Baasha is one such role. And Rajnikanth is the actor born to play that role. I am sure someone can point out some 1940s black and white hollywood movie from which this concept was copied. Or, folks can point out that this is a direct rip-off of Hum, and Amitabh did a great job in that movie. Sorry people, you are talking about movie facts and factoids. I am talking about a cosmic happening, that occurs once in a century.
Manikkam (Rajnikanth) is an average auto driver in an average neighborhood in Chennai. He lives with his step-sisters, brother (all younger), his step-mother and works hard to bring up and protect his family. He is a fast-talking, jovial kind, who is surrounded by friends, and leads an innocuous life. He is afraid of any act of violence or aggression, and whenever is provoked looks the other way and avoids any confrontation. There is even a rich girl auto customer of his (Nagma), who falls for his charms.
The local rowdy (a perfectly cast Anandaraj) wreaks havoc in the neighborhood, and when Manikkam's brother, who gets appointed as the local Inspector of Police, tries to intervene and bring the rowdy to justice, things start taking unexpected turns. The rowdy corners the Inspector/brother and when is about to chop off his hand, Manikkam intervenes, and pleads to forgive his brother and offers to undergo any punishment but to let his brother go. Taking up this offer, the rowdy ties Manickkam to a lamp post and beats the crap out of him - all through this, Manikkam just smiles and takes-in the treatment without uttering a word. When he is finally let go, covered in blood and drenched from the rain (even the Gods cry when a good man is beaten up, see), his brother asks him "Ungallukku kovame varatha?" (won't you ever get angry?), he answers with a laughter that really doesn't answer anything.
Surely this is odd behavior. But we know something else is there under the surface. (Also the fact that there are lot of mysterious footage in negative film with ominous music in the background to indicate that something else is there.) Then we learn that, Manikkam is actually Baashha, a don in his previous life in Bombay, who is forced to take up a career in underworld because of the injustice he sees and to avenge the death of this friend. He takes over Bombay's underworld and becomes a terror and friend to all, depending upon which side you are looking from. This leads to the inevitable clash with the bad-don, Antony. The fact that Baashha's dad is a long-time employee of Antony leads to complications. Unexpected things happen, and Baasha's dad dies, only after extracting a promise from Baasha that he should leave town and live life as an average citizen and bring up and protect his brother and sisters.
To keep his promise, Baashha moves to Madras (after staging his death in a road accident and leaving behind his underworld methods), reverts to his original name Manikkam and becomes an auto driver in an average neighborhood. All his acolytes take up equally innocuous careers like tea shop owners, push cart vendors, fellow auto drivers etc., and lead life as average citizens around Manikkam. And we are back where we left off.
This background sets up a perfect ground work for Rajni to unleash his power. He is the ultimate super star - no, that is not just a fan fawning. He embodies heroism (or at least the kind that works on fantasies and celluloid) like no other. He doesn't try in the least to be liked or be heroic. He doesn't have the self consciousness of many other actors, and is not afraid to just be there on screen. This gives him enormous power - and makes him thousand times more interesting. Trying to be heroic on film is like trying to sleep. The harder you try to be heroic, the less likely you will succeed. The less you do and think, the more effective you'll be. Rajni knows this.
He is an excellent actor and has impeccable timing and sense (he gets very little credit for his acting skills - it is time someone gave him his due). Watch him underplay his role for most parts in the first half. There is not a single emotion or gesture which is over done - he gives a performance that is a study in how to give only the bare minimum of what is required and get away with it. He is not insecure to hold back and no do much when it is not called for. But once the ball starts rolling, and he has to enter his hero phase - like the scenes where he is interrogating as Baasha, he doesn't hold back - he experiments, he pushes it to the limit, and is unafraid to do so (imagine some other actor making sounds like "hey, hey, hey, hey, hey….naan our thadava sonna…"). One wrong step, his performance risks being a caricature and un-intendedly funny. Not when Rajni is in charge.
This sets up one of the best scenes in any film. When his sister is refused admission into a medical college, and the college principal tries to misbehave with her, she recedes and cries, sitting in the canteen. When Rajni hears about this, he takes her back to the principal's office, and requests to speak with the principal in private for a minute. Then he says, "My name is Manikkam" at which point he shuffles out of his submissive posture, unfolds his hands and puts it on the principal's table, looks up and continues "I also have another name..." (now, the camera shifts to outside the principal's office and we see what happens through the glass walls). With only Rajni's gestures and the background music, we come to know what is happening. No other actor can pull this off - this scene was born to be played by Rajni, Rajni was born to play this scene.
Does the film have negatives. Yes it does - but that is more intellectual than experiential. For example, the way women are characterized and spoken about by Manikkam etc. - wont sit well with any well reasoning person. But, that is a problem with any Rajni movie, and majority of movies per se. Setting that aside for a moment, this is as good a movie as it gets for Rajni fans, or fans who love to hero worship and want a perfect story for their hero to show his powers.
The movie is directed by Suresh Krishna with a light touch. The film has a wafer thin script and plot, and rest of the departments of the movie are adequate - if you take Rajni out of the movie, you can almost see the movie fall apart and crumble. The entire movie is held together and taken to the stratosphere by one man, his persona and his performance. This is the first movie that featured a special title card for Rajni - where the word "SUPER STAR" slowly appears on the screen in blue dotted letters with a cheap version of the James Bond theme music playing in the background. I remember watching this film in Udhayam theater, when it was released, and the SUPER STAR title card appear on screen - I had goose bumps allover. And the film that followed lived up to the title card experience. It was pure bliss for Rajni fans, and probably the best Rajni movie that will be ever made. Once, if you are lucky, in your lifetime you'll have such a transcendent experience, and the memory of it to go back to. I was one of the lucky ones.