"We don't call him 'Rajinikanth' or even 'Rajini saar'. For us he is only 'Thalaivar'."
It was Thursday evening and we were in front of Chennai's Kasi theatre, a single-screen famous for hosting boisterous tributes to Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, whose latest film Kabali was only hours away from its first screening. The above declaration came from a young man named Kartikeya — I'd say he looked like someone in his early 20s — who said he belonged to a fan club called the 'Thalaivar Foundation.'
The road outside Kasi, in the city's Ashok Nagar area, was chock-full of traffic, thanks to the number of fans, TV reporters giving regular live updates, and massive flex-banners paying tribute to Thalaivar encroaching upon road-space. A huge billboard of the Kabali poster, printed on a flex measuring 40 X 20 ft, covers the façade of the theatre. That's 800 sq ft — bigger than my apartment in Mumbai's Andheri West area.
'Kabali Mania' was in full swing and I was in town to see it — as well as the movie — for myself. Through a reporter friend, I'd gotten in touch with Kartikeya and, 'pon his word, had managed to secure a seat for a 4 am screening of Rajini's latest, co-starring Radhika Apte and directed by Pa. Ranjith (known for making small-budget acclaimed films like Attakathi and Madras as opposed to the larger-than-life extravaganzas one traditionally associates with the superstar). I don't understand Tamil and there would be no subtitles, but I didn't want to review the film — I was just there for the experience.
The plan seemed straightforward. Sometime before midnight, the Thalaivar Foundation guys would burst fireworks worth Rs 1 lakh (no biggie, apparently) in front of the theatre to celebrate this momentous occasion with some good, ol'-fashioned air and noise pollution. Around 3 am, there would be a puja, complete with the infamous 'pouring of milk over a cut-out of Rajinikanth' ritual that has become de rigueur over the years. An hour later, we'd enter the 800-seat theatre and claim our place amongst the first people in the world to watch the most awaited Indian film of 2016.
On the footpath, I'm surrounded by die-hard Rajini fans being interviewed for a TV channel, the one my friend works for. She then asks Kartikeya what he thinks about a rumour currently doing the rounds: the film has a sad ending as Rajinikanth's character dies in its climax. "No way, we will never accept that," he says, shaking his head confidently, his for-the-TV-cameras grin turning steely. "If that happens, we will destroy the theatre and riot on the streets. It'll become chaos... like the floods."
Casual threat of casual violence is casual.
I also speak to 24-year-old Sairam, an engineer who is playing hooky from work. Nearly two years ago, thalaiva's last release, KS Ravikumar's Lingaa (2014), bombed both critically as well as at the box-office for being excessively cartoonish and formulaic. Kabali is said to be a wholly different animal — gritty, realistic, and featuring, for the first time in years, Rajinikanth in a largely age-appropriate role (he plays a gangster apparently in his late 50s; in reality, the star is 65). Does this have anything to do with the feverish anticipation this movie has generated?
"He definitely needs to play his age... that's a mass need from him," the fan says. "It could create a huge impact or it could fail. We need to see what it's like."
The real Rajinikanth, as glimpsed through sundry interviews, is a slim, bald man renowned for his simplicity and humility — far removed from the stylish, self-aggrandizing badass template his on-screen persona usually sticks to. Would he watch a Thalaiva film in which he isn't wearing a wig? "No, no one will want to see that," he says, confidently. "See, we love him, but we don't want to see him on the big screen like that."
I head out from there to get dinner and catch maybe two or three hours of sleep before coming back to hang out with my new friends. When I return, around 2.30 am, the crowd around Kasi has doubled, as has the chaos. Policemen, who were present earlier in the evening as well, are now out there in greater numbers. People seem to be angry. One man is trying to tear down a flex banner all by himself as TV cameras scramble to capture all the craziness.
Um, what the hell happened? "Thanu [the producer of Kabali] promised to give us tickets but, last minute, he has given them away to a corporate," a thoroughly dejected Kartikeya tells me. Hundreds of Thalaivar Foundation members, who have spent several months counting down to this moment, have been left in the lurch. They're angry, confused, and heartbroken. To add insult to potential injury, a couple of policemen are brandishing their lathis to discourage those without tickets from milling around the theatre.
I speak to some people standing within the theatre premises, which has now become some sort of Noah's Ark. One man tells me he bought his ticket for Rs 1,000 through a friend. 18-year-old Naresh, a commerce student, has paid Rs 2,000 for his. He watches "mostly Hollywood movies", but "Rajini is Rajini, bro". There's a Japanese man and his wife, both of whom are die-hard fans and travel to India to watch every Rajini release first-day-first-show. A few minutes to zero hour, Malayalam actor Jayaram arrives at Kasi, attracting every TV camera in the vicinity like a magnet.
Soon, the doors open and people start screaming in excitement as they jostle to get in. I wonder if I can slip in unnoticed. I manage to get into the theatre, but they're asking for tickets to enter the auditorium. A TV reporter tries to play the 'I'm from the media' card and is 'sent packing', as everyone I've ever known from Chennai likes to say.
I've accepted my fate — I will certainly not get to watch Kabali first-day-first-show. Goddammit. A friend texts me saying she's going for a show at Rohini, another theatre that is about 10 minutes away. With the best-case scenario being that I'll magically get a ticket, and worst-case being that I'll speak to a couple of fans there and then I can go back to my hotel and get some bloody sleep, I decide to retreat from the battleground that is Kasi and head over.
Rohini Silver Screens has two screens — Randhini and Rukmini — that are showing Kabali at that unearthly hour. I ask around and, sure enough, each and every last ticket has been sold. Still, for some reason, I refuse to leave the premises. From outside, I can hear a combination of an audience roar and muffled background music, indicating that the movie has already begun. Shit.
I hang around aimlessly outside the theatre for about five minutes, buying a bottle of water just to have something to hold in my hand (since I've recently quit smoking). A group of five walks towards the entrance; they're told to enter from the back of the theatre. This intrigues me — perhaps there's a black-ticket seller there who still has a few left and is selling them at exorbitant rates? At this point, I'm desperate enough to bend the rules. I need to have something to show for this trip, for heaven's sake.
Turns out the back entrance is just a regular, legal entrance. Booooriiinngggg. Two ticket-checkers stare at me and ask me for my ticket. I pull a move — walking up to them with my press card in my hand, I say, "I'm from the media and I don't want to watch the movie; I just want to capture people's reactions. Is it okay if I come in?" They look at me blankly and, figuring I don't understand Tamil, mutter in English: "Please ask the manager." Then they make way for me, because the manager, of course, is "somewhere inside".
For the second time in 30 minutes, I am inside a theatre that is showing Kabali, but without a ticket to actually enter any of the auditoriums. In one of the screens, the film has just started, and I can see the screen because the door is ajar. I catch about two minutes of the opening credits before the usher spots me and says "Ticket?" "No ticket," I respond, still holding my bottle of mineral water, wondering if I should attempt to slip him a Rs. 500 note. He shuts the door on my face.
I wander around for a bit, hearing bits of dialogue followed by lustful cheering and trying to imagine what it must be like inside. Just when I'm about to give up and call it a very long and fruitless night, I hear a huge, positively orgasmic roar. I'm right next to a door that's slightly ajar. Unable to help it, I open it and shuffle inside, trying my best to appear invisible.
On-screen, Rajinikanth has just beaten someone to a pulp. As the bad man — well, he must've done something bad — writhes in pain, the superstar delivers that famous line from the teaser that ends with him saying "Kabali, da!" directly to the camera. The audience is on its feet, clapping, cheering, screaming. Two men run towards the screen, climb up on the stage just under it, and bow their heads in front of their larger-than-life idol. It takes the usher standing next to me a few seconds to realise I've suddenly appeared next to him. "Ticket?" he asks. "No ticket," I say again, only, this time, I embellish my story a bit. "I lost my ticket."
Either he believed me or didn't care enough, but that was the last time anyone asked me for my ticket. We were already 20-odd minutes into the movie and shit was getting really interesting. He ignored me and went back to staring at the screen, which was right above our heads at a very uncomfortable angle.
I spent the next two hours and forty minutes in that position, watching the movie from literally the worst seat in the house — except I was standing throughout.
It helped that the movie was an easy-enough watch, an interesting combination of Ranjith's somewhat highbrow sensibilities and the typical larger-than-life-ness of Rajinikanth's films. What's surprising, and different from many of Thalaivar's last few releases, is the somewhat complex plotting as well as the uncommonly gruesome and pervasive violence (this film has been rated 'U' by our dear Censor Board, by the way). As the titular character, a gangster in Malaysia who has just spent 25 years in prison, Rajinikanth is absolutely riveting. The film plays his persona up, of course, compensating the audience with plenty of slow-motion sequences of the superstar walking along with 'whoosh-swish' sound effects accompanying every sudden movement.
As someone who wasn't understanding most of what was being said (barring a few lines in English spoken mostly by Taiwanese action star Winston Chao, playing the film's primary antagonist Tony Lee) I could spot a predictable pattern common to many scenes: a) some sort of a set-up, followed by b) Something That Makes Rajinikanth Angry And/Or Emotional, which is followed by c) Rajinikanth Getting Angry And/Or Emotional. Every time the film hit a c), you could be assured that the audience would roar in approval; the rest of the time, however, the mostly-male crowd was quite well-behaved, even subdued.
By the time the show ended, it was 7.30 am on Friday morning. The reaction to the ending — again, unusually layered and mature — wasn't what I expected. Instead of wild cheering and screams of 'Kabali, da!', there was a stunned silence. I got the sense that people weren't exactly unimpressed, but not completely satisfied either.
Outside the theatre, I asked a boy wearing a black Kabali t-shirt, who was handing out pamphlets that said 'Kabali – First Day First Show', what he thought of the film.
"It was okay," he said. "It had great moments but the end dragged quite a bit."
He was a friend of the friend who had texted me earlier. We were all standing around outside the theatre, where a huge crowd was already lining up for tickets. As we made breakfast plans, my friend asked him to join us.
"Let me know where you guys are going," he said. "I have to go for another show later in the day."
"Wait," I asked. "You didn't love the movie, but you want to go for it again already?"
He shrugged. "Yeah, I mean, of course," he said.