With the release of 2.0 round the corner, the spotlight is once again on the biggest star of Asia, Superstar Rajinikanth. While the release of the trailer has had the mixed response, with most dismissing it as poor man’s video game which has much sleeker and mind-bending examples in the video game ecosystem.
And strangely enough none of this ever affects the brand value of Mr Rajinikanth. His equity if anything only going north. Even his foray into the murky waters of TN politics and the bitter verbal fight that are now recurrent, Brand Rajni’s equity remains intact.
To understand this phenomenon better we have to begin at the beginning.
Born as Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in a Marathi family and known by his mononymous stage name Rajinikanth, began acting in plays while working in the Bangalore Transport Service as a bus conductor. In 1973, he joined the Madras Film Institute to pursue a diploma in acting. Following his debut in K. Balachander’s Tamil drama Apoorva Raagangal (1975), his acting career commenced with a brief phase of portraying antagonistic characters in Tamil films. After establishing himself as a lead actor in a number of commercially successful films, he began to be referred to as a “superstar” and has since continued to hold a matinée idol status in the popular culture of Tamil Nadu. His mannerisms and stylised delivery of dialogue in films contribute to his mass popularity and appeal. After earning ₹26 crore (equivalent to ₹55 crore or US$8.2 million in 2016) for his role in Sivaji (2007), he was the highest paid actor in Asia after Jackie Chan at the time. While working in other regional film industries of India, Rajinikanth has also appeared in the cinemas of other nations, including that of the United States.
Rajinikanth began his film career through the Tamil film Apoorva Raagangal (1975). Balachander gave Rajinikanth a relatively small role as an abusive husband of Srividya. The film was controversial upon release as it explored relationships between people with wide age differences. However, it received wide critical acclaim as it went on to win three National Film Awards including the award for the Best Tamil Feature at the following year ceremony. A review from The Hindu noted that “Newcomer Rajinikanth is dignified and impressive”. He followed that with Katha Sangama (1976), an experimental film made by Puttanna Kanagal in the new wave style. The film was a portmanteau of three short stories had Rajinikanth playing a small character in the last segment where he appears as a village ruffian who rapes a blind woman in the absence of her husband. Says his mentor K Balchander, “Rajinikanth claims that I am his school. But I must admit that this wasn’t the Rajinikanth I introduced. He has evolved on his own merits and strengths. I gave him an opportunity and unveiled him to the world. He went and conquered it.”
They often say that there is only one iconic brand in Tamil Nadu… the brand that is ‘Rajinikanth’!
This is a brand which was born in the early 70s, saw a steady growth for nearly a decade, then it was repositioned into ‘something’, (with no idea at that time, about what it’s value’s gonna be in the future), then in the mid 90s it reached a saturation point (or at least what people thought was the saturation point), now after 35 years, it still remains a brand with more loyalty than any other brand. A brand which doesn’t require any publicity or marketing or promotion. a brand which carries itself the brand that is called Rajinikanth!
If there is any brand in India that can give even Apple a run for its money on its day, it’s Brand Rajini. And we have thousands of reasons for our argument. Results of a nationwide poll conducted by a popular TV channel on who is India’s biggest Superstar revealed that Rajinikanth won the poll hands down. (Yes, beating the likes of King Khan, Aamir Khan, Big B and others). Rajinikanth has more than 150,000 fan clubs across the country (of course, few in Japan too), which is more than any other star. And when he was taken ill a year back, the whole of Tamil Nadu offered prayers and special poojas for his quick recovery (including the three of us). During the time of elections, politicians from all major parties would be wary of his statement, which has the potential to decide the fortunes of the election. Believe us, the list will go on.
Rajinikanth played a character role in “Aarilirunthu Arubadhu Varai” – there were no histrionics. His Hunter’s role in “Thaai Meethu Sathiyam” won him the hearts of MGR fans. In him, the fans of Sivaji and MGR saw a common friend. Brand Rajini won the war but without a battle. With acceptance from both sides of the coin, there was no need for a toss. From then on, there was no stopping Brand Rajini. Apple does not sell products; it sells the brand, evoking in people’s minds a mix of hopes, dreams and aspirations. Similarly, Rajini’s admirers don’t go to watch just movies; they go to watch Rajini himself. Brand Rajini sells itself – the products are secondary to the brand.
Rajinikanth quantum-leaped to super-stardom through wholesome and original entertainment and then evolved and acquired cult status through friendliness, humility and down-to-earth characteristics that every brand dreams of. Brand Rajini is analogous to the much talked about global corporate brands. The only difference is that corporate brands are more prominent, well researched and talked about, while brand Rajini has remained out of the limelight.
In fact, brands have promoted Rajinikanth the brand. It’s unique in the film industry because most film stars in Bollywood and elsewhere are ready to jump into the bandwagon.
Take AirAsia India’s latest promotion. It unveiled its all-new re-branded aircraft featuring a livery dedicated to the upcoming Rajinikanth movie – Kabali. This is the first time that a movie has been promoted in a big manner by an airline. The airline said that the special livery is a dedicated to the superstar and his fans. Bearing the image of Rajini from the movie Kabali, parts of the aircraft have been painted and stickered with the livery. The aircraft is scheduled to fly across the AirAsia India network.
Rajinikanth and his contemporary Kamal Haasan have stayed away from commercial endorsements and it is apparent that the decision is one of choice rather than default. “I am here to act and why should I do anything else?” asks Haasan. Rajinikanth, like him, has also been clear about why he will not be drawn anywhere close to either appearing in commercials or lending his name for anything beyond what he is best known for, which is acting. In 2000 Star TV flew down to Chennai hoping to sew up a deal with the Southern superstar. The purpose of the visit was the rope in Rajinikanth for a Kaun Banega Crorepati for Tamil satellite television. He politely declined.
Haasan, for his part, thinks there are other things to be looked at while doing endorsements. “There are always issues of products being spurious or being injurious to health like cigarette smoking. These things make me uncomfortable,” he says. Advertisers offer another point of view. “Actors in the South are choosy about the brands they endorse because the brand’s fortunes are linked to the film’s fortunes. Instances like Kerala superstar, Mammooty’s decision not to endorse Coca-Cola was after the brand ran into problems with activists in the state are not a rarity. Likewise, Nagarjuna, the Telugu industry’s star, is seen only in messages related to a social cause.
Many feel Southern actors Rajinikanth and Haasan bank on the scarcity factor. Their films are released on an infrequent basis (a release very 1½ -2 years) compared to their counterparts in Bollywood who often have three releases each year. More importantly, both these stars could become a lot more expensive if they chose to star in advertisements. Economies of scale may be a deterrent in the case of Southern stars as investments on them need to be monetized over one or two or at best a few states, Whatever the case, global brands find it difficult to ride on film stars in South India, in fact, it’s the other way round there.
Fridaybrands salutes this unique status of Rajinikanth and other southern stars. A status where they are bigger brands than global corporate brands like Coke and Apple in terms of viewer connect at an emotional level.