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December 22, 1999


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'He wants to do less work, to gradually retire, fade away from public eye'

Rajinikanth and Lata Madras autorickshaw-drivers are notorious for never taking you where you want to go. And if they do deign to drive you to your preferred destination, demanding double the going rate.

When I tell the driver that my destination is the Rajinikanth home on Poes Garden Road, I have, for the first time, the experience of being driven by a more-than-willing driver. And when we get there, he uses my presence as an excuse to hang around, hoping for a glimpse of the thalaivar, as Rajinikanth is known to millions of his fans.

I am ushered into the office of Lata Rajinikanth. All is bustle here as the superstar's better half, and a large staff assembled for the occasion, busy themselves with preparations for the bash -- on December 23 -- that will commemorate his 25 years in the film industry.

Lata is tired. Apparently, she has been working overnight, recording an album that is due for release on the big day. She's willing to spend time talking to us about her husband -- who for his part has made it clear he will give no interviews for the occasion -- but it takes an hour of waiting, while various factotums pop in to apologise for the continued delay.

Finally, she arrives -- and, in her soft-spoken manner, tells Rajitha about the man in her life.

How did the two of you meet? I recall reading that you had gone to interview him...

I was in Ethiraj College at the time and wanted an article for the college magazine. The first time I went to meet him was to get an appointment for the actual interview.

When was this? Do you remember which film he was doing at the time?

This was in 1980, he was shooting then for Thillu Mullu (The Tamil version of the Amol Palekar-starrer, Golmaal). We got married a year later.

And what was your first impression of the man you went on to marry?

I somehow felt very comfortable with him, it didn't feel like I was meeting a filmstar. It was as if I had known him for a long time.

Didn't you once tell someone that you felt a need to mother him?

No, it wasn't like I felt the 'need' to mother him. It was that I knew he had had a different sort of childhood. He lost his mother when he was very small. I was fond of children, I still am. And somehow, when I look at people, I look at the child in each person. I firmly believe childhood shapes adulthood. As he had been through a very difficult childhood, I felt strongly that he needed motherly affection, that he had probably missed out on it. Also, as a child he lacked the basic comforts, his family has struggled a lot. He never had a mother to comfort him, and that was what I perceived.

So at that point, he found an anchor in you?

Yes. At least, I hope so (smiles) Wasn't this the time when he was going through a disturbed, difficult phase?

Yes. He had just had a serious nervous breakdown, he had some health problems. When I met him, he was just coming out of it. He went on to totally overcome those problems, of course.

What is your take on Rajinikanth the person, as opposed to the star?

I would call him a hard-working simpleton. His basic needs are very few. He has this thing, this insistence that his life should be useful. He believes every life has a purpose and he is always looking to find and fulfill the purpose of his own life. He has a strong spiritual inclination, which, in fact, began very early in his life. So he is always looking at everything he does, even his acting, in terms of how useful it is for the masses.

And yet, the public image is of a flamboyant superstar. How does he strike a balance between his spiritual side, and this popular image?

That public image doesn't affect him as a person. In fact, the more his fans laud him to the skies the more he becomes to become more and more humble. He keeps saying it is all God's grace. He accepts the adulation, he is touched by the love, and he keeps saying that there is some purpose behind it, that there is something beyond all this. So he is constantly looking for that something, within him, and without.

This spirituality, you said, he has had from an early age. But is it constant, or do you see this side of him growing with the years?

It's growing, very much so, it is a steady kind of growth. Everyone wants to better himself, but when you go beyond that, when you actually try to mould yourself, to make something constructive out of your life, the process of bettering yourself begins, you begin to grow within. That is what he is going through, experiencing, trying to do. He has had a difficult past, experienced different things in his youth, now he seems to want to get better and better as a human being.

Would you call him reclusive?

Not reclusive, no. I would call him contemplative, analytical, always trying to understand himself, understand life. He is surrounded by people all the time, he rarely gets time to himself, to think and introspect. So he likes, when he has the chance, to get away, to be where he can be by himself. He prefers to have time and space in which to think and to introspect -- but that doesn't mean he is reclusive.

How then does he keep his fans happy with that completely different image?

He understands it is a role he has to play, and he tries to play that role, which is what his fans expect of him, as best he can.

And what of Rajini the actor?

I would use the word dedicated. When it comes to a role, he doesn't compromise, he pushes himself to do it as well as he possibly can, no matter what it takes.

Earlier, he used to do performance-oriented roles, like Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri, Aarilirunthu Arupathuvarai... he hasn't done much of those lately, has he?

At that time, he had a choice. He was new to the industry and growing, so he had more variety, more characters, more shades to express himself in. And he used to try doing different things. For instance, he played an old man almost 20 years ago, when he was young and just becoming successful. But in time, his image took on a form of its own, made him a mass hero and from that point on, he had to work within that framework, he had to keep his eye on the business side of his profession too. He has to keep an eye on the requirements of his fans, so some of those options are no longer available to him.

How involved are you in his work?

He is a professional, he insists on thinking his work through himself. Till I came along, he was on his own; now he has me. We discuss roles, the various aspects of the business -- it is like any other couple, we are partners in life. But he is the man who has done it all, I respect his judgment. I might have opinions, which I share with him, but he makes the decisions, he knows exactly what he wants to do.

Which of his roles is your personal favourite?

Oh, I enjoyed every role he has ever done, each of them is unique in its way. There is something in each, to look forward to and like. And also, since I am seeing it from this side of the fence, I know what he has gone through, what he has put into every role, so that is another reason for me to like them all.

What is Rajini all about? The spinning cigarettes, the Rajini-style that has the fans whistling, or is there more?

There is more. I think he is a very natural actor, I enjoy his style, but he also has obvious acting abilities.

What has his success done to the family, in terms of privacy lost? How do you cope?

Now that is something every celebrity family has to face, actors especially, so it is nothing unique to us. We obviously cannot enjoy the normalcy of ordinary people, we can't move around much. But like I said, it goes with the territory, we have to understand it. And we also think, God has been kind to us, He has given my husband the love and devotion of so many fans, and that makes up for what we lose.

Sure, there is a loss of privacy. We can go on very few private outings. More so now, since his films are distributed all over the world, he is recognised even abroad, so that is another area of privacy we have lost...

Yeah, we read about his success in Japan -- what was that all about?

The Rajini mania in Japan Frankly, we are amazed by it, we are pleasantly surprised by it all, but we don't have a clue how or why it happened. Out there they call him the Dancing Maharajah, they seem to be taken up by his acting and style and dancing and all the rest of it, and his movies are proving to be huge hits. Nowadays, Japanese tourists come here and take pictures of our house... it is all quite sudden, and surprising.

You talked of your interaction in his work, how about vice versa? Does he involve himself in your activities?

Yes, we have a close interaction in all that we do. After we got married, we talked a lot. I used to talk about children, child psychology. I am convinced that adulthood is based on childhood. I used to keep telling him how childhood affects adulthood. In fact, I studied him as one of my main examples.

Our house used to be full of kids -- infants and little ones, kids of all ages. This was the way it was even before we started the school. Now it is more so, because kids from our Gurukula are here all the time, this is an open house for children. Our house is called Brindavan -- we named it so after marriage, and now there is Krishna, and the children, in it...

You mentioned your school -- tell us how and why that came about?

I have been running that now for about nine years. I started it because I thought there should be a different approach to the way we teach, the way we prepare our teaching material. We are launching a new board, we have already begun innovative teaching practices at the college level.

We put together a professional team, and our focus is on individual moulding, not collective teaching. The idea is to create personalities, not just graduates or whatever. We are now going in for a junior college without group selection, which means everyone will study all subjects, preparing them for college. We also have counselling, in-house.

We are starting something called TASC school -- The Ashram Specialised Curriculum school. We think it is the right educative pattern for the millennium. It is the teaching system, the way children are handled, prepared, that will be different.

There is also a lot of extra curricular activity, I was told?

Yes, of course. Cultural activities like traditional Indian art forms are taught here. They are also taught about our various festivals, traditions, these are all integrated into the system. We organise melas periodically and the kids enjoy those. I handle this part of the teaching myself. We stress on values, on mutual respect. We have Christian students chanting the slokas, our Hindu kids right now are busy rehearsing Christmas carols...

To get back to Rajini, which is his favourite role?

(Laughing) That's easy, the role he is doing now is his favourite role. If he is doing Baasha, he says it is Baasha, if he is doing Padayappa, then his favourite is Padayappa. He is so involved in the role of the moment, that it looms above everything else.

Do you see him coming up with the kind of performance-oriented role he used to do when he was much younger?

That, you see, can't be an individual decision. He can't, on his own, decide what he is going to do. Rajinikanth today is more than an actor, he is an industry in himself, there are a lot of people who depend on him and his success. This aspect, of commercial viability, is something that he has to keep an eye on at all times.

Is there a role or roles that he tells you he dreams of doing?

Actually, what he tells me is that he wants to do less and less work, to gradually retire, fade away from the public eye, get to spend more and more time with himself.

Talking of retiring, when Padayappa was being made there was some talk that this would be his last film as a hero. Is that true?

Well, we hope not, but it is true that he wants to pave the way for his retirement, go more and more inward-looking... I don't know, time will tell, I guess.

Is he into reading?

Yeah, quite a lot, from Amarchitra Katha to philosophy, bestsellers, non-fiction on various subjects...

And music?

That is an absolute necessity for him, he needs music to relax, he needs it when he is by himself. When he is around, there is always music playing in the house, that is one way you know he is at home.

Now tell us about this celebration on the 23rd (December 23) -- what is it all about?

I have been thinking of the way he's come up, the hard work he has put in, his career, his sense of purpose -- and I thought I wanted to commemorate both the person and the actor. He has done a lot of things that no one knows about, and I want the spotlight to fall on that aspect of him.

If his parents were around now, they would have been proud of him, so in a way it is like I am doing this on their behalf. Actually, it started off as a very private appreciation of all the good work he has put in, but to do it right takes a team, which I put together, then the plan just snowballed.

We wanted to have a film festival, a theme exhibition, theme pavilion, live stunt shows, then there are the memorabilia sales, like pendants, watches...

He is a private person, doesn't want honours and so on, he tends to shy away from all this. He finally agreed only because of the spirit of the show and because it is dedicated to a good cause. We are engaged in a lot of social activities, like arranging marriages for poor people, old people's homes, foundations where we help economically weak students. Through our schools, we are putting together a campus that will really foster children, help them grow as individuals.

And the money we raise from these celebrations will go to fund all these activities...

I remember at the Padayappa silver jubilee week celebrations, he announced that he was giving something to the public, what was that?

We have personal property. One of those -- the Raghavendra Kalyana Mantapam -- he has given away in his will, to the public. After his time, the income earned from it will not come to the family, it will go to a public trust, to be used for charitable causes.


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