Many people outside the Indian community may not know Rajinikanth.
He’s a balding, 65-year-old man. He’s also an action hero, beloved by tens of millions around the world and, in some cases, worshipped like a god.
Rajinikanth, known for a string of hits across the past four decades, has just released his latest film, Kabali. Out on July 22 in India, it has received an unprecedented amount of attention, even by the standards of movie-star crazy India.
In Kabali, the actor dons stylish three-piece suits and John Lennon sunglasses for his role as a wrongfully convicted gangster recently released from jail. It’s the biggest crossover hit from Tamil cinema, the regional-language movie industry from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The level of adoration for Rajinikanth rivals that of the ones for gods - literally. Before the film’s release, some of fans poured milk on cardboard images of the actor, an act of veneration usually reserved for Hindu deities.
Box office bonanza
The excitement has also translated into commercial success.
In the U.S. alone, Kabali brought in an estimated $4.1 million in ticket sales over the weekend, making it the ninth-highest grossing film this weekend and the only non-English language film in the top ten.
In India, industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai says the figure for the weekend is around 110 crore rupees or $16 million, beating out the Bollywood film, Sultan, which stars North Indian superstar Salman Khan.
Much of its commercial success comes from the audience’s devotion to Rajinikanth, which has spawned toilet constructions and a life-sized chocolate statue, among other things.
Its release day became a sort of unofficial public holiday for many. Several companies in the cities of Bangalore and Chennai gave their employees a day off on the day of the movie’s release.
Manoj Pushparaj, the owner of Opus Waterproofing, a company in Bangalore, gave his 40-plus employees a holiday on July 22 to see the film. He knew work could not compete, comparing it to the levels of excitement for a cricket match.
“When there is an India vs. Pakistan match, everybody speaks about it,” he said. “They will physically come to the office, but they won’t be doing the work. Their heart and mind will be in the match.”
In nearby Pondicherry, the government gave out hundreds of movie tickets to villagers who had constructed a toilet in their homes as part of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swacch Bharat Abhiyan program.
Multinational companies have tapped into the fever too, with budget airlines AirAsia creating a special flight from Bangalore to Chennai for the film’s screening and plastering one of their planes with Rajinikanth’s face.
The making of a legend
A large part of the actor’s appeal lies in the myth of his own creation.
Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, he worked as a bus conductor in Bangalore. Since becoming a superstar, he has started a charitable trust and worked with his wife to start schools in Chennai. His biography claims that he gives about half of his income away to charity.
“He’s humble in the sense that away from the screen he’s his own self,” Gautaman Bhaskaran, a Chennai-based film critic, said. “He doesn’t go around with the trappings of a star. He doesn’t even wear a wig.”
Much has also been made of the fact that Rajinikanth returned money to his movie distributors after his previous two films flopped.
Although reviews of Kabali itself have been quite mixed from the critics, the actor’s fans say they see nothing wrong with their favorite icon.
“Even Mother Teresa has critics,” Pushparaj said. He plans to see the film again this week.