The party began at 6am and it's still going on.
At 5:30 AM, the temples just north of King’s Circle in Matunga lie vacant. Beautiful carvings in sandstone flank the inner sanctum and a lone pandit begins to prepare the space for a day of worship. Mumbai’s devout are still sleeping, but under the King’s Circle Flyover and across the street there’s a massive party going on. On this Friday morning, the Aurora Theatre is the real place of pilgrimage.
The noise is deafening even from here. Whistles, screams and the sharp retort of firecrackers peal out across the road. Smoke billows up eerily under the yellow glow of street lamps, backlit by red and turquoise neon lights, and shadowy figures move jerkily in and out of view. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that I was walking into a war zone. Instead, it’s the first showing of Kabali, Rajinikanth’s new film.
A 50 foot tall and dapper Rajinikanth overlooks the celebration
Closer up, the scene comes into focus. The urgent, insistent rhythm of a drum circle near the entrance to the theatre greets me. Men are dancing wildly, even violently, contorting their bodies frenziedly to keep up with the beat. Their hair, slick with sweat and early morning rain showers, is matted and littered with confetti. On the ground below, wilted malas lie in disarray on the ground alongside glitter. Rajinikanth’s personal flag—three broad stripes of red, white, and blue with a black outline of a star framing his face in the center—flies proudly above the scene. Two 20-foot tall cardboard cut outs of the star stare out, beneficent, as the crowd of merrymakers grows and grows. Silver-haired, with salt and pepper goatees and reflective aviators, the massive Rajinikanths are dapper. Or at least they are in this incarnation. Later, I will learn that he wears a wig for most of his films, eschewing such vanities in his personal life.
Drummers brave the rain to keep the beat for the Superstar's enthusiastic fans
From the scaffolding supporting the cut outs, theatre employees throw out more and more confetti. It’s red, white, and blue as well. To my eyes, the color scheme is Fourth of July; the festivities distinctly Indian. The dancers grow in number. There’s something manic about their movement. The tinny noise from the drums winds itself deep into my ears. I feel the urge to join in, to move my body, to sweat out my worries and troubles. One by one, members of the crowd succumb begin to dance as well in the center of the sidewalk. Camera crews surround them eagerly, shining spotlights to better capture their subjects. The dancers pull out their phones in answer. It’s a peculiarly modern phenomenon: people filming themselves being filmed.
First screening madness for Rajinikanth's Kabali
The monsoon rears its ugly head and the rain pelts the ground. The media scramble for cover, but the dancers remain.
One man in a shirt that screams ‘Craaaaash’ in bright yellow letters splashed across a red background tells me that this is the most fun he’s had all year. He’s not South Indian, and doesn’t speak Tamil, but he’s woken up early to celebrate nonetheless. I wonder aloud at his commitment to a film that he won’t even understand. “It’s Superstar Rajinikanth,” he says. “Of course I’m here.”
This attitude of hero worship mixed with gratitude is everywhere. I hear about Rajinikanth’s charity work from a man who grants me a brief conversation, before rushing back to join the revelry. Another tells me simply that “he shows us love and we show him love.” There’s a line to take a photo with a poster of the movie. I can hardly imagine what it must be like when he’s spotted in the flesh. “He’s our superhero,” says another fan.
It’s 6 AM and the first showing begins. The crowd files into the theater eagerly and the sidewalk is empty for a moment. Then, the next group of people begin to arrive to celebrate before the 9 AM show.
Lining up to try and score a last minute ticket to the screening
In the second wave, many fans have shown up in custom-made shirts. They’re from Dharavi, they tell me, and they’ve commissioned 100+ shirts for their friends and family. The shirts are black, with grainy images of Rajinikanth superimposed one on top of the other on the front. I beg them to let me buy one, but it’s not possible, apparently. Only a finite number was printed—certainly not enough to waste on some ignorant American who only yesterday found out Superstar Rajinikanth even existed.
This group of friends finds another cardboard cut out of the star and carries it immediately to the nearest temple. They pose with it for photos and carry it through the street, singing and chanting his name. At a second temple, they drench it in milk. Is Rajinikanth a Superstar or a God? Does it even matter?
Back at the theater, the drums cease for a moment. Children squeeze bags of Amul milk out onto his image on several posters. Men throw loose malas at the giant cardboard cut outs. Here’s an object lesson on how to stand out in a 1.3-billion-person crowd: shave the name ‘Rajini’ into your hair. Cameras surround the lucky fan(atic), and he proudly declares his love. Another shows off a tattoo on his forearm.
All I do is attempt to contextualize. Is this any different than a political rally in the United States? Or a tailgate? I’m not sure. The tattoos certainly aren’t. Shaving names into hair also isn’t a first for me. But this worship of Rajinikanth’s images, the embrace of his on screen persona, the complete and utter devotion to his cult are all novelties. Someone suggests that these fans are just looking for a party and will use any excuse to dance and set off firecrackers. It’s certainly a possibility, but the people I speak with express something deeper. There’s a spiritual connection, they argue. The relationship is reciprocal. That’s where it’s entirely divorced from my American experience. Our stars engage with fans on social media and in appearances. Some are decent, others less so, but they all remain separate to a certain extent. Here, Rajinikanth has somehow erased that line. Or at least the perception of it.
I make my way inside and perch on the edge of the balcony. The 9 AM crowd files in, but is in no mood to stop the party. They dance and sing as they enter. They refuse to go to their seats, heading instead straight for the screen. The warnings on the screen come one after another, don’t spit, don’t put your feet up, and, hysterically, don’t capture the screen. Some particularly cheeky fans pose for pictures with the latter.
Some new friends show off their custom Kabali shirts
There’s a mosh pit happening as the movie starts. A roar greets the dimming of the lights. It’s earsplitting. And then the theater quiets, rises as one, and performs an admirable rendition of the Indian national anthem. It’s a rare moment of calm in a chaotic morning. Somehow this movie screening has combined a religious service, a sporting event, a dance party, and a cult gathering into one, easy to digest experience.
And then it actually starts. Kabali. The letters appear on the screen one by one.
‘S U P E R S T A R.’
People are shouting, taking off shirts and whipping them around in the air. People put their fingers in their mouths and whistle. People take whistles out of their pockets and whistle. The movie begins and teases out every last bit of suspense about Rajinikanth’s appearance on screen that it can. We see his shoes, his hands. The famous suit. The back of his head. And then, finally, the main man himself. The roar that goes up dwarfs all its predecessors and this one doesn’t stop. We might as well have been sitting in silence before.
Posing like a movie star in my newest piece of clothing. Nerrupu Da!
The movie runs for about 20 minutes before I hear a word of dialogue over the din of the crowd. The plot is easy to follow nonetheless—there’s some satisfying violence and liberal use of slow-motion. It’s classic, over the top Indian filmmaking that I associate with Bollywood. Camp in its purest form. The director is really playing with house money here. As long as he keeps Rajinikanth on the screen about 99% of the time, the audience seems sated. When he disappears at one point for a minute, the audience gets restless. Luckily, the star returns soon with a vengeance and a renewed savagery. The crowd howls as he drives his car over a rival gang member, before curb stomping his face. We all have bloodlust now. I can’t follow the movie when it shifts to Tamil dialogue, so I’m rooting for as much action as possible, too.
Below, movie theatre employees have forced everyone back to their seats. In the confusion of the day, some people have snuck in to the theatre. One by one, my friends with the custom made shirts get kicked out. Until next time, my milk-pouring, custom shirt-making, manic-dancing friends.
When we stumble out of the theater, they are still there, milling about somewhat aimlessly. My friend Yash asks again for a shirt and this time they oblige. Maybe I haven’t learned anything about bartering after all. Wearing the shirt emblazoned with the god-star, I walk in a daze towards our car. I feel older, better, wiser. I’ve just become acquainted with Superstar Rajinikanth.
Rajinikanth's personal flags survive the monsoon...barely
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By William Gansa
Photographs by: Karishma Goenka/Yash Bandi