses:

Why simply wear those goggles when you can roll them a few times before snapping it on your face? First spotted in 1979’s Dharma Yuddam, there are YouTube tutorials today teaching fans how to ape Rajinikanth’s style.

His salute:

He may have done this innumerable times, but it was 1999’s Padayappa that really brought Rajinikanth’s signature salute into the limelight where he flipped his hand in a circular motion before bringing it to his forehead.

Don’t miss it

Kaala releases in the UAE on June 6.