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December 22, 1999


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'You can see God in him at times'

M D Riti

Rajinikanth Every trip that our bus made used to be crowded because of Shivaji," says bus driver Raj Bahadur. "He used to hand out tickets and collect change with so much style that everyone wanted to travel on our bus, number 10A, from Srinagar to Majestic, to watch him in action. The next bus trip would invariably go empty!"

Six of superstar Rajinikanth's chaddi dosts -- his ex-colleague Bahadur, schoolmates J N Raja Rao and S H Prakash, the local grocer's son M Mariswamy, street cricket team captain Ramachandra Rao and neighbour G M Adishesh -- had all gathered in Rao's tiny first floor apartment in Hanumanthanagar to share with some of their fondest memories of their dear friend.

The conversation flowed in a relaxed manner in Kannada, the language that the group used to talk to their old friend in. Reminiscences tumbled out one after another, and the group's genuine love for their star pal became was evident within a few minutes.

Today, Rajanna, as Raja Rao is known to his friends, is a senior typist in the Karnataka Milk Federation. Prakash is a clerk with Karnataka Bank. Mariswamy is a bill collector for Apex Bank. Ramachandra Rao is a proof-reader for the Kannada newspaper, Samyukta Karnataka. Adishesh is a businessman. Only Bahadur continues to be exactly what he was in those days: he is still a bus driver, now working on route number 21 from City Market to Byrasandra.

The six friends continue to remain Shivaji's closest friends, meeting him at least twice a year, either in Madras or in Bangalore. Whenever he comes to Bangalore, he meets each of them in their own homes. They spent four days with him in his home in Poes Gardens in Madras a few weeks ago, when he invited them over to share in the celebrations for his last film Padayappa completing silver jubilee in the theatres.

The six now pour over photographs of themselves in which they are all dressed casually -- with Bahadur actually in a lungi and banian, with Rajinikanth in his trademark black outfit, all of them holding glasses of amber liquid in their hands. "Lata cooked for us all, and Shivaji entertained us in his own home for all those days, sharing every meal with us," says Prakash. "We are still on yeno lai and baaro nanna magane (Kannada terms for extreme familiarity) terms with him: if we ever forget and address him as Saar (Sir) since he is a rich superstar and we are all poor, ordinary men, he gets most hurt and offended."

Continues Bahadur, "Even then, Shivaji used to grow his forelock long and push it off his forehead a thousand times a day. That's why his hair has all dropped off now! He was always a very different kind of man. For example, he would walk very fast: if we walked somewhere in a group, he would walk off briskly far ahead. It is this impatience to get ahead that stood him in good stead later."

Mariswamy adds, "When we went to Mysore to attend my brother's wedding three decades ago, Shivaji strode up Chamundi Hills at twice the speed of the rest of us!"

For three years, from 1972 onwards, Bahadur and Shivaji Rao Gaekwad (Rajinikanth's real name) spent 15 out of 24 hours together, every day. They would meet at 5.30 am at the bus depot, begin their first shift together and work all the way through steadily until 2 pm. "Shivaji would lend a certain style to even the most mundane of a bus conductor's tasks," says Bahadur. "He would snap out the tickets with pizzazz. He was always very fast in his movements and everything he did. It is this speed and style that he has taken with him into cinema, and that has become his trademark there now."

Bahadur reiterates that "Everyone in the bus service liked him, back in those days. He used to move easily with everyone. But he was also a very short-tempered man. He wouldnot get violent or anything like that when he lost his cool, but he never hesitated to shout at people if he felt they were in the wrong. Basically, he was a serious-minded type of chap, but he could also be the life and soul of a party, keeping everyone laughing with his jokes."

Adds Rajanna, "By and large, he was a calm and cool person -- he would never get perturbed by the small things that used to worry the rest of us."

Shift over, Bahadur and Shivaji would part briefly to go home for lunch, and meet again soon after, to go together for play rehearsals. Both of them were very active in a Bangalore Transport Service amateur dramatic society. In those days, they only did mythological plays, and a few old social themes.

"Shivaji was known for his depiction of Duryodhana," says Bahadur, throwing some light on why Rajinikanth might have entered cinema as a villain. "Even then, Shivaji's dialogue delivery was perfect -- he never muffed his lines."

And then would begin their last joint activity for the day: a good round of drinking and eating. "We would never become over," says Bahadur, using the colloquial term for 'drunk.' "Not too much, anyway. And we never misbehaved when we had a drink, either." In fact, Bahadur and the others unanimously describe Shivaji as a perfect gentleman who worked far too hard, and was far too focussed in his ambitions, to pay much attention to the ladies.

"When you are lifting sacks of rice for 10 paise a piece, you are hardly likely to have the energy to be a ladies' man," says Rajanna. Before Shivaji became a conductor, he worked for a short while in a factory called Mysore Machinery before an uncle invited him to lift sacks in his wholesale yard. Times were so hard that Shivaji accepted with alacrity.

"He was so thin, but he was very hard-working," says Rajanna. "We would struggle to heft a big bag of groceries home, but Shivaji would pick up sack after sack, and heave them right into waiting lorries. He was never a shirker and his capacity to work hard has definitely helped him reach where he is today."

Later, his elder brother Satyanarayana Rao Gaekwad, who still lives in Hanumanthanagar in Bangalore and works as a supervisor in the Bangalore City Corporation, encouraged him to apply to an advertisement for bus conductors, and trained him to face the interview.

Did his fondness for alcohol escalate over the years until it reached the point where it began to affect his career, and he gradually turned towards Swamy Raghavendra and gave up drinking? "It was just that he was working too hard in his desire to earn maximally and make the most of his popularity and star value," says Bahadur, who appears to be the man with the maximum insights into Rajinikanth's thought processes. "He was working four shifts, 20 hours a day, and was so tired and stressed out that he turned to drink to help him sleep at the end of the day. When he realised it was standing in the way of his career, he stopped it."

As for his religiousness, his friends say that he was always God-fearing and fairly spiritual-minded. Adishesh recalls going with him to Mantralaya three decades ago, and being astonished when Shivaji recited shlokas for the entire duration of 10 pradakashinas of the temple. Rajanna has been to a popular Ganesha temple in Hanumanthanagar many times with him when they were young boys. "However, Shivaji has now acquired such a powerful spiritual dimension to his personality, that you can see God in him at times," he says.

"He was an ace student," says Prakash, who was his classmate for years at Acharya Patashaala, one of Bangalore's oldest and best-known schools, now renamed APS High School. "We used to have a period called story hour. Shivaji was such a popular story-teller that after some months, he became our standard minstrel: the students simply did not want anyone else. He would not tell original stories. But he had the talent of narrating and enacting well-known, popular old tales -- like that of Vikram and the betaal -- so well that the biggest truants would come to class to listen to his stories."

The Rajini show According to Prakash, he was an all-rounder in academics, being as good at mathematics as he was in languages. "He studied in English medium and that is how he speaks such good English in movies now," says Prakash. "If he had studied further, he would have become a doctor or engineer today."

He also did plays in school. His old school is now so proud of him that they have converted all memorabilia of his sojourn there, like the attendance registers with his name in them, into museum items. "He was a good sportsman too," recalls Ramachandra, whom Shivaji affectionately used to call Kaddi (stick) Ramu because he was as thin as a rod. "He was an excellent fast bowler and a good fielder. He was also a very good kabaddi player."

Their street cricket club had a monthly membership fee of 25 paise, to pay for rubber balls and cheap bats. "Often, Shivaji would not be able to afford even that small sum, and I would be forced to throw him out of the club for a month or so, until he scraped up that amount," laughs Ramachandra now. "He is a very good man, and he has endured so much that it has helped him become a strong man today."

Why, then, did this near-prodigy, as his friends describe him, abandon studies after just a pre-university degree? "Straitened circumstances at home," says Rajanna regretfully, recollecting how Shivaji used to hang out in their rooms when they were studying for college examinations and he had long since joined the work force. However, he never displayed regret or envy at having had to leave the academic path and work so hard instead.

Besides, Rajanna and the others always included him in all their jaunts from college, appealing to his uncle and employer to give him time off to see a movie or eat out.

According to Bahadur, the idea of sending him to acting school came from the group and not from Shivaji himself. They actually put up money to sponsor him for it. Shivaji continued to keep closely in touch with them. When K Balachander saw him in a Kannada play in college, he said to him rather ambiguously, "Learn Tamil." A bewildered Shivaji rushed back to Bangalore to consult his friends. Bahadur, whose mother tongue is Tamil, promptly took upon himself the task of teaching Shivaji this language.

"Before that, although Shivaji had some Tamilian friends like me, he had no interest in that language and conversed only in Kannada," says Bahadur now. "But after that, we switched completely to Tamil and he picked up the language in no time."

In the first year or two of his being at the institute, he used to visit Bangalore at least once a fortnight, and go to the depot at dawn to meet his ex-colleagues. Later, as he began earning well, he began helping out whichever of his old friends were in need of cash whenever they needed it. "We think he has achieved much more than he could have in any other profession because he is helping so many poor people in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere today," says Rajanna.

Although Rajinikanth is known on screen to sport fancy costumes and clothes, his friends say that in real life, he always dressed simply and inexpensively. "The style we refer to is in his mannerisms and affectations, not his clothes," clarifies Ramachandra. "Basically, he is a very simple man. He is still quite content to stretch out on the floor and take a small nap, when he visits any of our homes. He has not become dependent on luxuries, soft beds or plush furniture."

Will Rajinikanth eventually become a politician? We asked his six friends, to see whether they could shed any light on the enigma that has been confounding Tamil Nadu for several years now. Predictably, it is Bahadur who answers this question. "He has no serious interest whatsoever in politics," he says thoughtfully. "He was compelled to make some political statements, a while ago, to achieve a particular purpose. I would not like to specify more on this particular issue. Now that he has achieved that objective, he has no further interest in politics. We have advised him to steer clear of politics. If you want to help people, we advised him, please do it as an individual, not as a politician."

We part ways, after sharing a strong cup of masala tea in Shivaji's memory. His friends put away their old albums and memories, content to wait for the next time that Rajinikanth throws a little stardust into their otherwise humdrum lives.


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