How Rajnikant Bridged The North South Divide With Robot

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First published in DNA www.dnaindia.com. To read click here.

Surfing through TV channels a couple of days ago, this writer was surprised to see a Delhi-based child sitting on his father’s lap saying how he loved Robot and had become a fan of Rajinikanth.

Some other Hindi-speaking viewers said they loved the movie inspite of seeing the Tamil version and not understanding a word.

Another spoke of a friend who had travelled some 50km to Porbander to see the Tamil version of Robot.

Have you ever heard of a Tamil movie being released in Gujarat? Use of technology has given the movie universal appeal. Robot, and an earlier Rajinikanth starrer, Sivaji — The Boss, have broken language barriers.

For the record, the movie was released in 2,250 screens worldwide. This includes 500 screens in Tamil Nadu, 350 in Andhra Pradesh and — believe it or not — 700 in North India. The movie was released in three languages simultaneously. In Tamil and Telugu Robot was titled Endhiran.

It could be one of the biggest grossers in Indian movie history. At the end of the first week, the film is understood to have grossed Rs117 crore.

Even if it isn’t, Robot underscores a new phenomenon in India film-making — the gradual erasure of the North-South divide.

In part, this is the result of the hero Rajinikanth’s multi-dimensional identity. Born in Bangalore to Maharashtrian parents, he was named Shivaji Rao Gaekwad. This is why we saw Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray hugging the superstar the other day at his home.

After struggling through his initial years (he worked as coolie and bus conductor), he did a course in acting at the Madras Film Institute and has never looked back. His stardom proves that even an ordinary bus conductor can, through hard work, luck, positive karmas and spirituality, succeed.

The generations of Tamils who opposed Hindi as a national language must be having the last laugh. They are probably telling themselves: “We did not allow the Hindi-speaking people to override our rich language; instead see what Rajinikanth has done. A movie made by Tamilians for Tamils is a superhit in Delhi. So what if it is dubbed in Hindi in some places?”

Quite clearly, the India of 2010 is not the same as the one of 1960-80, when Tamils were burning buses and committing self-immolation to prevent Hindi being foisted on them.

Let’s see how far we have moved since then through the star-cast of Robot itself. Rajini himself has Maharashtrian, Kannadiga and Tamil associations. The heroine Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is a Mangalorean. She has married a man whose paternal grandparents belonged to Uttar Pradesh and Punjab while the maternal ones were Bengali.

The villain, played by Danny Denzongpa, is from Sikkim. Music director AR Rahman is a Muslim convert, who was born Dilip Kumar Mudaliar.

Endhiran is a movie made for Tamilians but its main characters belong to various parts of India. In a deeper sense, the movie shows that an Indian could be residing in any state but there is a bond that helps us relate to one another.

Unfortunately, the West is used to seeing every relationship in black and white and demands a clear explanation for such bonding. In India, everything has a shade of grey. We must stop being defensive about who we are and search for what binds us rather than what divides us! For far too long have invaders and rulers split our ranks!

You may ask what has changed? The process of change started with the advent of satellite TV in India. The popularity of Chennai-based performers like Prabhudeva broke the barriers. The song Muqabla Muqabla was a big hit in the 1990s.

The Tamil version of the song was very popular too. TV allowed Tamilians unhindered access to Hindi channels and vice-versa. Indians of every state probably liked something that their own language and culture did not provide.
The development of the information technology sector in Tamil Nadu and foreign investment required many non-Tamilians to work in Chennai. The inter-mingling of communities played a role as well.

Economic liberalisation and cheaper foreign travel have resulted in a broader worldview. These have helped overcome some adverse affects that arose from the creation of linguistic states.

Lastly, it is all about money, honey. The film’s producers realised that a movie costing Rs162 crore can make super-profits only if it is released all over India. Why should a producer restrict his movie to four states when a Hindi version can be seen in another 15 and abroad?

Endhiran has also made me proud of belonging to a 5,000 year old civilisation — a civilisation that allows people of every region to practice their local culture and yet be a part of a larger reality called Bharatiya Sanskriti. In modern marketing parlance, the relevant words are: Think local, Act global.