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 â€" 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 â€" 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!