Author Naman Ramachandran on writing about Rajinikanth and more!

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“For his fans, Rajinikanth is God, and for the world, he is a cultural phenomenon transcending the trappings of a mere movie star. Not bad for a man who began his professional life as a humble coolie and went on to work as a modest bus conductor before he became one of the most famous people on the planet and an Internet meme.” From ‘Rajinikanth – The Definitive Biography’

The above quote is taken from Naman Ramachandran’s new book about the life of one of the biggest film stars in the world. Rajinikanth – The Definitive Biography takes a look at the actor’s career from his first film Apoorva Ragangal (1975) and follows the rise of Rajinikanth to superstardom. Ramchandran covers all of Rajinikanth’s 154 films in depth, including landmark films like Sivaji and Enthiran to his most recent film Kochidayaan. Not simply a book that takes a look at films and his career, this definitive work also shows what shaped the man and his road to becoming Thalaivar (leader). A film journalist and critic by trade, Ramachandarn has written for Sight & Sound, Variety and many other publications as well as his first book Lights, Camera, Masala: Making Movies in Mumbai, which takes a look at, well, making movies in Mumbai! I got the fabulous chance to chat with Naman on a very early morning phone call during his promotional tour stop in Bangalore. Read on to see what the author told me about the inspiration, the story, the experience and the Superstar.

What inspired you to write this book?
It is quite simple really I was having coffee with my agent in Singapore. Now I grew up in Bangalore and my agent also grew up there and we suddenly realized that there is a sheer dearth of any comprehensive material written on one of Bangalore’s most famous sons, which of course is Ranjinikanth. That is how the idea was born because of the lack of anything in the market.

To you who is Rajinikanth?
Is this a philosophical question?

Yes and at 7:30 in the morning. (Laughs)
(Laughs) He is a man of many parts. He is God to his fans. He is an entertainer to the people who don’t know him that well. He is a benefactor to many, many poor people. He is a father to his daughters, a husband to his wife, but above all he is a superstar with a capital S!

Tell us about the book; what story did you try to tell?
I cast about many different ways of looking at it and in the end I decided to do a straightforward biography in chronological order. There really was no other way to bring out the growth of this person and the very inspirational rags to riches story. I began in 1950, around the time of his birth and I have closed it with Kochidayaan, which is his new film that is due to come out in April. Now the interesting thing about this is that you can’t just take x film or y film, take for example Hollywood in the early 70s with films by Coppola and Scorsese, you can’t just take The Godfather in isolation or Taxi Driver or the Mean Streets, they were all products of a movement. In the same way you can’t just take Rajinikanth’s films and say okay these are the films and here he sings and dances – you have to picturize them. You have to put them in the context. So apart from a biography of Rajinikanth’s work what you will find is a history of Tamil cinema in the 20th century, a history of Tamil politics in the 20th century and a history of the Dravidian movement. So in between the biographical bits you will find short bits of history because Rajinikanth didn’t spring full formed as a singing-dancing entertainer. He is very much a product of the times he lived in. So you will get for free a little bit of history and culture on the side.

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
The most challenging thing was to try and stay objective. I have been a fan since I was five years old ever since I could register cinema. I had to really go away and if you will put my Sight & Sound author hat on to distance myself from the subject and look at the whole story with an objective and coolly eye. To criticize where criticism is due and give praise where praise is due.

He is so loved, as you said he is a Superstar with a capital S, what do you think it is about him that makes people connect so much to him and his movies?
That is simple enough to answer. The word Simple – that is the answer. His extreme simplicity. This is one superstar that has no airs and graces. Off screen he appears as he is wearing disheveled clothes, balding, unshaven, he doesn’t care about his off screen appearance. On screen he does whatever the role demands him to do. It’s his extreme simplicity plus the fact that he does not feel the need for any guile or artifice, which is why the masses think he is a part of them. They don’t think that he is somebody in an ivory tower.

He is a superstar of course in India but it seems his name is also more known out in the world too.
Yes, it is. In fact in places like Japan, since the late 90s he has been a name there as well. Ever since Muthu and his dancing Maharaja.

How long did it take you to write the book?
The whole thing took about two years to complete.

How was the experience writing this book?
The experience was one of learning really. I mentioned knowing a little something, well more than a little something, about him because I am film journalist and I do it for a living. When I did my research I uncovered so many things about him and about his films, which I didn’t know before or I had forgotten – so all that is there in the book. I think the best part of the experience was meeting all the fantastic directors associated with him like Mani Ratnam and K. Balachander and S. P. Muthuraman who went on to make 25 films with him. He was kind enough to spend several days with me and he walked me through everyone of those 25 films one by one. The other part of the experience was gathering all the 154 films that he has acted in and watching them twice. The first time as a fan boy and the second time for specifics. So I made two separate sets of notes. One was like ‘Oh Wow look at that scene’ and the second set of notes was from a deconstruction point of view.

What surprised you about Rajinikanth?
What surprised me was finding out the extent of what he gives away to charity without publicizing it. I found out from his best friend that he gives away 50% of his income to charity and he doesn’t make a song and dance about it. He doesn’t publicize it, he doesn’t do a public ceremony and say look at me I am giving away half my wealth, he just quietly does it. That was surprising.

How excited are you that the book is released?
I am excited but I am exhausted as well from being on the promotional tour going from city to city and still more to go. I am relieved and I hope that people buy it in large numbers.

What do you hope fans will take away with them after reading the book?
I hope that readers take away apart from the story of an inspirational life, I hope that they will take the message and this may sound cliché and simplistic, but I hope that they take away the message that no matter who you are or in what circumstances you are born you can be a winner.

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