THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING FAMOUS
THERE ARE cheers as Rajinikanth knots a handkerchief around his neck, straightens the collar of his shirt, and breaks into a sprightly dance. The audience at the 1991 premiere show of Thalapathi, the Mani Ratnam-directed adaptation of the Mahabharata, goes berserk. Some people rise to dance with their hero, others fling coins at the screen.
Sitting in the VIP enclosure, next to the superstar himself, is a wideeyed nine-year-old girl witnessing this frenzy for the first time. Outside the theatre earlier, Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth had watched hordes of fans burst crackers and perform aartis before her father’s posters.
“Initially I was startled by all the noise,” she recalls. “But soon I began to enjoy it. It was like a festival. It was the first time that I had watched Appa’s film in a theatre. Before that we used to attend preview shows.”
It was also the first time Aishwaryaa Rajinikanth realised the magnitude of her father’s superstardom.
Twenty-five years later, the magical popularity of Thalaivar (leader) — as Rajinikanth is fondly called by fans — has only grown. The hysteria that surrounded the release of the 65-year-old actor’s film Kabali in July is testimony to his cult status. Many companies in Chennai and Bengaluru gave their employees the day off to watch the film. By the first week of August, the movie had done business worth 670 crore worldwide.
“There is a lot of excitement and tension in the house before every film release,” says Aishwaryaa, “Irrespective of how many films he has acted in [154 in a four-decade long career], for Appa, every release is as if it were his first.”
We’re at the Chennai office of Wunderbar Films, the production company that Aishwaryaa co-founded with her husband, actor Dhanush, in 2010. Aishwaryaa, 34, has just wrapped up a three-hour photo shoot for Brunch. Dressed in an orange sweatshirt and black jeans, she is talking about why she never wanted to be an actor.
“I wanted to be a script writer and a director,” she says of the dream she realised in 2012 with her directorial debut 3, a thriller starring her husband Dhanush and actor Shruti Hassan. “The only time I act is when I have to explain a scene to my artistes, otherwise I am very self-conscious in front of the camera. Even for a simple photo, I go stiff and act like Chandler from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.”
The two-film-old director has now also turned writer. Her memoir, Standing on an Apple Box, will be released next week. The book, she says, was born out of her love for writing and a desire to rectify the myths people have about the lives of celebrity kids. “It is a common perception that we’re snobbish, and get things easy. It is not like that.”
Mornings in the Rajinikanth household began with the chants of Venkateswara Suprabhatham (a Sanskrit hymn) that played nonstop while the girls got ready for school. In the afternoon, they had tuition, followed by tennis, veena, and dance classes. By 8pm, they were in bed.
“Our mother kept our days so jam-packed that we had no time to think about anything else. Maybe she did that consciously so that we didn’t feel that Appa was not around,” says Aishwaryaa. “We saw very little of him because he was very busy, doing seven to eight movies a year. Our memories of time spent with him as kids are richer in quality than quantity.”
It was the rare family trips abroad that she most looked forward to. “That was the only time we could do ordinary things with him like walk around on the streets or go to a grocery store.”
Aishwaryaa credits her mother, Latha Rajinikanth, for not letting their father’s fame go to their heads. Their photographs were never released to the press and the fact that Aishwaryaa and her younger sister, Soundarya, studied in the school run by their mother (The Ashram) also helped. Far from being treated differently, she says, the two of them had to be on their best behaviour.