Decoding success of 'Jailer', Rajinikanth's enduring charisma and power of multi-starrers
What makes Rajinikanth relevant on the silver screen even at 72? And, how superstars have jumped into the multi-starrer bandwagon to generate blockbusters
It appears that Kamal Haasan, with ‘Vikram’ and Rajinikanth, with the recently released ‘Jailer’, have returned to acting in multi-starrers, which seems to be yielding gold for these evergreen superstars at the box office. Maybe, it is just sheer business sense but clearly, both have fallen back on this genre to stay relevant on the silver screen.
Why ‘Jailer’ was a success
Besides being a multi-starrer, ‘Jailer’, directed by Nelson Dilipkumar, is one of the cleverest films that Tamil cinema produced in 2023. With most Tamil films, we know more or less where the storyline is headed (either in a thriller or a rom-com) and what the climax will be. But for once, we had a 'Rajinikanth film' that we thought we had figured out, till it unravelled—which is also the biggest plus in ‘Jailer’. It has been a while since we saw the superstar in a raucous and rambunctious fun avatar. So, it is not too difficult to understand all the fuss.
Although, one cannot say that ‘Jailer’ ranks among Rajinikanth’s best, it is important to recognise his willingness to try something different in the light of Tamil cinema’s changing landscape and narrative. It is admirable that the superstar embraces the inventiveness of the new generation of filmmakers, with the zeal of a student. A significant portion of the film’s mammoth success may also be attributed to Rajinikanth's reinvention as an actor, at the age of 72.
What’s behind ‘thalaivar’ magic
Despite setbacks, Rajinikanth, however, did not fade out but managed to retain his title as the ‘thalaivar’ of south cinema. So, here's probably how he does it. He is one of the finest performers in Indian cinema—thanks to a rare and special captivating screen presence combined with a long career in celluloid, a diverse range of roles to his credit, and an unstoppable, ever-growing popularity. He is stronger than ever with roles coming in, and directors rushing to sign him on. The belief that “even a flop with Rajinikanth’s name on the marquee is a good enough grosser” still prevails among producers and distributors.
“Wait and watch”, K Balachander told one of his assistants after Rajinikanth had auditioned for a role. “This young man has a fire in his eyes. One day, he’ll be a phenomenon.” How accurate the veteran director’s words turned out to be, eventually.
Rajinikanth keeps a low profile; he hardly promotes his films. He's the last person to be concerned about “image”. When he is seen in public, he is seen as he is—sans wig or makeup. However, as emphasised by a line from his movie ‘2.O’, he's the “only one; super one”.
What makes Rajnikanth’s role different in ‘Jailer’
In ‘Jailer’, there is a dramatic departure from his usual trope. Since making his acting debut in 1975, Rajinikanth has frequently returned to the role of a working-class vigilante seeking justice by pulling stunts that only he is capable of. (strictly, no sarcasm)
Always watchful of what the audience likes, Rajinikanth sees himself as an actor first, and a star later, say industry experts, adding that as a performer, he has aged like fine wine.
For a change, in 'Jailer', the superstar does not mix swagger with politics, which he did in his earlier outings including ‘Kabali’, ‘Kaala’, and ‘Darbar’. In fact, ‘Jailer’ seems like a fine mix of what he wants, and what his fans want.
Rajinikanth defines his films
Although the superstar has starred in several duds, including ‘Annaatthe’, there was never any doubt about his dominance at the box-office or his fan following. As the saying goes, “Films don’t define Rajinikanth; he defines them”.
During the peak of his career, Rajinikanth’s performances were distinguished by his ability to portray a simmering sense of inner turmoil, a body coiled in furious knots ready to explode on screen, a style of speech delivery that had not been seen before he entered the industry. Not to overlook his larger-than-life star persona.
Rajinikanth had the opportunity to work with all the important filmmakers from different generations and in multiple genres, ranging from K Balachander, CV Sridhar, Bhimsingh, Balu Mahendra, Bharathiraja, Mahendran, SP Muthuraman, P Vasu, KS Ravikumar, Suresh Krissna, Shankar, Pa Ranjith, Karthik Subbaraj, AR Murugadoss, ‘Siruthai’ Siva and Nelson Dilipkumar.
Rajinikanth did it all—from family dramas, biopics, commercial films, and socials, to some light comedies. He had made a name for himself as a very dependable, successful performer, with a distinctive acting style by the end of the 1990s. He captured the most important segment of the movie market—the family audience. As we all know, Rajinikanth's dynamic performances allowed him to effortlessly switch between brooding rage, humour, romance, and action.
A producer’s man
SP Muthuraman, who directed the superstar in 25 films, tells The Federal, “He is a producer's man. He will never consent to a producer spending more than what is required. He prioritises commercial viability when selecting a script and makes sure his films have all the necessary elements to appeal to his fans. At the same time, his choices make the distributor, theatre chains, and the producers happy.”
After a pause, Muthuraman says that Rajinikanth treats everyone with the same respect, whether they are light boys or established filmmakers.“He goes out of his way to make his co-stars feel at ease, and unlike other actors, he has no problem giving them more screen space in his movies,” he adds.
Clearly, his years of being 'down and out' has taught him humility and, with it, empathy.
Rajinikanth’s “longevity”, according to KS Ravikumar, who directed him in ‘Muthu’, ‘Padayappa’, and ‘Lingaa’, is attributed to his sincerity and commitment to the film industry. “He always arrives on time and will have his make-up on at least 15 minutes before the shot. You will never see another Rajini sir,” he says.
Multi-starrers, a winning streak
Between ‘Apoorva Raagangal’ and ‘Geraftaar’ Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth worked together in 13 films. In the following years, they went their separate ways after becoming stars and no longer wanted their fans to clash. Vijay and Suriya did ‘Friends’ in the early 2000s, and Vikram and Suriya did ‘Pithamagan’ and there were others. It is obvious that multi-starrers have been successful many times.
Says P Vasu, who directed the superstar in ‘Mannan’, ‘Panakkaaran’, ‘Chandramukhi’ and ‘Kuselan’, Rajinikanth has been a “consistent force” in the film industry, pushing himself as an actor. “Rajini sir is a natural actor. His self-criticism demonstrates his dedication to both art and business. That's why he's at the top, for so long,” he tells The Federal.
The pan-India game
What's common between ‘Vikram’, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, ‘Pushpa’, ‘RRR’, ‘83’, and ‘Jailer’? Apart from the obvious answer that they were all hits, these are some of the popular multi-starrers that the film industry has seen. The current generation of filmmakers seems to be banking on multi-starrers to generate hits. Moreover, with a medley of actors from other regions, the pan-India viability is also factored in.
'Jailer' has a big multi-starrer cast. Besides Rajinikanth, there is Malayalam superstar Mohanlal, Kannada veteran actor Shivrajkumar, Jackie Shroff, Tamannaah, and Vinayakan. All of which played a role in the film's pre-release buzz as well.
Dwindling theatrical revenues have forced the film fraternity to rethink its business models, post the pandemic. “Jailer has box-office appeal because it is a quality movie with a stellar cast,” says a trade analyst, based in Chennai.
Further, he points out that the success of Kamal Haasan’s ‘Vikram’ undoubtedly ushered in a new era of multi-starrers, which becomes "easier to promote to distributors, TV networks, and streaming services”. Besides, each superstar or lead actor brings in his own fan following to the theatres to watch the movie.
“The casting of a film depends on what the story needs. Many ask if it is difficult to work with so many actors, but we are grateful that none of these actors had any ego issues and went with the flow of the story. Ten years ago, I don't think this would have been possible. There is a renewed interest in multi-starrers in the recent past, after the ‘Baahubali’ franchise. Times have changed, and stars are adapting,” says a young director, who has made a multi-starrer in Tamil cinema.
Lack of good scripts, accommodation of dates, budgets, actors’ willingness, etc., are all factors forcing producers to avoid making multi-starrers.
Another filmmaker, who doesn't want to be named, says, “If you can handle the actors well, then half the job is done. The audience always likes to see their favourite actors together in films. Most superstars were not interested in combination movies before.”
However, roping in multiple stars in a film does not always guarantee success, insists a veteran producer in Tamil cinema. “It's safe to argue that there is a need to prioritise content over all other considerations, as the distinctions between regional and Hindi-language cinema become increasingly hazy. Many filmmakers have learned the hard way that following trends mindlessly is not the solution. Content is always going to be king. A combination of a good script, and packaging will have to be the winning formula.”
South stars who preferred solo appearances are now eager to jump onto the multi-starrer wagon, it seems. And, filmmakers too are ensuring that these larger-than-life heroes get equal screen time and weave in a story to deliver a blockbuster hit.