“For me, every film is like the first picture.” – Rajinikanth
Despite working primarily in Tamil cinema, Indian actor Rajinikanth has established himself as one of the biggest film stars of the country. With several accolades to his name, including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, Rajinikanth worked as a coolie and a bus conductor before he decided to take up acting at the Madras Film Institute, making his debut in 1975 with the Tamil film Apoorva Raagangal.
In a past interview, he famously said, “Everything is acting in life. Off-camera, everything is acting and the only difference is that you have to do it the whole day. Only thing is you have to do it honestly and sincerely. When a script comes to me, I see the director first. If I have some suggestion, I convey it to them. If they accept, it’s a yes. Basically, I improvise a lot. If I just do what the director says, then what is my input there. So, I improvise and I do it where it is required.”
Adding, “Language is a problem, but the emotions are all the same. Initially, it was very difficult to work in Hindi films. Later, I picked up. Between 83 to 90, I was concentrating more on Tamil and Hindi films. It was becoming challenging. In Bombay, they consider South people are planned. Now, things have changed. Then, I stopped acting in Hindi films and concentrated on Tamil films.”
On his 70th birthday, we take a look at Rajinikanth’s iconic filmography as a tribute to one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema.
Rajinikanth’s 10 best films ranked:
10. Moondru Mudichu (K. Balachander – 1976)
This 1976 romantic drama marked Rajinikanth’s first significant role in Tamil. It revolves around a college-going girl (Sridevi) and two roommates who fall in love with her (Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth). Moondru Mudichu is also remembered for being the first film where Sridevi played an adult character despite being 13-years-old.
While speaking about the director, Rajinikanth said, “I was in the Kannada section in the film institute and Mr. Balachander came to the Tamil section. He merged the lessons and taught the acting. I’m a big fan of Balachander and I have never missed his movies and he is my guru. I firstly asked Balachander about his expectations from the actors apart from acting. He told [me] that the actors shouldn’t act outside of the movies. This is our introduction and that’s how it happened.”
9. Annamalai (Suresh Krissna – 1992)
A remake of the 1987 Hindi film Khudgarz which was based on Jeffrey Archer’s novel Kane and Abel, Annamalai is an interesting look at class conflicts through the lens of Indian cinema. Rajinikanth plays the title role of a milkman whose childhood friend Ashok is the son of a rich businessman.
Ashok’s father does not approve of their friendship and attempts to create a rift between the two. Annamalai was the the highest-grossing film in Tamil cinema until 1995 when another Rajinikanth film called Baashha (also on this list) finally broke the record.
8. Padayappa (K.S. Ravikumar – 1999)
Another classic hybrid film starring Rajinikanth, he plays the role of an engineer whose father dies of shock after their family is humiliated by an uncle and they are forced to leave their home. Padayappa works his way towards financial success in order to restore his family’s honour.
However, his happiness is hindered by a jealous woman called Neelambari (Ramya Krishnan). In an interview, Krishnan said, “Today’s audience expects novelty from filmmakers and stars. The success of [Neelambari] in Padayappa is an example of this. Action and reaction are the key factors for an artiste’s success.”
7. Bairavi (M. Bhaskar – 1978)
This 1978 drama is often credited as the film that helped Rajinikanth get the superstar title, also starring Sripriya, Geetha, Sreekanth, Manorama and Suruli Rajan in important roles. Rajinikanth plays Mookaiyah, a loyal servant for a local landlord who gets separated from his sister Bairavi (Geetha).
He is forced by the landlord to abduct his long-lost sister from a neighbouring village, raping her in his absence. After being arrested, Mookaiyah escapes from jail in order to avenge his sister’s death. Bariavi is now remembered as the first Tamil film to cast Rajinikanth as the main hero.
6. Thalapathi (Mani Ratnam – 1991)
Mani Ratnam’s 1991 crime drama stars Rajinikanth as Surya, a working-class hero who fights for the rights of the poor. However, his life completely changes when he is hired by Deva (played by Mammootty) as his commander. The story is a modern interpretation of the epic Mahabharata, adapting the friendship of Karna and Duryodhana to the contemporary world.
Thalapathi became a critical and commercial success, winning two Filmfare Awards and two Cinema Express Awards. Rajinikanth’s daughter, director Soundarya recalled, “I remember Thalapathi most vividly as that was the first time I went for a first-day-first-show ever”.
5. Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai (S.P. Muthuraman – 1979)
One of the finest examples of populist cinema, this 1979 drama follows the story of Santhanam (Rajinikanth). He is the eldest son of a widow who does everything he can in order to ensure that his siblings receive proper education and are cared for. However, his family mistreats him and ignores him once they achieve financial stability.
He loses his job and is forced to move to a slum with his wife and child, losing his wife to a fire in the slum. Santhanam becomes a popular novelist, making his siblings want to reunite with him but Santhanam knows that his wife was the only person who was there with him during the bad times.
4. Thillu Mullu (K. Balachander – 1981)
A remake of the 1979 Hindi film Gol Maal, Rajinikanth plays the role of a carefree graduate named Ayyampettai Arivudainambi Kaliyaperumal Chandran who tries to get out of work by telling his boss that his mother is ill but gets caught. In order to sustain the lie, he is forced to pretend that he has a twin brother.
This was the first film which featured Rajinikanth without his iconic moustache. His performance was lauded by critics who appreciated the character’s versatility. Despite having primarily worked in action films up until that point, he managed to pull off the comic role very cleanly.
3. Baashha (Suresh Krissna – 1995)
Suresh Krissna’s 1995 action thriller stars Rajinikanth as a humble rickshaw-driver who fits the Gandhian archetype and avoids violence. The unjust world of crime forces him to adopt non-violent ways, transforming into a gangster named “Manick Baasha”.
The film ran for nearly 15 months in film theatres, making it one of the most successful films in Rajinikanth’s illustrious career. He won the Filmfans Association Award and the Cinema Express Award for Best Actor for his performance.
2. 16 Vayathinile (Bharathiraja – 1977)
Starring Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth and Sridevi in the lead once again after their 1976 film Moondru Mudichu, 16 Vayathinile focuses on the personal conflicts of a 16-year-old school girl called Mayil (played by Sridevi). Rajinikanth amazed audiences with his role as a village rogue called Parattaiyan who lusts for the young girl.
This 1977 romantic drama has achieved cult-status in Tamil cinema, often being referred to as a perfect example of realistic cinematic depictions of rural life. The film was a critical as well as a commercial success, winning four state awards.
1. Mullum Malarum (J. Mahendran – 1978)
Partly based on Uma Chandran’s novel of the same name, Mullum Malarum marks J. Mahendran’s directorial debut. It follows the story of a winch operator called Kali (Rajinikanth) who has taken care of her sister since they were orphaned and is characterised by his love for her and his clashes with his employer.
The film became a breakthrough role for Rajinikanth, helping him win the coveted Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize for his performance. Mullum Malarum is also noted for deviating from the conventions of Tamil cinema, focusing on the visual narrative and realism instead.