India

Why This 66-Year-Old Actor Is Like A God In India

Moviegoers are turning out in droves to see Kabali, a new Indian film featuring superstar Rajinikanth. What's all the excitement about? KBR journalist Jasvinder Sehgal attends a pre-dawn premiere to find out.

Man ritually pouring milk on a Rajinikanth poster in Chennai on July 22
Man ritually pouring milk on a Rajinikanth poster in Chennai on July 22
Jasvinder Sehgal

BANGALORE — At the Balaji theater in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, fans of Indian actor Rajinikanth are rejoicing the release of his new film, Kabali.

Among them is Rajendran Mahadevan. The 42-year-old fan pours milk on the poster of his favorite hero and covers it in flowers. This Hindu ritual is a way of wishing the film success. "It's just like a festival celebration," Mahadevan says. "Only we're even happier today than when we're at festivals."

Kabali is set in Malaysia. Rajinikanth plays Kabaleeswaran, a former trade union leader turned gangster who takes up the cause of south Indian workers being oppressed in a foreign land.

Mahadevan says he loves the film star's charisma and style, and can easily roll off a few of his favorite lines. "We love his films," he gushes. "He still has his unique style, even at 66. I love his dialogue."

At the theater, some of the other movie goers have shaved their heads and distribute sweets as a gesture of good luck to the film. It's 3 a.m, not yet dawn. This is the first time in the history of Indian cinema that a premiere has been scheduled for such an early hour. As the film begins, audience members jump from their seats and dance in the aisles at the sight of their beloved hero.

Lokayan Sahni, an aspiring actor, is one of many here who traveled from outside the city. The young man came all the way from Mumbai — more than 600 miles away. Sahni's passion for the premiere is even more remarkable considering he doesn't speak Tamil, the movie's original language.

"I don't really understand south Indian languages. But it's worth watching just to see Rajinikanth act," he says. "He's more than an actor. He's a superstar. For millions of people, he's like a god. The way he walks, talks and acts. Aspiring actors like me can learn a lot from him."

Sahni says the excitement and frenzy surrounding the film isn't confined just to cinemas. "I've seen people wearing T-shirts printed with his photo. And many have grown out their beards to be like him. Even tuk-tuks and cars are painted with his posters," he explains.

Many private companies gave their employees the day off so that they can catch the film on its opening day. Some parents even kept their children out of school. And India's post and telegraph department released a special postal cover to mark the film's release.

Some people, though, predict that the Kabali craze will be short lived. "The hype is strategically planned. It's a marketing technique," says Rekha Sharma, a film critic from Mumbai. She explains that some of Rajinikanth's films were box office disappointments, and that this time around, promoters pulled out all the stops.

But Sharma also says that it's common in India for people to idolize film actors. The country's movie industry is the biggest in the world, producing more than 1,600 new films a year in more than 20 local languages. "Rajinikanth's popularity is immense, especially in southern India. And the film's initial release is breaking box-office records. But it won't continue that way," the film critic suggests.

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