In a nation where actors turn politicians overnight or are revered as demigods with temples built for them, the first print of “Sivaji – The Boss” was carried in a procession, replete with a band and dancers, from the lab to the theatre in Mumbai. In Chennai, Rajnikanth’s home now, fans anointed huge wooden cut-outs of the superstar with milk, honey and, in some cases, beer!
Rajnikanth’s admirers number hundreds of thousands: he commands 35,000 fans clubs, compared to a paltry 18 that Amitabh Bachchan does. With a salary of Rs 10 crores for a movie, the highest in Asia second only to Jackie Chan, Rajnikanth is not only Rs 6 crores ahead of Bachchan, but also has an uncanny power to enslave audiences with his histrionics.
So what if “Sivaji – The Boss” turns out to be an art disaster. Rajnikanth’s producers would have made an enormous fortune, and the star a great killing that will shame the likes of Bachchan, who can never hope to match Rajnikanth’s magic.
Despite all that Rajnikanth commands, you take a flight out of India, land anywhere – Europe, America, Australia or just about any place on this earth -- and the chances are that you will hear about Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Bollywood cinema. I take a cab in Deauville, the Norman city on France’s Atlantic coast, and the driver sings songs lisped by Big B. He says he loves that guy with a baritone voice, and has even had a chance to take Bachchan in his car a few years ago, when the Deauville Asian Film festival invited the Bollywood star. But ask the cabbie if he has heard of Rajnikanth, the man at the wheel looks puzzled.
What can be the reason for men like Rajnikanth being eclipsed by men like Bachchan and forced to walk in shadow? I can only harbour a guess. Bollywood and the men who move it have attained a fair amount of sophistry which the southern Indian stars have not quite mastered. Bachchan comes from a highly literary background, his father was a renowned poet, and the actor is educated, polished and suave. These are advantages that Rajnikanth may not enjoy: he comes from a lower middleclass family, was a bus conductor in Bangalore and I do not think he has gone past school.
More important, Bollywood is something like Hollywood that has money and muscle to dictate terms and armtwist men into subjugation. Kollywood is not quite all this. And sadly so, because Chennai studios have often proved their originality in talent and technique. Even some of their story ideas are novel, and in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, many Tamil movies, particularly those that came from the Gemini and AVM stables, were remade into Hindi.
Britain is now celebrating Indian cinema to commemorate the country’s 60th anniversary of Independence. That Indian cinema there means Bollywood is something we have learnt to overlook, even accept. Britain, I am told by my journalist friends, is enamoured of Hindi films, and why not. They bring loads of cash into the island nation. Bollywood contributes millions of pounds to the British economy every year through box-office returns, the cost of movie-making and innumerable other spin-offs. “Gone are the days when Hindi cinema struggled to find distribution in Britain beyond the Asian ghettos”, writes one columnist.
Today, Britain has the largest audience for Bollywood cinema outside India. The 2005 figures reveal that Hindi films released that year in the U.K. exceeded not just foreign language movies, but also home-grown English language productions! Bollywood also accounted for 11 of the 20 most successful foreign language films. Obviously, Bollywood’s share of the gross U.K. box-office in 2005 was higher than the total collection of all European releases combined. This trend continued in 2006 with Hindi cinema cornering 16 per cent of all movies released in the U.K. compared to just 13 per cent of British films. So, in Britain it is now fashionable to be a Bollywood Fan!
Deepti Naval has found her voice, after a long time. I do not know where she was all this while. It is sad that good artists like Deepti seem to go into oblivion. I heard that she is back in India after a retrospective of her movies in Los Angeles, and that she is all set to release her film, “Rivaaz”, directed by Ashok Kumar Nanda. This work deals with an explosive subject: religious sanction of prostitution in families where the men live off the earnings of women. Deepti portrays a prostitute, and this is the first time she would be that on screen. “Yes I did movies like ‘Kamla’ and ‘Bawander’, but ‘Rivaaz’ is a tradition where the girl of the house is sold when she turns 18”, Deepti says and hopes that her latest work will create an awareness of such horrible practices. And who know knows, might even stop them.
Tailpiece: Mumbai’s magic cannot endure without a rumour or two doing the daily rounds. If the buzz pertains to love, romance and marriage, nothing can be more saucy. This time, the mills have been churning out gossip about Rani Mukherjee’ engagement to producer-director Aditya Chopra. They are supposed to have exchanged rings a couple of days ago.
(Webposted June 20 2007)