Rajinikanth has always been a paradox. His popularity as an actor comes from his larger-than-life roles, his logic-defying stunts, and charismatic dialogues. However, the respect that he commands as a human being comes from his humility and kindness.
What he has achieved in 40 years as an actor is amazing. He is revered or even deified by his fans; he is without argument one of the biggest stars in Asian cinema. Hence the importance of his latest film, Kabali. What would a man like him stand to gain or lose from one movie?
The answer is, for Rajinikanth the man, the success of Kabali is not very important. However, for the brand Rajinikanth, there is a lot at stake. His last two films—Kochadaiiyaan and Lingaa—were disappointing. While Kochadaiiyaan was a fine effort, the Indian audience was just not ready. Lingaa, a typical Rajini movie in some ways, lacked the depth and clarity that his earlier blockbusters had. The makers of Lingaa tried to bridge this gap with Rajini's persona. The only saving grace of the film was his performance.
Which brings us to the next question: what is a typical Rajinikanth movie? Almost all of his hit movies have had very similar story lines. In these movies, the character he plays is rich in the beginning, tries to do something good for the people, gets cheated by conniving villains and loses everything. Then begins a fightback, leading to revenge and triumph, all done with a lot of panache. And, of course, all this is for the poor and destitute. This explains his mass appeal. But if he does something different, his fans do not approve of it.
Kuselan was another good effort that failed. Some of the exceptions, such as Enthiran and Chandramukhi, had other factors contributing to their success. Enthiran had novelty and an ace director in S. Shankar. Chandramukhi had a tried and tested script. Manichithrathazhu, its original, was an iconic movie in Malayalam, and its Kannada, Hindi and Telugu remakes were also big hits.
So, do only certain types of movies work for Rajinikanth? That is a question that Kabali will answer. If the makers have created something different—apart from his salt-and-pepper look—and it succeeds, it will give new life to brand Rajinikanth.
To the many millions of his fans, I say this: hope, celebrate and just enjoy the show. Because, after all, Rajinikanth is the comeback king.