What a film!
Sometimes I end with that sentiment, but I want to make sure that you take away that message.
This fantastic documentary takes a look at the cult of personality surrounding the biggest star of Tamil cinema: Rajinikanth.
To paraphrase from one of my favorite films (Genghis Blues), Rajinikanth is like Michael Jordan, Elvis, and John F. Kennedy rolled into one.
If you live in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Yes, we recently touched on Rajasthan, but let’s find Tamil Nadu on a map.
Very southern tip of India.
On the east side.
And here’s where we find Chennai.
[Which seems to be pronounced Chin-ay]
And, of course, Chennai used to be called Madras.
Now that we are caught up on geography, let’s get back to this amazing figure known as Rajini (short for Rajinikanth).
If we are to compare him to other international cinema stars, we might look to Jean-Paul Belmondo.
That great lip-rubbing outlaw of À bout de souffle.
Definitely a smoker.
Smoking those thick-tar Boyards cigarettes.
[Or so I imagine]
Rajini must always have his sunglasses.
Cigarettes and sunglasses.
Sounds like a ZZ Top song.
But for Rajinikanth, you need a big, thick mustache.
And you need a certain finesse with those props (the smokes and the shades).
Like Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal” video.
This is India, man!
There’s dancing in the films!
The stars dance!!
[Of course, don’t tell the generations of voiceover singers that]
But it is well-known.
Mohammed Rafi. Lata Mangeshkar.
But did Rafi ever sing in Tamil? Not that I know of.
And Lata? I have no idea. But it wasn’t her main language.
So let’s take a step back here…
By “native speakers” (70 million), Tamil is the 20th most spoken language in the world.
That’s ahead of Turkish, Italian, and Thai (just to name a few).
By “total number of speakers” (74 million), Tamil is still the 20th most spoken language in the world.
That’s ahead of Korean, Turkish, and Vietnamese (to name just three).
But what about Tamil cinema?
I’m sure it goes without saying that this is my first venture into writing about this unique slice of the world pie.
Indeed, it’s my first time even really contemplating it to a serious degree.
But back to this Rajinikanth fellow…
He’s ostensibly been the biggest star in Tamil cinema…since the 1970s!
He debuted in 1975.
His first film was in Tamil.
In 1976, he was in four films (only one of which was in Tamil).
In 1977, he was in 15 (!) films (eight being in Tamil).
In 1978, he was in 21 (!!) films (16 in Tamil).
Funny enough, Rajinikanth was not born in Tamil Nadu.
No, rather, he was born in the state of Mysore.
However, this state no longer exists under that name.
And being born in the city of Bangalore (a.k.a. Bengaluru), Rajinikanth would have been born in what is now the state of Karnataka.
65% of Kannadigas (those who live in Karnataka) speak Kannada (not to be confused with Canada).
Oddly, Rajinikanth was born to a Marathi family.
As in, people who speak the Marathi language.
So how does he become the biggest star of the Tamil people?
He indeed spoke Marathi (and Kannada) as a child.
It was only when Rajinikanth came to the Madras Film Institute (well into life) that he finally learned Tamil.
He was 25 when he acted in his first film (a Tamil production).
But I must say, Rajinikanth is a very charismatic figure.
I never finished comparing him to other actors.
Part of me wants to say James Dean, but I think Bruce Lee might be even more apt.
Rajinikanth kicks butt. But with style!
He has moxie!
And most importantly, he stands up for the little guys.
Having been a bus conductor himself, he has played roles such as that of an auto-rickshaw driver.
And by dint of his sheer magnetism (and an almost Soviet, Trotskyist atmosphere in Tamil Nadu), he has spawned a legion of fans who await his film premieres with what can only be compared to the manic thrall of Beatlemania.
His fans literally scream their lungs out on opening nights…so happy to see their hero in a new picture.
And Rajinikanth makes but one movie every three years now.
If all of this sounds remotely interesting to you, then you absolutely must see For the Love of a Man (which is currently on Netflix in the U.S.).
Director Rinku Kalsy proves herself worlds above many of her contemporaries with this penetrating documentary.
Producer Joyojeet Pal seems to have played a very “hands-on” role as well (as a researcher for this picture).
It’s not always clear where the action is occurring in our film, but it seems that some of it (at least) was filmed in Sholinghur (which is about 67 miles inland from the coastal Chennai).
Then again, we do catch one glimpse of the actual Rajinikanth in the film…and it is in front of his residence in Chennai.
Which is to say, For the Love of a Man is very much about fandom.
And it reminds me of my own devotion to my heroes: Jean-Luc Godard, Mercury Rev, Bob Dylan…
So I very much identified with the cross-section of Tamil society surveyed in this documentary.
Their devotion to their “leader” is very touching.
Not least, Rajinikanth seems like a very spiritual and magnanimous person.
A really generous human being.
And THAT is what really cements the devotion of his fans.
Any film publication that ripped this movie (Hollywood Reporter) must not have its head on straight.
Anyone in Venice who pooh-poohed this film needs a good spanking.
For the Love of a Man is a masterpiece.