“Happy to announce Dadasaheb Phalke award for 2020 to one of the greatest actors in history of Indian cinema Rajnikant ji. His contribution as actor, producer and screenwriter has been iconic,” union minister of information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar tweeted.
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Presented annually at the National Film Award ceremony, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award recognises “outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema.” It was first presented in 1969 and its recipients include Lata Mangeshkar, Shashi Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Dev Anand, among several others. It was last awarded to Amitabh Bachchan in 2019.
Rajinikanth, born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in a Marathi family, begun his film career with Tamil movie Apoorva Raagangal (1975). The actor is renowned for his mannerisms and style — the signature walk, flicking a cigarette and catching it between his lips (cigarette was replaced with chewing gum over the years to cultivate a more responsible image), and his natural comic timing, in the over 200 films.
A string of blockbusters from the 1970s to the mid-2000s include titles like Bairavi, Mullum Malarum, Billa, Murattu Kaalai , Naan Sigappu Manithan, Padikkathavan, Mr. Bharath, Velaikaran, Thalapathi, Annamalai, Baashha, Muthu, Arunachalam, Padayappa, Baba and Chandramukhi.
Last seen in action thriller Darbar, released in January 2020, the 70-year old actor has also been honoured with the Padma Bhushan (2000) and the Padma Vibhushan (2016). Rajinikanth is said to have had some 55,000 fan clubs registered around the world in 2001, after which he stopped certifying them.
Known as one of the few leading men in Tamil, as well as Indian cinema, who could strike a chord with the common man on the street and the upper class, trade experts say he still has both the multiplex and the single-screen audience rooting for him, including the youth, the target group for Tamil films.
Given his mass appeal, controversies around the actor’s social and political stands have also been big—such as his justification of police action during the 2018 Thoothukudi violence or his day-long fast to protest the Karnataka government’s decision to not release Kaveri River water into Tamil Nadu in 2002. Having announced a foray into politics in 2018, the actor recently cited health issues for having cancelled those plans.
“Unlike contemporary Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth has always been particular about targeting family audiences and getting a ‘U’ (universal) certificate for his films,” independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai said had said in an earlier interview to Mint. A lot of the appeal, Pillai had said, is basically to do with his humility, everyone knows he was a bus conductor and a coolie before he became a star. That created a halo around him which works even today. He’s a common man’s man who’s come up from nowhere, making no bones about the fact that he’s balding and as comfortable wearing a crumpled kurta as he is on screen dressed in stylish suits and wigs.
To be sure, in recent years, it has been a challenge for filmmakers to keep those typical commercial Rajnikanth elements intact in their projects while coming up with something new for the superstar. Rajni has learnt a lesson with films like Lingaa (2014), Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), that failed to impress fans.
“It’s definitely a challenge to direct a star like him,” K.S. Ravikumar, director of Rajini films such as Muthu (1995), Padayappa (1999) and Lingaa (2014) had admitted in an earlier interview to Mint. “We wouldn’t want to end up doing something he’s done before. But at the same time, it isn’t easy to predict if the new approach will work for his audience—which spans from young children to old people,” he said.