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If you haven't heard of Tamil cinema, you aren't alone. At the international level, South India's film industry is all but unknown and often gets confused with Bollywood, Mumbai's Hindi film business. But, over the past five years, the "Other Bollywood," led by Tamil cinema, produced more than half of all Indian movies. Budgets for Tamil films now rival Bollywood's, and South India's film industry is emerging as a creative dynamo.


How a Tamil star is born

In Tamil Nadu, an ethnic rebellion turned film stars into gods.

the Tamil language as superior to all the other languages of India. They presented the Tamil woman as the pinnacle of beauty and chastity. And they portrayed the Tamil hero as the ultimate champion of the darker-colored, oppressed people of the lower castes.

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On the strength of these films, in 1967, the DMK trounced the Congress Party — which had been unassailable throughout India since leading the independence movement.

And the South's new gods were born.

“You have the politicians building up one film hero, [MGR], as the ultimate Tamil folk hero,” said Vangal. “He’s invested with all the ethnic identity that they wanted to project for Tamil nationalist. From there, this whole cult of hero worship begins.”

Mouthing the politically charged rhetoric of scriptwriter M. Karunanidhi, who leads today's DMK, MGR emerged as an elegant and poetic Robin Hood figure. In Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers like “Manthiri Kumari” (“Princess Manthiri”), Aayirathil Oruvan (“One man in a thousand”), and “Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum” (“Alibaba and the 40 thieves”), he battled oppressors, freed slaves and killed tyrants. 

Meanwhile, in family dramas and mythological epics, the other big stars of the era, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, showcased the ideal values of a Tamil suitor, husband and patriarch.

In Tamil's poetic tradition, “there are the poems of the outer world — the street and politics — and there are the poems to be said at home, in family dramas,” said Hariharan. “Sivaji Ganesan sort of epitomized the family drama, and M.G. Ramachandran took on the streets. He was the man on the streets.”

Emergency and betrayal

When Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan displaced these idealized Tamil figures in the late '70s, politics was again the key.

In 1975, Indira Gandhi — Nehru's daughter and India's third primeminister — declared a state of emergency, suspending elections andarresting many opposition politicians after a court ruling that voidedher parliamentary victory due to electoral misconduct. But while otherleaders across the nation opted to go to jail rather than acceptGandhi's usurping of the democracy, the DMK bowed to her will —betraying their Tamil nationalist roots.

Because there was no political alternative, however, the people expressed their anger culturally, abandoning old screen heroes in favor of their opposites.

They jettisoned the deep-voiced Ganesan — the stocky and grave idealization of Tamil masculinity — in favor of the lithe and flexible, nearly androgynous Haasan, a former classical dancer with large, expressive eyes. And they scrapped MGR — the fair-skinned, eloquent champion of the oppressed masses — for Rajnikanth.

“Rajnikanth was everything that [MGR] was not: He was dark, he was ugly, he couldn't speak the Tamil language properly, he smoked and he drank — something MGR would never do on the screen,” Hariharan said.

The underclass persona that Rajnikanth, a former bus conductor, developed for himself won him a more passionate following than MGR had ever enjoyed.  And in creating it, Rajnikanth also reinvented the Tamil blockbuster, driving it further and further away from the films made in Hindi and other regional languages.

Known for rhyming aphorisms or “punch dialogues,” gestures and gimmicks — like throwing a cigarette into the air and catching it in his mouth — that are repeated in all his films, Rajnikanth breaks all the conventions of movie-making. His most successful films are, to the outsider, bizarre mash-ups of genres, blending colossal fistfights, slapstick pratfalls, dance numbers and romance with no regard for logic or continuity.

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With no explanation necessary, he holds up his hand and a car screeches to a stop. He cranks his wrist, and the car reverses. He twirls his foot in a circle on the ground, and an eddy of dust grows into a whirlwind, carrying the villain into the sky. He catches the villain's bullet in his own gun and fires it back at him.  No, he's not playing a superhero. He's just Rajni, as his fans call him.

He's even got his own genre of jokes, in the same vein as American action movie star Chuck Norris. “Rajni doesn't answer nature's call; nature answers Rajni's call,” “Rajni can divide by zero,” or “Rajni knows Victoria's Secret.”

At key moments, like the trickster in a play, he breaks character to speak to the camera, directly addressing the audience. “I may have fed on my mother's milk,” he might say. “But I've grown up on the milk of the Tamil people's compassion.” Or “When I say something once, it's as though I've said it 100 times.” 

In a region where class and color influence everything from your employment future to your marriage prospects, the persona and the token lines hit home. And though so far Rajnikanth has never turned one of his punch dialogues into a campaign slogan, a la MGR, speculation never ceases over which political party the superstar will choose if and when he quits making films.

But wait. This is Rajni. He doesn't join parties. Parties join him.

Akhila Krishnamurthy in Chennai provided reporting assistance for this series.