Rajinikanth - A journey like no other: Part 2: The glorious uprise in the 80s

Rajinikanth gained widespread popularity in the 1980s, and superstardom was clearly visible ahead of him. Read part 2 of the Superstar’s journey ahead of his 73rd birthday.

Written by S Devasankar , Journalist & Goutham S , Journalist
Updated on Dec 11, 2023 | 07:17 PM IST | 96.9K
Rajinikanth - A journey like no other: Part 2: The glorious uprise in the 80s
Rajinikanth - A journey like no other: Part 2: The glorious uprise in the 80s (PC: Rajinikanth Instagram)

2/4 The tides were turning for the newcomer of Tamil cinema. His mentor, K Balachander who has worked in Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam films, cast Rajinikanth as the leading actor in his films.

His career went on an upward trend and everything appeared to be going well. But much to everyone's surprise, the budding star suddenly announced his retirement from acting.

However, fortunately for the audience, the retirement was short-lived. The actor soon made a comeback in 1980 with the Tamil remake of Amitabh Bachchan’s action thriller film Don, titled Billa. Rajini played the dual role of Billa, a powerful ganglord, and that of Rajappan, a simpleton who wants to take care of his foster children.

Rajinikanth makes a statement with Billa

The film was helmed by R. Krishnamoorthy and based on the story by Salim-Javed. The movie was a blockbuster hit, running for close to 25 weeks in theaters, and was undeniably Rajinikanth’s biggest box-office success up to that point. 

Rajinikanth Birthday special

The critical as well as commercial success of the film also helped establish another major factor. As per many critics 1970s and early 1980s were considered to be the end of Rajinikanth’s career, and many said he had nothing more to offer. However, going against the words of the naysayers, Billa proved to be such a huge hit, that it established Rajinikanth as a full-fledged hero. 

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According to columnist G Dhananjayan, Billa also started the trend of having protagonists indulge in crime because they love what they do, without having any backstory or social reason as to why they entered the world of crime. The film was also remade almost three decades later, with the same name. The remake had Ajith Kumar portraying the lead role and was helmed by Vishnuvardhan. 

Balancing both commercial and experimental movies

Coming to the 80s, Rajinikanth was high and flying after the success of his film Billa. Billa broke the stereotypical nice guy trope for protagonists in Tamil cinema which led to many filmmakers being inspired to make characters have a negative side or wicked background. 

Though this role may have been the reason for Rajinikanth’s breakthrough as the leading hero, his mentor K Balachander was not satisfied with the actor solely doing commercial roles as an action hero which made him a hit.

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Rajinikanth Birthday special

In 1981, director K Balachander launched his first production under the banner Kavithalayaa Productions - the drama film Netrikan, directed by S.P. Muthuraman. Rajinikanth took on dual roles in the film, portraying both a womanizing father and his more responsible son. Netrikan gave Rajinikanth the creative space to demonstrate his acting range by portraying characters with many complex shades. The film is still remembered today as a showcase for Rajinikanth's versatile acting talents.

Fresh off his success in Netrikan, Rajinikanth took on another starring role that same year in the comedy Thillu Mullu. Stepping away from his typical action hero roles, Rajinikanth decided to act in the comedic film at the encouragement of his mentor, K. Balachander. Balachander had urged Rajinikanth not to limit himself to commercial action films, but to also pursue more diverse, non-stereotypical roles.

Thillu Mullu was the official Tamil remake of the popular Hindi comedy Gol Maal, which starred Amol Palekar. Rajinikanth brought charm, deft comedic timing, and graceful antics to the lead role. His skilled comedic performance drew praise from critics more accustomed to seeing him in action films.

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Directed by K. Balachander, Thillu Mullu not only transformed the audience's perception of Rajinikanth, but also unlocked his potential to be more than just another Indian cinema star. The film showcased depths beyond the typical action hero roles he had played up until then.

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Debut in Hindi cinema

While audiences in the 1980s recognized Rajinikanth's versatility as an actor, his mass popularity still largely stemmed from action films where he could strike down enemies and walk away in style as the hero. Despite his demonstrated acting range, the public demand was for Rajinikanth the invincible action star. As a result, much of his roles in that era centered on showcasing his flair for stylized fight sequences and heroic rescues that saved the day. Rajinikanth's acting abilities may have run deeper, but box office returns depended on catering to popular tastes with high-energy action films.

In Tamil, the once-stereotyped villain in movies went on to become a household name with films like Thee, Pokkiri Raja, Moondru Mugham, Thanikattu Raja, and so on which were all back-to-back hits in South Indian cinema. These films landed him the popularity to finally venture into Hindi cinemas in 1983 with his film, Andhaa Kaanoon. The film was both a critical and commercial success.

Rajinikanth's foray into Hindi cinema opened the floodgates for more Hindi film offers, including his memorable turn as the antagonist opposite Rajesh Khanna in Bewafai.

Late 80s and early steps into Superstardom

As the most in-demand star from Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth shattered his own records in the late 1980s with a string of commercial hits across South India. This peak era welcomed some of the most iconic films of his career - movies that still resonate deeply with his legions of devoted fans.

As the saying goes, the more the merrier - Rajinikanth kept on hitting out the park with his films like Naan Sigappu Manithan, Padikkathavan, Mr. Bharath, Velaikaran, Dharmathin Thalaivan, and many more. All these films were only stepping stones for what was yet to come in life for Rajinikanth.

Also in 1988, Rajinikanth starred in his first and only English-language American film to date - the action-adventure Bloodstone. Directed by Dwight H. Little, known for films like Rapid Fire and Halloween 4, Bloodstone still circulates widely today for Rajinikanth's trademark charm and style. Scenes from the film continue to be shared across social media, showcasing how effortlessly Rajinikanth translated his magnetic screen presence even in an English role. 

Set in India, Bloodstone followed protagonists played by Brett Stimely and Anna Nicholas on a quest for the mythical title ruby. Rajinikanth undeniably stole scenes in the film - his only foreign project to date.

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Rounding out the prolific 1980s, Rajinikanth also starred in several commercial Tamil hits like Rajadhi Raja, Raja Chinna Roja, and Mappillai, plus a few Hindi films sprinkled in as well. Of those many fan-pleasing roles, his starring turn in the Rajasekhar-directed blockbuster Mappillai stood out in particular. The film smashed box office records with over 200 theatrical run days, in addition to garnering acclaim from critics. Mappillai also featured actress Srividya and Amala Akkineni in leading roles, with Chiranjeevi making a special cameo.

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Mappillai was the official Tamil remake of the Telugu hit Attaku Yamudu Ammayiki Mogudu, which starred Chiranjeevi along with veteran actress Vanisri and female lead Vijayashanti. The premise not only succeeded as a star vehicle for Rajinikanth, but spawned several additional remakes across languages including Hindi, Kannada, Bengali, Bangladeshi, and Malayalam versions.

Did you know Rajinikanth's Tamil film Mappillai was remade in Tamil again by Dhanush?

Mappillai was so popular in Tamil cinema that the film was again remade in Tamil by Rajinikanth’s former son-in-law Dhanush in the leading role in 2011, almost 22 years after the former had been released. Though the remake was a decent hit in theaters, it did not carry the same charm and acting performances given by Rajinikanth and Srividya in the original Tamil one.

Looking back at Rajinikanth's meteoric rise, we can trace an awe-inspiring journey - from a newcomer spotted serendipitously by talent-scout K Balachander, to a leading man transcending cultural boundaries and societal norms to attain pan-Indian superstardom. Rajinikanth broke countless barriers through his determination and versatile acting talents. His unprecedented path to the top has inspired generations of actors who could now envision the possibility of following in his footsteps.

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Rajinikanth Birthday special

Fittingly, the 1989 children's film Raja Chinna Roja featured a song titled Superstar Yaarunu (Who is the Superstar), composed by the late Chandrabose with lyrics by Vairamuthu. Though coincidentally timed, the song's title posed a question that Rajinikanth's career was on the cusp of answering decisively - he was soon to step into the role of Indian cinema's most revered superstar for generations to come.

Rajinikanth on the personal front

Beyond his prolific acting over the decade, the 1980s also marked major personal milestones for Rajinikanth. In 1981 he met his future wife, Latha Rangachari, when she came to interview him for her college magazine. Smitten immediately, they married shortly thereafter on February 26th. Rajinikanth and Latha went on to have two daughters together - Aishwarya, born in 1982, and Soundarya in 1984. While scaling new career heights on-screen throughout the 80s, off-screen Rajinikanth was beginning a family that would ground his life amidst the growing superstardom.

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Latha is a film producer and a singer herself and has even designed the costumes for the 1993 film Valli. The entire Rajinikanth family is actively involved in the film industry, with Aishwarya’s upcoming movie Lal Salaam all set for release in January 2024.

Rajinikanth Birthday special

All of this brings into question, how did - Rajinikanth the commercial star - become the Superstar of millions? How did he manage to stand strong in a decade that offered the easiness of yesteryears but was also starting to embrace the novelty of the modern world? The world was changing and so were the people, Is the same action-hero trope enough to sustain the masses? We’ll find out more in time!

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TO BE CONTINUED…

ALSO READ: Rajinikanth-A journey like no other: Part 1: How K Balachander changed life of a bus conductor

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About The Author

A graduate in Economics, with heart made of cinema, Devasankar is vividly in love with world cinema! A true

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