Finally, Kabali has hit the theatres all over the world. The build-up has been so meticulous and strong that the countdown toward the release date itself was celebrated as some sort of a daily spectacle in the social media. In Kerala, Kabali has hit around 300 screens at one go. Initial reports indicate that the film is already a super hit. Rajinikanth fans among Malayalees too are celebrating the movie wearing Rajini masks (a la the Modi campaign during the 2014 general elections) and cheering the actions of the Rajini lookalikes who have been specially assigned by theatre owners to entertain the enthusiastic fans of the superstar.
Malayalees have a special space for Rajinikanth in their minds. His contemporary, Kamal Haasan, who made his debut in 1959, acted in the Malayalam movie ‘Kannum Karalum’ in 1962 as his fourth film. For a long time, for many Malayalees, Kamal Haasan was a Malayalam actor who acted in Tamil films too. The popularity of Kamal Haasan in Kerala remained unaffected until Rajinikanth became an actor of equal stature in the Tamil film industry. Slowly but steadily, Rajinikanth’s early movies started gaining attention of the Malayalees, and the charisma of this cigarette-flicking hero soon became infectious, dislodging the cute, romantic hero image of Kamal Haasan to a certain extent.
Director I.V. Sasi, seeing the rising popularity of Rajinikanth, decided to cast him in a movie along with Kamal Haasan who had already acted in a couple of his movies. The film was ‘Alavuddeenum Athbutha Vilakkum’ (Alladin and the Magic Lamp - 1979). Kamaruddeen, the character essayed by Rajinikanth, was not in the original Arabian story. The swashbuckling character who kept his left thumb clenched between his teeth during sword fights was a spoiler for Kamal Haasan’s Alavuddeen, the good guy. Rajinikanth never needed to vie for screen space and presence, as he mouthed Malayalam dialogues and improvised his character in his hallmark style. Nevertheless, Malayalees were not prepared to see more of Rajinikanth on screen speaking Malayalam because a home-grown, muscle flexing, stylish and charismatic hero, Jayan, was already in the zenith of his career.
As providence wanted it, when Jayan met with an untimely death in 1980 while doing a stunt scene for the movie ‘Kolilakkam,’ it was Rajinikanth who continued Jayan’s role in a movie titled ‘Garjanam.’ In the history of cinema, it’s a rare film where two actors enacted the same character. (Later in television serials, it became a normal practice though). Perhaps the audience was ready to see only Rajinikanth in Jayan’s shoes.
Rajinikanth’s chemistry with Malayalee audience goes beyond language. For his fans around the world, Rajinikanth himself is a language that doesn’t need subtitles to be understood. Malayalees also understand Rajinikanth in this way. What the super star does is more important than what the story does to Rajinikanth. It’s not only the chameleon in Rajinikanth that makes him a great personality to look at, but the ways in which he weaves up the cinematic fantasies as well. In all his recent movies, he constructs and deconstructs the language called Rajinikanth, leaveing only the linguistic and visual traces for the viewers to chew on. That’s why his punch dialogues become all the more important than the film itself. Rajinikanth transfers himself in his walks, movements and simple vigorous gestures. They remain a puzzle, prompting the viewers put them together again and again, like children play with a puzzle. Infantilization of viewers is largely applicable to mainstream movies anywhere in the world, but it’s 100% true in the case of Rajinikanth starrers.
Malayalees maintain a love-hate relationship with the Tamilians. The latter is always looked down upon by the former by virtue of economy, education and even skin colour. But Tamil films have always been a staple for Malayalees. When Malayalam films flop one after another, Tamil films make money from Kerala cinema halls. And the Malayalee is actually indebted to the Tamil film industry for cradling the Malayalam film industry in the beginning. Stars including MGR (with his Kerala origin) enjoyed the patronage of Malayalees. But not all actors who become successful in Tamil film industry find an equal fan base in Kerala: Malayalees prefer only those who could go beyond the language and become a language in themselves. Rajinikanth tops in that linguistic chart.