Tracking the reel lives of southern mega heroes – Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi and Kamal Haasan

J.Vishnu Shankar

Anyone who has known the above three ‘all time superstars’ will be surprised at the twists and turns their careers have taken over the last 3 to 4 decades. They have had their ups and downs at different parts of their careers. Today’s generation, which is used to regarding Rajnikanth as ‘heads and shoulders’ above the other two names mentioned, will be surprised to know that it was not always the case.

I was less than 10 years old when I first watched Telugu movies of Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth. They were mostly remakes of Balachandar’s Tamil movies directed by Balachandar himself in Telugu. This was in the period 1975 -1978. Chiranjeevi was yet to make his debut then. In most of those Balachandar’s movies Kamal  always had a role superior to Rajni. Kamal was a rage then. He was young, smart, stylish and above all was considered an actor par excellence. All through the 80s, this description of Kamal stayed on and he was a step ahead of Rajni in not just the quality of movies he acted in but in fan following too. Rajni moved on to action roles and was stuck there for a long time. This generation will be surprised to know that for Rajni even around the time of his 100th film, which was based on the Guru Raghavendra of Mantralayam, success was only sporadic and did not really make him a star that he aspired to be.

Chiranjeevi made his acting debut in 1978 and by 1982 he was a rage in Telugu cinema. By then Balachandar took a back seat ( at least in Telugu) and the influence of Kamal and Rajni on Telugu cine goers started waning. While Rajni slowly started gaining success in Tamil and Kamal continued to be the No 1 Tamil hero, Chiranjeevi’s hold on Telugu audience grew by leaps and bounds. Kamal continued his tryst with Telugu cinema too via K.Viswanath’s movies but Rajni was mostly out of Telugu screens.

Late 80s and early 90s was the period, when all the three held near total sway. Kamal was the only one to have national recognition though. He was nationally known with Ek Duje Ke Liye and a dialogue-less Pushpak besides garnering national awards for films like Nayakan. By 1992, Chiranjeevi was a huge superstar in Telugu and the success of Gharana Mogudu in 1992 made him India’s highest paid actor, a feat achieved by any southern hero for the 1st time. National news magazines ran cover stories calling him “Bigger than Bachchan” and remember, Amitabh those days was still in his hey days.

Rajni phenomenon post Basha

1995 release Basha can truly be considered as the film that turned the tide in Rajni’s favour. Chiranjeevi and Kamal Hasan were still very much the superstars but it was only with Basha that Rajni started being ahead. Basha was a surprise hit in Telugu too and gave Rajni an opening in Telugu markets which was virtually non-existent for him till then. Telugu audience is a very important piece in the puzzle for any Tamil hero as that gives him an access to an additional market which is as big or bigger than Tamil. Kamal’s last mega hit in Telugu was the dubbed version of 1996 film Indian ( Bharateeyudu) and that is almost 2 decades back. Chiranjeevi went through a minor rough patch in the mid 90s but was back to super stardom soon enough that continued well into the 2000s with mega hits like Indra and Tagore. But the fact that he was limited to the Telugu market alone made sure that in the bigger box-office sweepstakes, he could not think of competing with Rajni.

Chiranjeevi at a political rally

The last 10 years

Chiranjeevi stopped acting in 2007 after his decision to enter politics. To be sure, he was a super star till his last outing at the screens. Rajni who was again going through a rough patch till 2005 got a lease of life with Chandramukhi. His next 2 films with director Shankar, Shivaji and Enthiran ( Robot), took him to another level and by 2010 he had assumed the halo of someone who could do no wrong. Enthiran in particular was highly acclaimed for its technical wizardry and indeed took not just Tamil cinema but Indian cinema to another level. Rajni’s stardom, his reach in Tamil and Telugu markets coupled with the presence of Tamil diaspora across different parts of the world made him a true sensation. And at a time when Kamal lost much of his box-offfice mojo and with a ‘retired-from-films’ Chiranjeevi, there was no stopping Rajnikanth !!

But that said, is the story of the three superstars over?? Not at all !! Kamal is still very much around, Chiranjeevi is slated for a return to the screens and Rajni now has a hat-trick of flops behind him ( including Kabali). So what does the future hold for these three ??

I will do some crystal ball gazing in my next article 

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