I am an ordinary man and your friend.

Rajinikanth, King of his Own Forest (1982)

Rajinikanth is a paunchy and balding 69-year-old man who also happens to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He has been making blockbusters in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu (aka Kollywood) for nearly five decades now, and he shows no signs of stopping. His latest film Darbar (2020) is a giddily violent revenge drama in which Rajini slices his way through the underworld of Chennai, and it is on its way to becoming one of the biggest Indian hits of the year.

He famously started as a ticket taker for a bus line and worked his way up to stardom, and it is this bootstrapping story and man-of-the-people persona that generated an intense fandom throughout India and Southeast Asia. His working class swagger – exemplified in hair flips, cigarette tricks, and increasingly flamboyant entrances – has become a genre unto itself.

Rajinikanth was born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad on December 12, 1950 in Bangalore. His father Ranoji was a constable in the police force, while his mother Rambai worked raising Shivaji and his three siblings Ashwat Balubai, Nageshwara Rao and Satyanarayana Rao. They grew up in near-poverty, as his father retired in 1956, the family having to live off his meager pension. Rambai died of a respiratory issue when Shivaji was eleven-years-old, upending any sense of a normal childhood. While his older siblings got jobs to support the family, Shivaji was encouraged to get through school, but his main interest was acting in school plays and playing cricket. He had little interest in going to university, so his brother Satyanarayana got him a job as a bus conductor. He was officially licensed by the Bangalore Transport Service in 1970.

Thus begins the official working class hero legend of Rajinikanth, canonized in Baasha (1995) where he stars as an auto rickshaw driver with a violent past who protects the drivers from mob shakedowns.

In reality he was not a driver though, but a conductor (essentially a ticket taker) for a bus line. Shivaji became close friends with his driver Raja Badhar, who would run the line from Srinagar to Bangalore. Badhar recalls their time together, as quoted in Naman Ramachandran’s Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography:

There was no one faster than him in issuing tickets. He would give out tickets with a flourish, return change in style; it was all about style. Passengers would look on in amazement. He would always flick back his forelock in those days, that’s why he is bald today.

Raja Badhar (18)

In the evenings both would rehearse plays organized by the Bangalore Transport Service (BTS), and would talk endlessly about the cinema, always seeing the latest films from stars like Sivaji Ganesan, Rajkumar and MGR.

Later on Rajinikanth would say of Ganesan: “I watched him, I imitated him. He is the reason I am in the cinema industry.” Their fates became linked in the 1952 Tamil feature Parasakthi (The Goddess), where Ganesan, then named Viluppuram Chinnaiahpillai Ganesan, took on the role of Maratha warrior Chhatrapat Shivaji. His performance was so convincing that he became known as “Sivaji” Ganesan. Rajinikanth’s birth name was Shivaji, named after the same warrior.

Ganesan would be associated with an intense and brooding style that the Los Angeles Times would compare to Marlon Brando. Rajinikanth experimented with many different styles before he became a superstar, including a Ganesan-esque turn in Mullum Malarum (1978), in which he plays a firebrand winch operator fiercely protective of his sister. The final sequence contains some of his finest acting, in which he has to convey a change of heart in allowing his sister to marry. He executes it in a puckish, self-deprecating, deeply moving fashion, an alpha male discovering the limits of his aggression.

Shivaji entered the Madras Film Institute after the urging of his friends – he had become a local star in the BTS dramas that were mounted locally. Though unclear how he would support himself, and unable to speak more than a smattering of Tamil (Kannada was his native language), he took the plunge. This was all thanks to his brother Satyanarayana and his buddy Raja Badhar, who funded the trip in the belief he could make it big, despite the objections of his father, who wanted him to keep the stability of the BTS bus conductor gig. Luckily Shivaji made the right choice.

He received a decisive break from director Kailasam Balachander, who gave a lecture at the film institute, but was also preparing production on Apoorva Raagangal (Rare Melodies, 1975). Shivaji was soon to complete the two-year course and was seeking a way into the industry, and managed to get a brief meeting with the director. Balachander recalled: “I was thrilled by the fellow’s fragile health and powerful eyes and his chiseled face. These were the good things. And of course, his skin colour, you know. The dark skin I thought was an advantage, because again it is different from others. All the people who are very fair and all that, they have an easy entry into films. Why shouldn’t I take this boy, give him a good role, and see what can be drawn out of him?” (Ramachandran, 27).

Shivaji’s “fragile health” appealed to Balachander because the character he had in mind was dying of cancer. He was to play the small but pivotal role of an estranged husband returning to see his wife before he passes.

He receives an appropriately dramatic entrance, in a low angle shot pushing open a gate. He is disheveled, his face unshaven, his shirt untucked, as if on a staggered stroll right to the gutter. But before he fully dissipates he is seeking forgiveness, and his performance is one of pained hope. There is a beseechingness in his eyes that is surprisingly moving for such a bit part. It was an encouraging debut for one so enamored with Sivaji Ganesan. And since his real name was so close to “Sivaji”, Balachander decided he needed a new name for his acting debut.

So Balachander chose a character name from his film Major Chandrakanth (1966) – Rajinikanth. It literally means “color of night”, and was a reference to the darker hue of his skin. For an industry that preferred lighter-skinned performers, it was already a difficult task for Rajinikanth to get work, and now he was given a name that emphasized that perceived flaw. Balachander was aware of this prejudice and thought it was time to push back aggressively. “Even for a small role”, he said, “they’d not take a dark chap. I am quite dark, you know. My father was even darker than me. So, I thought, why not introduce a dark-complexioned fellow as a new character? Especially as the main villain? And it worked out. It worked out wonderfully.” For years after Rajinikanth would call Balachander on the anniversary of his name change, to thank him for that gift.

So now all of the elements of Rajinikanth’s stardom are converging. There is the hustler vaudevillian from his Bangalore Transport Service days, entertaining customers with hair flips. Then there is the serious film actor who trained in Madras and idolized Ganesan, who finally gets his big break into the Tamil film world. Finally there is the name itself, “Rajinikanth”, which is subversive in foregrounding his dark skin – his name on the screen immediately indicates his otherness, which gave him outsider appeal to an audience that rarely saw someone of that look on-screen. All of these elements converge over time to create “Superstar” Rajinikanth. But this would still take some time as he worked his way through the different Indian film industries, from Kannada to Telugu and back to Tamil.

One pivotal feature was Anthuleni Katha (Story Without an End, 1976), where he plays a deadbeat gambler. Though he has a slightly redemptive arc in this Balachander melodrama, the key aspect of the film is the depiction of a cigarette trick, wherein he flips the cig into his mouth with a flip of his wrist. These kinds of stylish moments have become a Rajinikanth signature, and his fans tally up how much “swag” he displays in each film. His modern features are basically structured around these displays of swag, though the cigarettes have been replaced by sunglasses as his prop of choice.

Between 1977 and 1979 he appeared in an astonishing 44 films, working at an exhausting clip. He was making money for the first time in his life and accepted jobs as if he would never receive another. Bairavi (1978) is the historically important title here, as it established him as a hero in Tamil cinema, after a run of villain roles, and the publicists promoted him as “Superstar” Rajinikanth, a nickname which would stick – and would eventually become part of the opening credits of all of his features. One of the joys of Tamil cinema is seeing tiny blue lights spell out “Super” and “Star” across the screen as a celebratory “hey!” chant pumps through the speakers.

The most influential film from this period however, is Mullum Malarum (1978), which establishes many of the character elements that Rajini would elaborate upon throughout his career. “Kaali” is deeply protective of his sister and brazenly rude to the owner of the power plant that he works for – which rallies his fellow employees around him. He is a labor organizer in spite of himself. This character will reappear as “Kaala”, Pa Rajinth’s ambitious 2018 effort that depicts Kaali/Kaala as a community organizer trying to keep his town from being swallowed by redevelopment.

The 1980s found Rajinikanth trying to relax – his impossible pace of the previous decade put him in the hospital for exhaustion. But now that he was established as a superstar he drastically reduced the number of projects he agreed to work on. This included his ill-advised attempt at a Hollywood crossover – Bloodstone (1988) – which was a low-budget Romancing the Stone (1984) knockoff. He played a cab driver (of course) who gets entangled in the chase for a precious gem. It was an independent production with no Western stars, and it went straight-to-video in the U.S. He would focus on the domestic market from then on. My pick for Rajinikanth’s greatest film is Thalapathi (1991), his first and only film with revered director Mani Ratnam (Dil Se.., 1998). He plays an orphaned child rejected by society but accepted by local mobster Devaraj (Mammootty). They form an intensely personal bond, a familial love that is tested from without and within. A deeply empathetic portrait of two love-starved men, it shows Rajinikanth at his most vulnerable, his performance an open fount of need. It is one of the few Rajini films that fails to follow his usual heroic template, instead focusing on the intensity of a platonic love. The story was based on the friendship between Karna and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, and Mani Ratnam keeps the tone pitched at a religious intensity.

Rajinikanth has never matched that depth-of-feeling since, but instead has gone after more plastic pleasures. The aforementioned Baasha (1995) is what the set the template for his late-career blockbusters. He plays a heroic worker with rebellious tendencies who, it is revealed in an epic-length flashback, is a legendary gangster whose whole career in crime was a long-haul act of revenge. This setup lets him have it both ways – to be a slang-slinging man of the people as well as a super-rich mobster in top dollar suits. It’s the contradiction he’s been incorporating into his films ever since – most of his films has the same working class present tense and gangster/revenge flashback (with a reveal of hidden wealth). This plot structure mirrors Rajinikanth’s relationship with his fans, who revere him for his humble beginnings and flamboyant screen style, and who consider his wealth deserved. But Rajinikanth has a supremely self-effacing personality and a total disinterest in maintaining his image off-screen. When he appears in public his wild mane of hair from the movies is gone, as he proudly displays his bald pate and protuberant belly, making him even more beloved to his worshipful fan base (there is a whole documentary about their fandom, entitled For the Love of a Man ).

Petta (2019) and Darbar (2020) pull from the Baasha playbook, with him playing a dorm room RA and a disgraced cop, respectively, both full of swag. But the two films that have moved away from that pattern have been his most successful – the sci-fi spectaculars Enthiran (Robot, 2010) and 2.0 (2018), both directed by S. Shankar. In those films he plays a rich scientist who invents an android (also played by Rajini) who goes mad and wreaks havoc on the city in the first, and saves it in the sequel. They were attempts at making a Kollywood blockbuster with Hollywood-level money and effects, though with more visual invention than recent Hollywood fare (such as a group of androids self-replicating into different shapes in Enthiran, and a monster built out of cell phones in 2.0). These films don’t run on Rajini’s aura, but on baroque CGI constructions.

So it was refreshing to see him return to form in Petta and Darbar, which are nothing more than fan-service machines, setting up sequences for Rajinikanth to swat away bad guys, fluff his hair, flick open his sunglasses, and bellow out a beguilingly arrogant laugh. This basic formula has worked for decades and will continue to until Rajinikanth decides to retire. But for now he seems indomitable. Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, 2012), one of the most exciting directors on Tamil’s independent film scene, is another fan of Rajinikanth’s, and summarizes his appeal better than I ever could: “He’s a man of the people. He came from us. And he gave us that feeling that we can fight against the system. Amitabh Bachchan became synthetic…but Rajinikanth never became synthetic. He stayed what he was.” (Ramachandran, 254)

R. Emmet Sweeney produces DVDs and Blu-rays for Kino Lorber, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to TCM.com. You can find him at http://www.r-emmetsweeney.com or on Twitter @r_emmet.