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Rajnikanth was born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad on December 12, 1949 in Karnataka.

He grew up to become a bus conductor during which time he reportedly caught the fancy of the bus travellers with his mannerisms and style of issuing tickets and blowing the whistle and so on.

Looking to become an actor, he moved to Madras and joined the film institute.

It was here that he caught the eye of K.Balachander, a director known for introducing talented, new faces into the tamil film industry.

K.Balachander gave him a small role - as the no-good husband of Srividya - in Aboorva Raagangal and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rajnikanth soon graduated to playing villains and his style, swagger and casually unique brand of villainy vowed the movie-going public.

Be it the sadistic husband of Sujatha in Avargal or the wolf in sheep's clothing in Moondru Mudichu or the lust-filled village rowdy in Bharathiraja's 16 Vayadhinile, Rajnikanth was the villain the people loved to hate.

From here, it was a small step for Rajni, playing the anti-hero and finally, the hero in Bhairavi.

Rajnikanth firmly captured the vacant, action-hero slot in tamil movies with a series of movies where he routinely bashed up the bad guys who had done him injustice in one way or the other.

Once in a while he did movies like Aarulirundhu Arubadhu Varai or Johny which gave us glimpses of his acting potential.

But action was what the fans expected from a Rajni movie and action was what he gave them.

The credit goes to director Rajasekhar for tapping the comedy potential in Rajnikanth.

He gave us the breezy Thambikku Endha Ooru which saw Rajni balance the action and the comedy sequences with equal ease.

The scene where he reads a soft-porn book while a snake enters his room is one for the comedy history books! The film went on to become a huge blockbuster and the path of Rajni's future movies was set.

Rajnikanth honed his action-comedy hero skills with a series of movies like Nallavanukku Nallavan, Pokkiri Raja, Murattu Kaalai with S.P.Muthuraman.

All these were mega-hits and firmed his status as the number one crowd puller in tamil movies.

There was a brief lull when the much-hyped Maaveeran, his own production, flopped at the box-office.

But then came Padikkadhaavan, one of his biggest hits and there was no looking back after that.

For his next production Valli, he gave all major responsibilities, including direction, to newcomers while playing a cameo role himself.

The movie was received well both critically and commercially.

Annamalai's dialogues were seen by many as Rajnikanth's direct warning to then Chief Minister J.Jayalalitha about his possible entry into politics.

Rajnikanth frequently denied any such intentions but the political overtones in his dialogues in movies like Uzhaippaali and Yejamaan did nothing to quell the rumours.

As the elections neared, he directly came out against the CM, thundering that his only goal was to see her removed from office.

He played a major part in putting together an alliance between the DMK and TMC, leading to, in no small part, their landslide victory in the polls.

He preferred to be king-maker rather than king! Later that year, he received the State award for Best actor for his great performance as father and son in Muthu, arguably, his biggest hit to date.

His last movie was Arunachalam released on Tamil New Year's Day 1997.

For this movie, he hand-picked 8 people from the tamil film industry who had fallen on bad times financially and made them the producers of the movie.

He proved all over again that he was not just a great actor but a great human being.

Here's to a lot more years of entertainment...

In 1975, when Rajinikanth was becoming popular, Berkley cigarette wanted to make a commercial with him. The first question Rajinikanth asked after meeting them was, 'Why should they pay me? I am getting so much of publicity. What do they get?' "He was quite naive", says filmmaker S.V. Ramanan, recounting this incident about his close associate.

He always says he is indebted to the people of Tamil Nadu. He will take the plunge when the time is ripe. It won't be in the near future.

Today, Rajinikanth is anything but naive. The films he has produced, the property he owns and the trusts and charities he runs are numerous: nobody really knows what he is actually worth. Giving his persona another fillip is 'Rajini 25', a 14-day extravaganza in Chennai to celebrate his 25 years in the film industry from December 12, his birthday.

"Rajini 25 is our tribute to Rajinikanth", says Latha, his wife. The highlight is a theme exhibition on Rajinikanth's life and career at the Dr MGR Film City, besides souvenirs like gold coins and watches with 'Rajini 25' engraved on them apart from a designer cafeteria serving the star's favourite dishes. The icing on the cake will be an entertainment show on December 23 in which Amitabh Bachchan is scheduled to participate. The show will also have Latha crooning live for the first time in Chennai.

'Rajini 25' is our tribute to Rajinikanth: Latha with her superstar husband

While some tend to dismiss the show as over-publicity, it is true that Rajinikanth is one of the most powerful men in Tamil Nadu today. Billed as the state's future chief minister, Rajinikanth has kept the public guessing about his political plans. His recent films have been full of political messages, but the star himself has refused to take the plunge. "He always says that he is indebted to the people of Tamil Nadu. He will take the plunge when the time is ripe, and it won't be in the immediate future," says Ramanan.

Whenever he does, it will be another milestone in the life of Shivaji Rao, the youngest in a lower middle class Maharashtrian family of six in Bangalore. He had worked as a clerk and a coolie before landing the job of a bus conductor with the Karnataka transport corporation. Impressed by his performance as Duryodhana in an annual play of the transport union, his friends insisted that he take up acting as a career. At the same time the film institute in Chennai had advertised for an acting course and Shivaji Rao enrolled for it with the money given by his friends. The rest is history.

When he was in his final year, K. Balachander cast him in Apoorva Ragangal and gave him the name Rajinikanth. His entry in the climax scene of that 1975 film, in a sense, signified the entry of a new star in the Tamil film industry. His first film as hero was Bhairavi in 1978. Rajinikanth's transformation from the mean-looking, pan-chewing villain in Padhinaru Vaidhinile, Gayathri, Moondru Mudichu and Avargal to the swashbuckling do-gooder was remarkable. His 'Rajini style' mannerisms caught the fancy of the masses.

The man whose ambition at one stage had been to possess 'a Vespa scooter, a one-room flat and all the cigarettes money can buy', suddenly found himself being paid Rs 5 lakh a film. The wealth and fame went to his head. "That was a wild Rajini who valued wine, drugs and women more than anything else," says a veteran film critic. But in 1982, marriage changed his life. The soft-spoken Latha, who had met Rajinikanth to interview him for her college magazine, was a calming influence.

Rajinikanth also discovered spirituality. In rapid succession, he discovered Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi and Swami Raghavendra. It was in a way, a reiteration of his devotion when he played Raghavendra in the runaway hit Sri Raghavendra in 1985. He also named the kalyana mandapam he built in Chennai after the saint.

The Raghavendra trust he set up supports the education of about 100 students in each district of Tamil Nadu every year, while he performs 25 free marriages in a year at the hall. His contribution to the film industry has been in terms of the lumpsum money he gave to veteran artistes like V.K. Ramaswamy from the proceeds of the two films he produced, Arunachalam and Padayappa, his 150th film. He has acted in 96 Tamil films and 24 Hindi, apart from a few in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali and English.

He is highly religious. He goes to Rishikesh and the
Dayananda Saraswati ashram in Anaikatti near Coimbatore
every year.--S.V. Ramanan (left, with Rajini)

In the time-honoured tradition of Tamil Nadu, it was inevitable that Rajinikanth would become politically active. And he did, in 1995. At a function organised to celebrate the silver jubilee of his film Baasha, Rajinikanth criticised the 'bomb culture' prevailing in the state. A furious Jayalalitha, then the chief minister, sacked her cabinet minister R.M. Veerappan who was present at the function as the producer of Baasha.

Though his support helped the DMK-TMC alliance win the 1996 elections, in 1998 the alliance lost many constituencies. In 1999 Rajinikanth played it safe by asking his supporters not to vote for corruption (read Jayalalitha). His last political statement was in Padayappa in which he declares 'yen vazhi tani vazhi' (My path is a unique path).

For all his gregariousness on screen, Rajinikanth is a recluse in real life. "He goes to Rishikesh and the Dayananda Saraswati ashram in Anaikatti near Coimbatore every year. He is a highly religious person," says Ramanan. But his associates admit that he is shrewd and intelligent. "He knows the power of mass media and how to exploit it," says the film critic.

And it is only a matter of time before Rajinikanth takes the plunge into politics.

The plot thickens

When Rajinikanth recently announced that he had earmarked the Raghavendra kalyana mandapam in Kodambakkam, Chennai, for the people of Tamil Nadu, it generated a cynical response. "The property is not even legally his. It is indeed very large-hearted of him to donate it to the public!" says K. Manoharan, who claims to be the true owner of the property. He has a dispute running with Rajinikanth for the last two decades.

The land in question, around 1.75 acres, is part of zameen awarded by the British to one Murasu Ponnambalai in 1808. Through succession it came to Manoharan's relative Rajaram, who sold it to Manoharan. Later one Asadullah Basha illegally occupied the land and even managed to get a patta for the land. But the patta was dismissed in 1977. In 1985, Manoharan decided to sell the land to liquor baron Ramaswamy Udayar and got an advance of Rs 61,000 from him.

In the meantime, Basha sold the land to Rajinikanth who started constructing the marriage hall. Initially, Udayar and Rajinikanth fought over the ownership before amicably resolving the issue. Manoharan then approached MGR but the ailing chief minister could do little. Construction resumed on the site in 1987 after a six-month stay.

"In 1989 I filed a case for stopping the construction and appointment of a commissioner to measure the land since Rajinikanth's lawyers maintained that the land was only about 0.70 acres," says Manoharan. In October last year, a commissioner was appointed. But the appointment was stayed after Rajinikanth's lawyers filed a case saying the visit of a commissioner would cut into a day's earnings of the hall.

"Today one ground of that land costs Rs 40 lakh. Rajinikanth is actually defrauding my client," says Poongudi, Manoharan's advocate. She also finds it galling that Rajinikanth is earning more than Rs 5 crore every year from the hall. Manoharan, who claims that he has spent more than Rs 60 lakh on this dispute, also claims that he has been repeatedly attacked by Rajinikanth's men.

Manoharan still pays land tax for this property. According to him, the hall doesn't have the approval of the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority and the Corporation. "All this can't happen without the knowledge and consent of Rajinikanth," says Poongudi. "But he is realising that things are getting a bit too hot for him. Hence this grand gesture of dedicating the hall to the people." This is one case, where Rajini may have bitten off more than he can chew.



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