Rajnikanth – The Initiation
For all he had to start off with were empty pockets, the desire to be like Raj Kumar and the perpetual nagging of the neighborhood that he was ‘a rascal, and a write off from any decent sort of society.’
“They didn’t realize that after I lost my mother at a relatively young age, I really felt lost without her love and wandered about trying to find something to fill this terrible emptiness,” recalled the actor, born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad on 12 December 1950, the third son of an orthodox family in a small village near Bangalore.
“I latched on to soda bottles, cycle chains, street gangs. And people branded me a ruffian. When threatened, I fought my father who would pick up a knife to attack me for the smallest error. Fortunately, a kind brother soon took me away to the nearest Ramakrishna Mission Ashram where I was to learn many of my future values. My first stage appearance was in an Ashram play.”
Yet, the tranquility of an Ashram life was not exactly meant for a lad who had been initiated into street brawls for which, he found he had developed a subconscious yearning.
Shivaji was soon out on the streets again, this time dubbed the local leader. This of course preempted a formal education and Shivaji’s only achievement during an irregular spell at high school was a shield for best actor in a play. Needless to say, he absconded on the eve of his public examinations.
“I knew I would not be able to pass. So with the hundred and fifty rupees exam fees, I set out for Madras hoping to catch a glimpse of my idol Raj Kumar. I just can’t forget an experience when sleeping on the pavement in front of Wellington Theater on Mount Road. It must have been around midnight when a patrolling policeman came and shook me.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked me gruffly. ‘From Bangalore,’ I answered, hoping that he’d move on. No such luck. ‘You know you’re not supposed to sleep here,’ he snarled, dragging me off to the police station. And though I pretended to be angry, I was really very happy that at least I would have the police station roof over my head that night. Ha, hope that cop remembers me today.”
The Madras visit ultimately turned out a total fiasco and Shivaji soon returned home broke, once more in disgrace but far from disillusioned. He was a Maharashtrian who had come to Madras from Bangalore. He knew Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. It was a good asset for a bus conductor, which he became next, to be a linguist.
“I was a bus conductor in Bangalore Transport Services (BTS) for five years. Before that I had been a coolie, carpenter and an office boy. I used to act in plays organised by the BTS. I was not a hero in those days. I used to prefer villain’s roles. And my performances were very much appreciated by the audience and won the prize for the role of Duryodhana in “Kurukshetra” in an inter-bus depot competition.”
Encouraged by this achievement and instigated by Bahadur, a fellow-conductor he enrolled at the Madras Film Institute and resigned his BTS job in 1973-74. (Shivaji had by this time lost two jobs for creating unnecessary confusion on duty and very nearly lost his conductor’s post for thrashing a senior).
He recalls. “One day K. Balachander visited the Institute. l was his fan even then having seen ‘Avargal‘ at least five times. He spoke to us and then asked, ‘Any questions?’ And while everyone just sat still and gawked, I stood up.
At once the whole class sniggered for I was known as a cheeky back bencher. ‘Saar, what do you expect from an actor apart from his acting?’ I asked all in one breath, rushing the words one into another. Too fast, Balachander asked me to repeat the question. Dramatizing each word, I did. Back came the answer almost immediately, ‘Actors shouldn’t act outside studios.’ What a snub. Asking me my name, he left the class.”
To this day, neither the actor nor the director can quite understand what prompted Balachander to send for the young man later on and offer him that walk-on role in “Apoorva Raagangal” starring Kamal Haasan, with a promise of more to come as soon as he learnt Tamil properly.
He was also enrolled on contract basis for three other films – ‘Anthu Leni Katha’, the Telugu remake of ‘Aval Oru Thodarkathai’, ‘Moondru Mudichu’ and the Kannada film ‘Kadha Sanga’.
“In nearly 20 films I appeared as a villain. Then Mr. Kalaignanam offered me a hero’s role in his Tamil film ‘Bhairavi’. l was a bit hesitant at that time. I wasn’t sure how the role would be accepted by the public. After all they knew me only as a villain. Finally I agreed to do the role. We worked night and day for 13 days continuously. Sripriya was the heroine, Shrikant the villain. Actually I had no confidence in that picture. It got released and proved to be quite a success at all centers. I had become a hero. It is a chance very few people get in films – starting as a villain and then becoming a hero. Shatrughan Sinha did it but even he was not so successful.”
So how did his swagger, his sneer, his style, that toss of a cigarette from a million miles away straight into your mouth, develop? Magnanimous in his modesty, he admitted, “All these I created even before I came to films. I used to practice for hours at all these mannerisms and styles. Because I know that I am not a good actor so to cover it up, I developed these gimmicks. And they helped me a lot when I did those villain’s roles.”
And the name? From Shivajirao Gaekwad to Rajnikant? “It was Balachander sar who named me Rajnikant for ‘Apoorva Ragangal. You see, he made the film ‘Major Chandrakanth’. Chandrakanth had two sons: Shrikant and Rajnikant. So he used those names for actors he introduced. Shrikant you know is acting as a villain in many Tamil films. The name Rajnikant was given to me.”
And so, today, along with the other makers of his destiny like Arvindaswamy and Jesus Christ, Rajnikant has installed a large-size portrait of Balachander in his pooja room. After all, it was KB who carefully engineered it. With Rajnikant’s arrival Tamil moviegoers realized that they at last had someone who fitted their concept of the anti-hero down to the basic mannerisms, the jaunty flick of hand to flip back the mop of hair, the head simultaneously whipped back with a hard, penetrating down under stare, a general nonchalance.
And the films ran to packed houses-—“Ilamai Oonjaladurikathu”, “Ninaithale Inikum”. Twenty-two successes in a year, outdoing Dharmendra’s “Maa” with “Annai Oru Aalayam”, and Amitabh Bachchan’s “Don” with “Billa” and the list goes on through more whoppers like “Moondru Mugham” (where he did his first triple role), and “Engeyo Ketta Kural” (as a totally convincing villager despite his hideously funny wig that looked like a Mongolian cap).”
And his Hindi film debut? People expected that Balachander would introduce him to the Hindi screen as he did Kamal and Rati Agnihotri in ‘Ek Duje Ke Liye’. “Then people started asking ‘Why not you?’ I began getting several offers too. But my wish was that if at all I was to enter Hindi films. I should enter with a bang. But I lacked confidence. I refused many offers. Then one day Purnachandra Rao came and told me that he was going to remake the Tamil film ‘Sattam Oru Iruttarai‘ in Hindi.
He offered me a role but I hesitated because I had to act alongside Amitabh Bachchan, Pran, Prem Chopra, Danny, Hema Malini – veterans all. And I wondered what I could do. I thought I wouldn’t even be noticed and be completely overshadowed. Also, though I knew Hindi, I was not very fluent in it. So I refused.
“But Rao kept persuading me. He said. ‘At least you see the film and then decide. You see the character you have to play. If you don’t like it then okay, we will drop the idea.’ So I went to see the Telugu version of the film. I had decided in my mind, ‘Okay. I’ll see the picture and then I’ll tell him I don’t want the role.”
I did not take it seriously at all. I drank more than half a bottle that day. I sat for the film at 11.30 pm. As I watched I got so involved with the film that I sobered up. I knew what the role offered to me was a good one and that I could do it well. So I signed up. That was ‘Andhaa Kanoon’.
And as Thalaivar (for Boss, as he is fondly known) still continues to be immortalized in film after film, filmkailm wishes him a very Healthy 64th Birthday.