Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, 1 October 2010, 4 a.m.
We are in the Royapettah area of the city. Chennai is a metropolis that rises much earlier than other Indian cities, but today, there is something in the air, and it is not just the strains of M.S. Subbulakshmi's Suprabhatam that is the soundtrack of all south Indian mornings. The retired gentlemen of the Brahmin caste in their veshtis who are pacing up and down their front yards sipping their first cups of filter coffee impatiently awaiting the arrival of The Hindu newspaper, and their freshly bathed wives who are drawing intricate kolams (rangoli) in front of their gates, look up in surprise as a trickle of men make their way past. This is heavier morning foot traffic than usual. The trickle becomes a deluge and in the middle of this surging mass is a gravelooking man holding a brass pot full of milk with mango leaves tied around its neck. Behind him is a long line of men carrying identical pots.
The newspaper arrives on schedule but the hitherto impatient recipients ignore it, choosing instead to gape at the heave of humanity. The men carrying the brass pots stop at a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. A priest chants some Sanskrit shlokas and blesses the pots. The procession-yes, it is now a procession, complete with a brass band playing familiar Tamil film hits that has now joined in-wends its way towards the imposing mass of the Satyam cineplex. Even more imposing than the cinema is a single, gigantic 80- foot-high cut-out of a man in shades. Scaffolding has been rigged up behind the cut-out and the limber men clamber up, careful not to spill a drop of the milk from their pots. Once at the top, the men ceremoniously pour the sanctified milk over the head of the cut-out in a ritual known as the Paalabhishekam, an honour accorded only to gods.
The object of their deification is Rajinikanth, also known as Rajini, Thalaivar (chieftain), or, simply, Superstar.
At Screen 1 of the Satyam cineplex, the atmosphere is electric and anticipatory. A screening at such an early hour is unprecedented. However, cinemas across the world have laid on shows around the clock beginning as early as possible and ending well past midnight in order to cope with the massive demand. Every seat in the house is taken and there are many standing as well, fire safety regulations be damned. After all, this is the first-day first-show of the film Enthiran. Expectations are sky high. Apart from this being the first show of the Superstar's latest, a sci-fi extravaganza budgeted at Rs 130 crore-making it India's most expensive film at the time-the director is Shankar Shanmugham, who deals only in blockbusters, the music is by A.R. Rahman, on the back of winning a pair of Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, and the leading lady is former Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, a huge draw in the south. Many in the cinema are members of the local chapter of the Rajinikanth fan club-of which there are more than 50,000 worldwide-and they have wheedled this all-important ticket, sometimes at astronomical sums, just to be able to say that he or she was part of this historic moment.
But the audience is not restricted just to fan club members. Venkateswaran Narayanan, film critic and deputy editor of the Times of India, Chennai, remembers, 'On 1 October 2010, I was at Satyam for the first show. There was a mad scramble for tickets, though none were available at the theatre. All shows had been sold off for more than a week. I had luckily got tickets from a friend at Sony Music, which had released the soundtrack. So on the big day, I was eagerly waiting for friends to arrive so that we could go in and settle in our seats before the titles rolled. Lots of big directors and actors were waiting to get in. In their midst, I saw director Lingusamy talking to various people. I thought he was just making small talk. After some time, just as I was about to get in, somebody tapped my arm and asked me if I had extra tickets. I turned to look, and it was Lingusamy! I mumbled an apology, and entered the theatre with a victorious grin on my face. I never did find out if he was able to catch the show.'
Inside, the cinema lights dim, prompting a collective gasp from the audience, and a low-intensity hum rises from them as some innocuous slides thanking various commercial organizations begin to play. Aravindhan Samidoss, twenty-one, an apprentice at a printing press, shivers. It's not that the theatre air conditioning is too cold; on the contrary, packed as it is with Rajinikanth fans in hot and humid Chennai, the place is warm and muggy. It's just that Samidoss has goosebumps. He has seen the Thalaivar's films before of course, when he was growing up in the tiny Madagupatti village in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district. But those were in a travelling tent cinema, as the village lacked a theatre. Now here he is, in the capital of Tamil cinema, the industry known as Kollywood (after the Kodambakkam suburb where it is largely based), and he is about to see his first Rajinikanth film in a plush cinema, surrounded by like-minded fans.
Samidoss shivers in anticipation as the music swells and the production company Sun Pictures' logo unspools on the screen, followed by the name of the producer. Now there is total silence in the auditorium, a hush that is shattered when the letter 'S' appears on screen. Screams, wolf whistles and thunderous applause greet each letter that follows individually: 'U', 'P', 'E', 'R', 'S', 'T', 'A', 'R'. The letters resolve themselves into 'SUPERSTAR'. When the letter 'R' follows this, there is pandemonium. The next four letters joined to the first make up RAJNI-and now the fans are dancing on their seats: some shower fistfuls of small change on the screen and others cast flowers.
The decibel levels rise while the opening credits roll, and when the man himself is first seen on screen, they spiral into a crescendo. Grown men cry openly and scream 'Thalaivaa' in the same tone that they reserve for entreaties to the Almighty. Similar scenes are repeated across the world in places as far apart as Ann Arbor, Manchester, Kuala Lumpur, Kandy, Sydney and Tokyo.
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.
(This is an excerpt from Naman Ramachandran's book 'Rajinikanth - The Definitive Biography' published by Penguin Viking)