Referred to simply as “The Superstar” in his native Tamil Nadu state, Rajinikanth famously worked as a bus conductor in the southern Indian city of Bangalore before heading to Chennai in 1973 to pursue an acting career. When he threw open those gates somewhere around the 92 minute mark in the 1975 Tamil Social Drama “Apoorva Ragangal” directed by K.Balachander, few knew him. And even those few wouldn’t dream that he was bursting through the gates of the film industry that he would rule supreme for close to four decades as the humble Shahehshah of Tamil Cinema.
Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, and named after the famous Maratha King Chatrapathi Shivaji, he was the youngest of four siblings and lived his first years in relative poverty. Even as a child, Shivaji had keen interest in acting and was once noted for his performance as “Eklavya” by a famous Kannada poet. As luck would have had it, he would also study at Ramakrishna Matt and would have his first brush with spirituality by learning about the Vedas (Hindu scriptures).
After completing his education, Shivaji would move to Bangalore where he would be among other things, a Carpenter, a Coolie and eventually a Bus Conductor, while continuing to perform in stage shows when time permitted. Eventually, Shivaji, destiny’s child, would notice an advertisement for acting courses at the “Madras Film Institute”. His friend Raj Bahadur would convince him to go to Madras while his family wound’t be too keen on the move. Shivaji would, however, move to Chennai (then known as Madras). In Chennai, he would be noticed by K. Balachander, a doyen of Tamil Cinema, while acting in a stage show in Chennai.
For his first movie, Shivaji would be requested by K. Balachander (KB) to choose a screen name. He obviously couldn’t go by his own name as it was being used by a Thespian of Indian Cinema “Sivaji” Ganesan (who incidentally got his name for portraying Chatrapathi Shivaji in the 1950s). He would be given three choices : Srikanth, Chandrakanth and Rajinikanth. These were all names of characters in the stage play “Major Chandrakanth” by KB.
In earnest, Rajini would start his acting career, going on to act in a Telugu “Anthuleni Katha” by KB, a remake of his super-hit “Aval Oru Thodarkathai” starring Sujatha. His next 3 big Tamil movies would be “Moondru Mudichu”, “Avargal” and “16 Vayathiniley”. In all three, he would play a negative role. He made such an impact with just a few movies that even my 80 year old grand mother remembers that he started off as a “Villain” before becoming a “Hero”…
VILLAIN TO HERO
Rajni would first be cast in “Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri” (1977) in a positive light, as the male lead. And incidentally, it would be S.P. Muthuraman who would take over from K. Balachander from thereon, making most of Rajini’s hit movies for the next 13 years.
From 1995 onward, Rajini, who was till then known to be religious (remember, his 100th movie was on Swami Raghavendra because he wanted it to be so) became increasingly spiritual. Many Tamil magazines began to report that Rajini was going to the Himalayas and spending weeks or months on end in the wilderness, often dressed as a beggar and not carrying money or having security.