Rajanikanth films: Hits or myths?

Rajanikanth in PadiappaTamil superstar Rajanikanth enjoys an unparalleled achievement in Indian cinema - all his films in the past decade have been box-office hits. A surprise indeed, for even the big B and Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi - his contemporaries -- have had to face the harsh reality of successive flops. But are Rajanikanth films really the super duper hits they are made out to be or are they engineered to maintain his superstar myth?

Rajanikanth's fan clubs play the most important role in maintaining his superstar image. It is because of his unparalleled and fanatic fan following that he has earned the title of a ` sleeping giant'. Now, his popularity extends to all shores where Indians are settled. Recently, his film Padiappa  generated unprecedented craze for an Indian film in Japan. So much so that Japanese tourists have made the superstar's house in Chennai an eminent stopover in their itinerary. Interestingly, this flow of Japanese tourists has also burst the bubble of Rajanikanth's stardom.

Rajanikanth in PadiappaIt all happened when a TV crew came from Tokyo to film a documentary on Indian cinema. Rajanikanth was the only southern actor that they deemed fit to meet. As the star was, as usual, not available, the crew decided to make do with shots of houseful boards of his films and the antics of his excited fans. But when they visited Albert theatre in Chennai, where Padiappa  was running in its 110th day, they found to their surprise only 10 people in the matinee show and 20 in the evening! The theatre manager, however, promised them a better footage the next day and much to their amusement, the crew was greeted by a full house as on the opening day of a film.

No prizes for guessing that the crowd was engineered and comprised of Rajanikanth's fan club members. Though Rajanikanth steadily maintains in all his films, "My crowds are not paid crowds," a close look at the functioning of the fan clubs shows that it is a very elaborate network of financing through fan clubs that is keeping Rajanikanth's star pull intact.

The first requirement for any fan club is capital, which is raised from the public. Once people register with Satyanarayana, the manager and president of All India Rajanikanth's Fans Association, a charity programme is held in their area for raising funds locally. Clubs are also required to pay membership fees to the All India Fans Association office, which is said to be used for charity. The fans are made use of whenever a film is released. Each club member is sent a ticket from the local fan club for which he has to shell out Rs 200 -- ten times the face value of the ticket. The margin money from ticket sales is then forwarded to the head office at Chennai to finance activities of fans.

Rajanikanth & Soundarya in PadiappaEarlier when Rajanikanth films were made by outside producers, the producers and distributors just about managed to break even. Many a time they had to incur a marginal loss as they had to pull the film for more than 100 days to keep up Rajnikanth's stardom intact. Noticing this, the superstar decided to produce and distribute his own films. Thereafter, his fan club members fill the theatres for the first 50 days of his films while for the next 25 days run, the fan clubs finance the audience. The distributors are left to sustain the film for the remaining days.

Theatre owners, because of their own business interest, too keep up the myth of Rajanikanth's stardom. Albert theatre in Chennai, for instance, bought Padiappa  outright for Rs 10 lakh for 4 weeks of run and in turn ran umpteen number of shows and fudged records to get money from the fan clubs and the crowd.

Similarly, the distributor and the press, fed on stories by the fan clubs, also join in singing paeans to the star. As one distributor puts it, right from the cafeteria owner to the cycle stand contractor, everyone has to keep up the myth of Rajanikanth's stardom. The fact is that in Tamil Nadu the only actor who can fill up theatres for 50 days is Rajanikanth.

Rajanikanth & Ramya Krishna in PadiappaHowever, that Rajanikanth is a zero without his fans was made evident when his wife Latha Rajanikanth organised a show Rajani-25  for raising funds for the school run by her. Satyanarayana was sidelined and her relatives ran the show. An exhibition held as part of the show at film city, Chennai, had no takers and the tickets were lying unsold. When the press went hammer and tongs about it, to save himself the embarrassment, Rajanikanth flew down from Bangalore and asked Satyanarayana to get the clubs into action. A crowd was collected within no time. The superstar sure makes the best possible use of his fan clubs and their money.

It may be recalled that Kamal Haasan had once enjoyed the same popularity as Rajanikanth, but he disregarded the fan clubs and lost out. He, unlike Rajanikanth, can never assure a guaranteed run of 100 days for his film.