How Rajinikanth remade his way into superstardom

How Rajinikanth remade his way into superstardom

Rajinikanth is said to have proved his mettle as a commerical actor with remakes of Bollywood films, like Don, Thee, Paddiakathavan, and turned a superstar.

“Hi Raja… en gangla nee oru star nu thaan ninachen… aanaa nee oru super star nu nirubichuttey!” (Hi Raja… I thought you were a star in my gang. But you proved that you are a superstar..!) This dialogue by actor-producer K Balaji in the 1981 Tamil film ‘Thee’ could be taken literally about the person he was talking to—Rajinikanth. For. only a year before the actor had tasted...

“Hi Raja… en gangla nee oru star nu thaan ninachen… aanaa nee oru super star nu nirubichuttey!” (Hi Raja… I thought you were a star in my gang. But you proved that you are a superstar..!)

This dialogue by actor-producer K Balaji in the 1981 Tamil film ‘Thee’ could be taken literally about the person he was talking to—Rajinikanth. For. only a year before the actor had tasted major success with ‘Billa’, a remake of Amitabh Bachchan-starrer ‘Don’. And with ‘Thee’, he had established himself as a super-star.

Incidentally, both the films were bankrolled by Suresh Balaji, son of K Balaji, who was known as the king of remakes. ‘Thee’ too was a remake of another iconic Bachchan superhit film ‘Deewar’ (1975).

Till ‘Billa’, Rajinikanth was known more as an actor. He had done strong drama roles in films like ‘Apoorva Raagangal’ (1975), ‘Moondru Mudichu’ (1976), ’16 Vayathinile’ (1977), ‘Mullum Malarum’ (1978) and ‘Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai’ (1979), that earned him wide appreciation for his acting skills.

While these films were considered off-beat, arthouse-like films, he wanted to be cast in a commercial film which involved daring stunt sequences, punch dialogues, dream songs and styles and mannerisms.

In several films, he would end up playing second fiddle to then-stars like Kamal Hassan, Sivakumar and Vijayakumar. He was struggling to prove himself as a star. Many considered him ‘finished’.

In those days, Amitabh Bachchan had made a mark in Bollywood and across India and the world as an actor and star. He was quite popular among filmgoers in Tamil Nadu too, a factor that made distributors buy a film for a higher price even if it had Bachchan in a cameo.

So when some producers like Balaji offered Rajinikanth roles in remakes of Hindi films, the actor was keen on being cast in Bachchan’s films.

He went on to star in 11 remakes of Bachchan films between 1978 and 1990. There was no looking back, as except 2-3 films, all were massive hits.

They not only helped Rajini climb the ladder of stardom faster but also helped revive a fading Tamil cinema industry.

As the government recently conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest award in the field of cinema, to Rajinikanth, many would agree that it was this phase of the actor’s career that turned the tide.

Mistakes and lessons

But it was not all that rosy in the beginning. In 1978, Rajinikanth did the first remake of a Bachchan film ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ (1977), which in itself is a landmark movie in the Indian film history.

In Tamil, ‘Shankar Salim Simon’, directed by P Madhavan, was completely different from the original except for the three characters from the three religions. As Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth too played the role of the Christian character. The film, shot in black and white, was a flop.

Rajinikanth learnt his lesson. The remakes that followed did not deviate much from the original plot but he ensured that his roles were distinct from Amitabh Bachchan’s through his mannerisms and characterisation which connected well with the Tamil masses.

Making of a star

Amid other films came ‘Billa’ which swept masses of their feet and continues to be an inspiration even today. Apart from being a Bachchan-remake, ‘Billa’ was renowned by its name.

The name Billa was taken from the real world criminal Jasbir Singh aka Billa, who was involved in the kidnap and murder of siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra in New Delhi in 1978. The infamous case had made headlines across the nation. Billa and his partner Ranga became known names and instilled horror in common people’s lives.

Rajinikanth in Billa

‘Billa’ was the first film in which Rajinikanth acted in dual roles. While in the original, Bachchan was always seen as standing straight and delivering dialogues with his baritone voice, Rajini improvised his characters with a dancing gait, a slight slanting posture, and twisting and twirling of his mouth during action scenes.

After ‘Billa’, he starred in films like ‘Thee’ and ‘Ranga’ (1982) all centred around the underworld and criminals.‘Billa’ and ‘Thee’ were directed by R Krishnamurthy. Rajinikanth, in a way, became a pioneer by setting the stage for anti-hero roles and gangster films.

Interestingly, these films, which were themed around anti-social elements, were released on January 26 on their respective years of release. Apart from being Republic Day, it was also the wedding anniversary of Balaji.

In 1985, ‘Padikkadhavan’, remake of ‘Khud-Daar’ (1982), directed by Rajashekar (not to be confused with directorial duo Robert-Rajashekar), had Sivaji Ganesan in a guest role.

Before this, Rajinikanth had acted with Sivaji Ganesan in films like ‘Justice Gopinath’ (1978) and ‘Naan Vaazhavaippen’ (1979), a remake of Bachchan starrer ‘Majboor’.

Interestingly, for the first time in Tamil cinema, in this film, a hero had three playback singers namely Malaysia Vasudevan, KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubrahmanyam singing for him in one song ‘Oorai therinjukitten ulagam purinjukitten’, that became an instant hit.

The film had an impact on the masses too as many named their vehicles (as ‘Lakshmi’ as in the film) and treated it as their pet.

Following the huge success of ‘Padikkadhavan’, Rajashekar directed ‘Maaveeran’ (1986), a remake of ‘Mard’ (1985), which failed at the box office, apparently due to the competition from Kamal Haasan’s ‘Punnagai Mannan’. However, ‘Maaveeran’ made a mark by becoming the first Tamil film to be shot in 70 mm film format.

If Rajinikanth was discovered by K Balachander, it was SP Muthuraman who shaped the actor, having done 25 films together.

Muthuraman remade three Bachchan films ‘Mr Bharath’ in 1986 (‘Trishul’ – 1978 ), ‘Velaikkaaran’ in 1987 (‘Namak Halal’ – 1982) and ‘Dharmathin Thalaivan’ in 1988 (‘Kasme Vaade’ – 1978), which all turned out to be box office hits.

Rajinikanth with Amitabh Bachchan

A casual comment by SVe Shekar and Sathyaraj while filming ‘Mr Bharath’ could be notable with regard to Rajini’s remakes. Shekar played the role of Shashi Kapoor and Sathyaraj played that of Sanjeev Kumar, Shekar reportedly said to Sathyaraj that the remake is not Trishul but ‘Do-shul’, since it gave importance to Rajini and Sathyaraj. But a couple of days later, Sathyaraj reportedly told Shekar that the remake is not ‘Do shul’ but ‘Ek shul’, targeting Rajini .

This could be a reason why Rajini got more success with remakes. In the originals, the supporting actors in films like ‘Namak Halal’, ‘Khud-Daar’, ‘Deewar’ and ‘Laawaris’, had equal prominence as the hero, but this was mostly not the case in remakes.

In 1990, Rajini acted in the last remake of a Bachchan film—‘Panakkaaran’ (Laawaris, 1981)— directed by P Vasu. However, his 1995 release, Baasha, is also believed to have been inspired by Bachchan-starrer Hum, which also featured Rajinikanth. Baasha went on to become not just one of the biggest grossers at the time but also the biggest hit of his life—turning the superstar into the god of Tamil cinema.

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