Will Rajini fans allow him to be the talented Rajini he is?

I’ll tell you what will save Kuselan – what’ll save Kuselan is not Rajini compensating the distributors or Rajini making a guest appearance in Murgadoss’s next but the Tamil audience learning to put away preconceived notions of what a Rajini movie should be and go see (or even re-see) Kuselan. And appreciate it for the wonderful movie it is. Kuselan for me is the most recent instance of something that has always been there about cinema –be it Hollywood or Kollywood: that the box office performance of a movie is not always an indicator of how good or bad a movie is. Another vivid example is Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar whose middling performance at the box office crushed Mani Ratnam’s belief in the movie going public (he felt Iruvar was his best) to the extent that he compensated distributors. Now, after several decades, here is Kuselan, another good movie (definitely not a masterpiece like Iruvar) having to contend with failure, and financial re-compensation.

So many of Kamal’s movies have been brilliant to wonderful (Hey Ram and Anbe Sivam come to mind) but have to face poor box office reception. Does that make them mediocre or

bad movies? No! So how does box office justify anything? I thought that Chandramukhi, Sivaji: the Boss and Dasavatharam were mediocre movies, but look at the box office phenomenon they became. Does their success and ability to please crowds make them good movies? No! In retrospect, Tamil audience now admit that Iruvar is a great film, and that Hey Ram is finely executed, while Anbe Sivam has become a favorite movie to watch again and again on cable recasts and DVD. I’m betting that a year from now, the same movie-goers who are dismissing Kuselan or are staying away from it, will be praising it and enjoy seeing it again and again on DVD.

I wish that a year from now, after all the fuss about Rajini’s Hogenakkal apology, the distributors agitation, and the poor word of mouth has all died down, Kuselan is re-released – unedited and unexpurgated. And I also wish for other brilliant movies that the Tamil movie-going public dismissed or missed (Chitiram Pesuthadi was saved by Vallameenu, otherwise that too would have to have been rediscovered on DVD) such as Ayutha Eluthu, Mayakannadi, Akku, Kattradu Tamil, Arai En 305il Kadavul get theatrical re-releases.

The Tamil audience is not always wrong, of course. They were bang on in dismissing Bheema – no amount of reevaluation is going to make this movie any better. It is simply a failure of the script, not execution or acting. (You’ll notice all the underrated or overlooked movies I’ve mentioned above have excellent scripts). And they were bang on in recognizing that Kadhal, Paruthiveeran, Subramanipuram, Anjathe and Polladavan were different but still worthy of box office patronage. (Again, superb scripts). So, they do know a good movie when they see one –except sometimes bad press, the wrong word of mouth or a movie that is simply ahead of its time (think Iruvar) distracts them from recognizing good cinema.

Kuselan had too many detractors (several of them, factors external to the movie) for the public to simply enjoy the movie for what it is: an intelligent ensemble comedy and a moving drama about friendship. And what a rich script. (I mean, how could any script by Sreenivasan misfire?) It is not Rajini I worry for here - the Superstar will move on to Robot and give people what they want – but for director Vasu, who so skillfully adapted it from the Malayalam original (unlike Viji who bungled Velli Thirai) and refashioned it as an entertaining but sensitive Tamil masala movie. I’m sad that Pasupathy’s beautifully controlled and understated performance here has been obscured by all the bad press Kuselan has been getting. Apart from Pasupathy, all the little comic actors perform so well. There is even subtlety to the comedy. And Vadivellu certainly does not disappoint.

Kuselan works precisely because it is not a typical Rajini film. And yet the climax of the movie is so moving and powerful because it is Rajini, a true to life superstar who has touched –and continues to touch – the lives of so many people on screen and off screen. Before this moment of reunion between these childhood friends, the movie’s entire plot shows the town clamoring to get close to the Superstar, and – once again – their antics are convincing because this is the real Rajini. Imagine Prakash Raj instead in the role: he would have played a superstar in his inimitable grandiose style, but the audience will still know that this is an intelligent actor playing a part. With Rajini you know it is the real thing. The grandeur is not faked. That is why, though Kuselan is not a Rajini film, it is still very much his film because it is charged with his presence.

However, it is really high time Tamil cinema fans, especially Rajini fans, allowed the star to explore playing different parts – if not lead roles – in movies where he does not always have to play the same myth-making, larger than life character. It is painfully obvious that after seeing the success of offbeat movies like Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram, Rajini is crying out to do something different himself. To send a message that he not only blesses all the change in Tamil cinema but wants to be a part of the change – not just be godfather to it.

In Baba he explored the unworldly, spiritual side in him; in Kuselan he risked demystifying the grand Rajini myth. Saying simply, ‘I’m only the actor who said all those dialogues written for me by good scriptwriters. And you have taken it too seriously. Don’t confuse me with my characters.” Of course, the audience didn’t buy it. It took Sean Connery decades to get an audience to accept him playing characters other than James Bond. When he was still Bond, Pierce Brosnan risked playing a villain (The Tailor of Panama); ditto for Daniel Craig.

Rajinikanth should be allowed to play the roles he wants – not those we would like him to. Come on people, how many times has he told us “En vazhi – thani vazhi.” If you don’t respect and acknowledge that then it is you, the Rajini fan that is not taking him seriously. And if he has told us this once, is not like he has told us this a hundred times?! But we aren’t listening.

Will Rajini fans allow him to be the talented Rajini he is? From here on, this is the deal Rajini should make with his audience: ‘for every two superstar movies, I will make one character-based movie’.

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