at night-anytime after 10.00 P.M in Chennai-when most honest citizens
are asleep, I walk up Anna Flyover in the city's arterial Mount
Road for another look at the billboard. It dwarfs the others around
it, the ones advertising cellular phone services, shirts, jewellery,
and the latest Kollywood (the Tamil film industry, from Kodambakkam,
a borough that houses most studios) release. It stands over 15 metres
tall and shows a man dressed in black with an unkempt mane and healthy
stubble. He has a beedi (local cigarette) tucked into one corner
of his mouth in the fashion of Eastwood's Man With No Name and an
ornate kukri-like knife clasped in one hand. His other hand is making
the forked-finger gesture commonly seen at rock concerts. The billboard
is of reigning Kollywood superstar Rajnikanth in his 150th celluloid
offering, Baba, but my business with him isn't about movies. It
is, if I can get to meet him, about, well, business.
Rajnikanth's last five releases have all
been super-dooper hits.
Rs 25 crore
Rs 3 crore
Rs 40 crore
Rs 10 crore
Rs 30 crore
Rs 5 crore
Rs 38 crore
Rs 6 crore
Rs 60 crore
Rs 10 crore
|All figures are industry estimates
There's no denying Rajnikanth's status as superstar.
His last five releases have grossed around Rs 200 crore. Nor is
there any question over his dominance of the Tamil film industry.
Baba, for instance, could account for at least a sixth of the industry's
takings this year. There's more to the man. Shivaji Rao Gaekwad,
now 53 and balding, is the most durable brand of southern kitsch-a
long, and no doubt, strange trip for a man who once served as conductor
aboard Bus Number 11 in Bangalore-and has been so since he adopted
the more saleable Rajnikanth name, on August 15, 28 years ago. "Brands
start representing places and countries of their origin. Rajnikanth
has, in many ways become a face of Tamil Nadu," says S. Ramachander,
Director of the Chennai based Institute of Financial Management
| THE STAR'S BUSINESS MODEL
Rajnikanth's Lotus International
has a unique business model.
Rajnikanth produces his own films, and on
a tight budget. Baba, for instance, couldn't have cost
him more than Rs 5 crore. Lotus comes out with a new release
every two years and sells the motion pic directly to 260 theatres
across the four southern states. Irrespective of the performance
of the film, it makes its money-some Rs 60 crore, that could
go up to Rs 75 crore in the case of Baba. Music rights, and
international rights are just the icing on the cake. And yes,
Rajnikanth gets to keep his cake and eat it too. Not too many
of his peers follow this model. Kamal Haasan, after some disastrous
attempts at film production, sticks to acting and directing.
Shah Rukh Khan boasts a production outfit, Dreamz Unlimited,
but apart from two flops, the company has nothing to show for
its three years of existence. Besides, given the huge market
for Bollywood releases, distribution is a logistical nightmare
and Khan, even if he so desires can't probably go the Rajnikanth
way. However, Khan retains distribution rights for the Mumbai
territory-much like Amitabh Bachchan used to do in his heydays.
|Shah Rukh Khan and Kamal Haasan: Production
With 1.5 million registered fans who are only
too willing (dogmatic zeal and all) to serve as brand ambassadors,
Rajnikanth is one of the most consumer-focussed businesses in the
country and out of it. One of his earlier films Muthu was dubbed
in Japanese, titled Eiki (The Dancing Maharajah), and earned an
estimated Rs 8 crore in Japan. With an eye on that market, one of
Baba's female leads is Japanese actress Keiko Yamato.
Only, Rajnikanth isn't in the entertainment
industry; he is in the messiah one. Six years back, he swung the
course of an election by making a televised appeal to voters to
pick the DMK-TMC combine and they did. And Baba is essentially the
story of how one man saves the Tamils from corrupt politicians.
Money And Muscle
I don't get to meet Rajnikanth-his spiritual
advisor, Virginia-based Swami Satchidananda, who is believed to
have motivated the actor into making and starring in Baba, dies
and Rajnikanth flies to the US-but I get to meet his wife, Latha
Rajnikanth. Ms Rajnikanth is widely believed to be the brain behind
Lotus International, Rajnikanth's production company. Once an aspiring
playback singer-she gave it all up after her marriage-Ms Rajnikanth
also runs a clutch of educational institutions in the city. The
meeting happens in her office in Abhiramapuram, a South Madras neighbourhood.
The office is nondescript; there are huge-and I mean huge-photographs
of the Rajnikanths on the walls. Ms Rajnikanth is plump, sports
a boyish hair-cut, and speaks in a soft singer's voice. She fulfils
her artistic urge by releasing a Tamil pop album every year. "Questioning
my husband's earnings are unparliamentary," she laughs. "It
is a private business."
| THE STAR'S FOLLOWING
Rajnikanth's fan-following could
turn a multi-level-marketer green with envy.
Ever since his parents took him, then a
child of five, to a screening of Rajnikanth's Payum Puli (Pouncing
Tiger) in the early 1980s, Rajnidasan, now 26, has devoted his
life to the worship of his idol. He is a member of a 1.5 million-strong
tribe that could come in useful when Rajnikanth decides to enter
the world of politics as most people expect him to. The fans
don't get much in return-block reservations, special shows,
a chance to see their hero in flesh, and maybe, just maybe,
a photo-op with the man himself-but since when have groupies
worried about returns?
|Fan frenzy: Theatres in Cut-out
Nadu turn into temples of worship
Rajnikanth doesn't believe in the traditional
distribution channel (see The Star's Business Model). Instead, he
sells his motion pics directly to theatre owners. "Saar is
a shrewd businessman,"gloats an aide. "He has the money
and the muscle to arm-twist anyone in the industry." Lotus
International, which also produced Baba, has sold it to 119 theatres
in Tamil Nadu alone. Here's how the numbers work: a theatre pays
the company a minimum 'guarantee' amount that could vary from Rs
30 lakh to Rs 75 lakh (for larger cities). At an average of Rs 50
lakh, Baba's takings will be at least Rs 60 crore. "For the
past 10 years, Rajnikanth hasn't had to worry about hits and flops,"
adds Chitra Lakshmanan, Secretary, Tamil Film Producers Association.
"He competes only against himself and that is a luxury even
his Bollywood counterparts don't enjoy."
G. Venkateswaran is a pioneer of sorts in the
Tamil film industry. Brother to marquee director Mani Ratnam, he
chairs GV Films, one of the first film-production companies to go
the IPO-way. He estimates that Baba could have set Lotus International
back by Rs 5 crore and that it could earn around Rs 40 crore. Lakshmanan's
estimate is around Rs 65 crore. Fact is, no one really knows how
much money Baba will make, although the general consensus is that
it will make money, and lots of it. "Everyone associated with
a Rajnikanth film profits-producers, distributors, actors,"
gushes L. Suresh who owns and runs Ananda Pictures one of Tamil
Nadu's oldest film distribution houses. Ergo, Baba could make anything
between Rs 50 crore and Rs 150 crore, depending on who you are speaking
to (and I spoke to quite a few people in the know). The magnitude
of money involved-huge by any standards-even prompted uncharacteristic
proactivity on part of the taxmen. Not surprisingly, when Baba premiered
in Chennai, the Director General of Income Tax investigation, N.P.
Tripathi, was a special invitee.
| THE STAR'S HANDLERS
A core team of two looks after
Rajnikanth's image and business
Rajnikanth leads a highly reclusive life:
he reportedly spends up to six months a year in the US and in
ashrams in the Himalayas. Wife Latha Rajnikanth keeps a close
eye on the operations of Lotus International, Rajnikanth's production
and marketing company. "We share responsibilities to the
extent possible,'' she says. Satyanarayana or Dalapati (commander,
and it comes from one of Rajnikanth's films, directed by Mani
Ratnam) as he is known is as influential as Rajnikanth himself.
His job is to keep fan clubs, distributors and other intermediaries
happy and manage Rajnikanth's image. The buzz is that Aishwarya,
Rajnikanth's elder daughter who served as Baba's assistant director,
is being drafted into the cabinet.
|Latha Rajnikanth: The brains behind
|MAN OF THE MASSES
What explains Rajnikanth's popularity
of the definitions the Concise Oxford Dictionary has to offer
for 'camp' is, ''affected..., done in an exaggerated way for
effect..." From the way he runs his hand through his mop
of hair, to the manner in which he throws up a cigarette and
then catches it between his lips (it's tough; just try it),
Rajnikanth is pure camp. It is this camp that appeals to the
average Tamil. Cho Ramaswamy, the editor of satirical weekly
Tughlaq may believe that ''when people see corruption all around
them they find Rajnikanth as an alternative with high integrity'',
but the man's appeal largely revolves around his on-screen image.
''Young people like his histrionics,'' says M. S. S. Pandian,
an eminent sociologist who authored The Image Trap, a book about
the impact of film-star-turned-politician-turned-chief-minister
M.G. Ramachandran on Tamil society. ''They're Rajnikanth's biggest
and most-committed group of followers."
Outside one of the Chennai-theatres screening
Baba, fans are garlanding his cardboard likeness, and propitiating
it with milk and honey; elsewhere, I read about two people who die
when violence erupts over a political leader's comments that Rajnikanth,
a man from Karnataka, lacks the moral authority to lead the Tamils;
and outside another Chennai theatre, Rajnidasan, 26, (see The Star's
Following) has just made an offering of 150 white pumpkins (this
is the star's 150th film, see) to keep the evil eye at bay.
So, what accounts for the unlikely magic of
the man? "He is straight-forward, an achiever, and someone
who is genuinely concerned about the goings-on around him,"
says actor turned journo-cum-political-commentator Cho Ramaswamy.
"That's a breed of public personalities that's almost extinct
His fans couldn't care less. They adore Rajnikanth
because of his on screen image-campy style, dollops of old-world
sentiment about family values and all that, and one-liners-and his
low-brow films. "Movie-making is a business, and Rajnikanth
is an astute businessman," says a producer. "He will not
experiment." No New Coke, please, we're Rajnikanth fans.
Hit or flop, Baba has served its role in perpetuating
the Rajnikanth brand, the Rajnikanth business, the Rajnikanth legend.
Suresh of Ananda Pictures believes the film is "settling down
nicely", and Lotus may have recouped its investment many times
over but, Rajni'money-be-damned'kanth knows Baba hasn't struck the
chord he expected it to with his following.
| ONE-LINERS THAT SELL
Remember Dirty Harry's, "Go on punk,
make my day". Well, Rajnikanth can better that.
| » Baba
late a varuvaan anaal latest a varuvaan
Baba may be late, but he will be the latest (From Baba)
oru murai sonnal nooru murai sonna madiri
If Baasha says it once, it's like it has been said a 100
times (From Baasha)
sollran Arunachalam mudikkaran
God proposes; Arunachalam disposes (From Arunachalam)
potta than vedikkum. Baba sonnale vedikkum.
There is an explosion when a bomb is thrown; but there is
an explosion when Baba merely talks. (From Baba)
On the way to the airport, to catch a flight
that will take me out of Cut-out Nadu, I drop by a theatre screening
Baba. There I run into P. Muthukumar, a 25-year old Rajnikanth devotee
who saw the star's last film Padayappa, 12 times. He has seen Baba
twice, can't take it a third time, and is trying to sell his ticket
(he booked a good three weeks in advance).
Rajnikanth knows the feeling. Before the release
of Baba he said he wished to quit on a high. "Despite the profits,
he knows Baba hasn't appealed to his fans, and that's why he will
do another film soon," says one of his aides. Yes, Tamil cinema's
profit machine will run again. There will be a Superstar release
one last time. One more motion picture will perpetuate Rajnikanth's
messianic aspirations. And then, maybe, he'll really turn messiah.