As he turns 62 today, (off screen that is), Rajnikanth is being spoken about on most platforms. Jokes based on him (mostly spin-offs of Chuck Norris jokes) are the icing on his birthday cake. While everything is in good humour, for those of us who grew up in the 90s in Tamil Nadu, Rajni is beyond a film-hero who performs extra-ordinary stunts. Most of the Tamil films have heroes sending gigantic goons crashing into brand new SUVs, or raising a tornado with a mere swirl of their feet. But there was something natural about the man, which stood out from the computer generated stunts of his contemporaries.

His posture, effortless popping of the cigarette (now changed to chewing gum), the trademark laugh, and his inimitable comic timing – it was all the same in every film of his, and never changed with the character he played, unlike Kamal Haasan. But that was what we loved. We wanted to see a ‘Rajni’ film. There was hardly a film where Rajni’s character dies, or his wife is raped, or he loses a limb. We knew if it’s a Rajni film, the hero will win. We will step out of the theatre happy. He never exceeded expectations. He stuck to what he knew best, entertaining the viewer. He never experimented as an actor, and no one is complaining. Which is why perhaps the Padma Bhushan awardee is yet to win a National Award.

While the on-screen persona of Rajni painted a rosy picture of the world to us 10-year old somethings, his off-screen appearance and personality brought us back to the real world. He was already losing hair by then, and made no effort to conceal it. I remember I had fought with my mother arguing that the man who was being interviewed on TV was not the Rajnikanth I saw in Paasha a week before at KG theatre, Coimbatore.

Like me, several youngsters grew up with Rajni’s films; our parents also made it a point to tell us the true story of the man. They used him as an example to tell that one should stick to one’s roots, one should not forget one’s old friends, one should pursue simplicity and not allow success to get to our heads.

Recently, in a television show where K. Balachander, (the director who introduced Rajnikanth to the silver screen), interviewed Rajnikanth, he asked “Is it possible for Rajnikanth to go back being Shivaji Rao Gaekwad?” To this Rajni replied, “It is because I am still Shivaji Rao that I am able to still be Rajnikanth.”

It is this aspect of “Thailavar” that we — who grew up watching Thalapathi, Paasha, Muthu, Padayappa etc, along with his receding hairline and unassuming public appearances — respect him for.

Of course, the frenzy of his fans has soared to such levels of insanity that Rajnikanth jokes appear as an auto-suggest on Google search, but, to us, he will always remain the Rajni sir, who entertained us and inspired us.

Many actors have played larger than life roles on-screen. But few have really grown larger than the roles they have played. Happy birthday, Rajni sir.

Raman Iyer is a copywriter by profession and a self proclaimed armchair intellectual. While the doers do, he writes at nirvikalpasays.blogspot.com

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