Rajinikanth was one of Tamil cinema's most popular stars by the end of the '70s. And then, suddenly, he went into a self-imposed exile.
At first glance, 62-year-old Rajinikanth seems an unlikely superstar. He's not conventionally handsome, has few starry airs and displays a remarkable absence of flashiness. Those who haven't watched a Rajini movie are left perplexed by the frenzied crowds every new film draws. But there's no denying Rajini Sir's appeal, extending up and beyond the south of India, a feat managed by only a handful of non-Bollywood actors.
The son of a police constable, Rajinikanth came from the most humble of beginnings. He was born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad on December 12, 1950. His parents were Maharashtrians living in Bangalore. His mother died when Rajinikanth was just five and the impoverished family struggled for years to make ends meet. A young Rajinikanth worked a number of odd jobs before ending up as a bus conductor with Karnataka's transport corporation. A born performer, Rajinikanth would keep his bus passengers entertained and the first suggestions that he become an actor came from them. He began dabbling in Kannada stage plays, notably playing the villainous Duryodhan in an adaptation of Mahabharata.
In 1973, with some financial help from a friend, Rajinikanth joined the Madras Film Institute. At the same time, a stage performance brought him to the attention of director K Balachander who recommended he learn Tamil and cast him in his very first role - as a cancer patient in 1975 Tamil movie Apoorva Raagangal. The film won a National Award and Rajinikanth role, though brief, led to bigger and better things. Over the next few years, Rajinikanth was cast as the villain in movies like Avargal and Moondru Mudichu. His first lead role was in 1977's Telugu film Chilakamma Cheppindi. 1978's Bairavi gave him his first lead role in a Tamil film. From then, there was literally no looking back.
Rajinikanth was one of Tamil cinema's most popular stars by the end of the '70s. And then, suddenly, he went into a self-imposed exile. After nearly a decade away from the silver screen, he was coaxed into making a comeback with the blockbuster Billa (1980), a remake of Amitabh Bachchan's hit movie Don (1978). He went from strength to strength with movies like Netrikan and Murattu Kaalai. In 1983, he began an on-off relationship with Bollywood, appearing in Andha Kanoon opposite Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini. He also appeared in Hum, with Amitabh Bachchan again, and Chaalbaaz opposite Sridevi, his co-star from Tamil movie Johnny.
Rajinkanth has made movies in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali and even English, with 1988's ill-fated Hollywood movie Bloodstone. However, he has never appeared in a Marathi movie, despite it being his mother-tongue. Rajinikanth's fee for 2007 blockbuster Sivaji made him Asia's second highest paid actor after Jackie Chan. Rajinikanth has not died on-screen for several years now. His directors fear that killing his character would send fans on a rampage.
Rajinikanth has been plagued by health problems ever since Enthiran released. He spent a month in hospital in May-June 2011, first in Chennai and then in Singapore, while grief-stricken fans prayed for him. He was diagnosed with bronchitis and renal failure. His illness put home production Rana, an animated film, on hold. After recovering, he made a cameo appearance in Shah Rukh Khan's sci-fi fantasy movie RA.One, playing the character of Chitti the robot from Enthiran.
Rajinikanth married his wife Latha on February 26, 1981 in Tirupati. They have two daughters, Aishwarya and Soundarya. Aishwarya is married to actor Dhanush and made her directorial debut with Tamil film 3, famous for the song Kolaveri di. Soundarya directed her father in Kochadaiyaan, releasing in April 2013. Rajinikanth received the Padma Bhushan in 2000, just one of several honours and awards he has received in his 35-year-long career.