A cigarette vendor becomes a real estate king, owning a fleet of cars and bikes, all bearing Rajini’s No 5625
Annamalai (Tamil, 1992) One of the many Indian remakes of the Jeffrey Archer novel Kane and Abel, it tells the story of a poor boy called Annamalai. After being insulted by his close friend Ashok, the son of a rich businessman, he works hard to become successful himself. It ran for 175 days at the box office and was the highest grossing Tamil film ever until 1995, when the record was broken by another Rajini-starrer, Baashha
As you turn off Old Airport Road into a narrow bylane that goes to NR Colony, you see unassuming middleclass apartments interspersed with monstrous multi-storey buildings under construction—until you reach a stretch decorated with little flags fluttering in the breeze. The flags have the face of Rajinikanth, with the caption, “V Harsha, President, Rajinikanth Fan Club”.
On either side are buildings belonging to the Mariyamman Temple Trust. Abutting an old tailor’s shop, two buildings have five little one-room offices bearing the name of Mahaveer Enterprises, and a logo that looks like a cross between the Manhattan skyline and an industrial dystopia. Above it looms a handpainted portrait of Rajinikanth, in the leaning-sideways-showing-off-bouncy- forelock posture that adorns countless barber shops in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. On an average day, about 20 to 30 bikes are parked outside, all with the number plate 5625. They are used by Harsha’s employees to scour the neighbourhood for vacant houses, and to ferry prospective tenants.
Harsha wants to “dominate real estate in Bangalore East like Thalaivar dominates filmland” because “lot of real estate are there but Mahaveer has different style” [sic]. He was echoing Rajini’s catchphrase in Padayappa, en vazhi thanii vazhi (My way is a different way), which he later identified as his favourite Rajini catchphrase.
This was my third trip in two days, each time I returned with assurances that Harsha would talk to me later only to find him gone. This time, I’d managed to ambush him in his office.
The wall behind Harsha’s desk is dominated by a 4.5 by 2.5 feet fulllength photo of Rajinikanth, with his arm around a younger Harsha, who looks suitably deferential. The same photograph adorns the walls of every one of the five Mahaveer offices in the city, giving me the impression that this is one of the defining moments in Harsha’s life. To the left, on a fax machine, is the same photograph, this time framed tighter in A5 size and cutting off Thalaivar and fan club president at the waist. Next to it is a copy of My Days with Baashha, the memoirs of Suresh Krissna, director of Annamalai, Veera and Baashha, with a close-up of Rajini on the cover, right arm raised in the famous ‘Naan oru thadava sonna nooru thadava sonna mathri’ (If I say it once, it’s like saying it a hundred times) pose. The left wall has yet another photograph of Rajinikanth.
Harsha tried yet again to postpone our interview to the night, except I wasn’t so trusting. Finally, I was in for some luck, and Harsha gave me what he called his ‘Rajini promise’, making us both crack up in laughter. Faced with making my fourth trip in two days, I felt strangely optimistic. Later that night, Harsha honoured his ‘Rajini promise’ and we had a long conversation in Tamil and English.
A Kannada Jain, Harsha recounted the beginnings of his career. “I used to sell cigarettes when I saw Annamalai. When I saw Annamalai film only, my life is changed. In the film, as they break his house, Thalaivar challenges, ‘Till now you saw me as a friend, but from now on you’ll see new face of Annamalai.’ That made a huge impression on me, I wanted to get ahead in life.”
I wondered if Harsha had turned to real estate because of the plotline in Annamalai (in which Rajini becomes a major hotelier) or reverseengineered the film’s influence once he had made it big in real estate. He continued, evidently relishing the rise-of-the-individual narrative, the staple of Rajini films of the 1990s: “Then I took up a marketing job, followed by painting job—a painting contract—finally coming to real estate. When I came to real estate, I saw film-Arunachalam-and then, with difficulty, I bought a bike. With Thalaivar’s number plate 5625. Then when Padayappa released I bought a [Maruti] Zen.”
Deliberately or subconsciously, Harsha was echoing the song Vetri nichayam from Annamalai in which Rajini’s climb up the social ladder is shown through his vehicles—modest cargo autorickshaw to a cargo van to a black Ambassador, and finally, a status symbol of the 90s, a bronze Fiat Premiere 118NE.
“After Padayappa, Baba was released, then I bought another Zen. For Chandramukhi, I bought a Scorpio. Sivaji, Skoda Laura. And for his 12.12.12 special birthday, I bought a Toyoto Fortuner. In 2011, when he was admitted at Ramachandra Hospital in Chennai for some medical tests, I took along 250 people from the fan club in my vehicles to go see him. He’s like a god to me.”
He was eager to prove the parallels between god and devotee. “He also has two daughters, I also have two daughters - I named them Aishwarya and Soundarya” (after Rajini’s daughters; I checked if his wife was named Latha, and was relieved she wasn’t!)
He continued: “He went to Mantralaya and wears a bangle from there, I also started to go there and wear this bangle. I also don’t wear any gold, Thalaivar goes to events dressed simply, no? He showed Himalayas in Baba, I went there for my honeymoon.”
How did he become the Rajinikanth Fan Club President? Harsha explained, “His film release is like my daughter’s wedding. I book a theatre and organise free ticket distribution. Thalaivar has poor people also as fans, so I give them tickets. IT people are also there, and middle class, business people also. We’ll go in a big procession with a horse and band set and 250 bikes, some 30 cars.”
Of these 89 bikes and six cars belonging to Mahaveer lead the procession, bearing Rajini’s number plate 5625, procured at Rs 8,000 a bike and Rs 25,000 a car. “All this is my own money, since I got ahead in life having watched Thalaivar’s films. I even took a Rs 6 lakh loan from Standard Chartered Bank for Sivaji. I spent for tickets and banners; I had put up 200 10×200 (foot) banners-biggest in India, no one has put up banners so big. Then they made me Fan Club President.”
Anxious not to sound as if he had bought his way into the post, he added, “In my life also, I take his advice-how to deal with parents and friends, I’m maintaining my life according to his advice only.”
When I suggested that the Rajini films of the 1990s showed him playing either a common man (Annamalai) or someone pretending to be a common man (Basshha), whereas in 2000s, he had transformed into a superhuman figure—a billionaire philanthropist in Sivaji, a saint in Baba, a superstar in Kuselan, and a star scientist and his robot in Enthiran.
Harsha’s reply was revealing, “Yes, yes, that is correct, but this is good. Different type of story is very good, different type of acting also, we are all very happy. We go with friends and family and we’ll enjoy and come. Now I want Thalaivar to do a film on politics to give a message to all the politicians clad in white, all of them are 420 only, making crores of rupees.”
By Harsha’s reckoning, Rajini cannot be in politics because “he don’t (sic) know how to stab in the back, he’s honest and straightforward, speaking what he feels in his heart”. Clearly, Harsha has bought into the superhuman themes unquestioningly.
Harsha compares Rajinikanth releases to a pilgrimage, “People go to temples, they go to Tirupati and pray. I want Rajini’s next film to be a big success, and I’ll do everything for that. I’ve made a lot of success in the last 15 years, and my life has changed since I saw Annamalai. Every film of his has one dialogue, which I’ve implemented in my work. He gave me an autograph which has lot of meaning: ‘No pain, no gain’. How Rajini’s style is different, my style too is different, my vehicle number is different. My staff has uniforms and nametags, since we are dealing with IT people. IT people, business people, Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas, Muslims— all are Rajini fans.”
Harsha links his army of workers, all riding bikes with the number 5625, to Enthiran’s superhuman army of clones, and their pink uniforms to Vetri Kodi Kattu (Raise the flag of victory) from Padayappa. Perhaps informed by the spate of business books using Rajini’s catchphrases as inspiration, Harsha explained Rajini’s influence. “I learnt from the way Rajini started in Chennai and grew to Karnataka and Andhra and Bombay. Just like how Rajini dominated Tamil Nadu, I dominated Airport Road, then Indiranagar became my Karnataka, 80 Feet Road is like Andhra, Marathahalli is like Bombay.”
When I persisted in asking him what his clients felt about the Rajini-worship, he cut to the heart of the matter. “Rajini is an honest person, illaya? Simple, honest, straightforward. See how he goes in public —simple, normal, no makeup, no gold. I also don’t wear any gold, any jewellery. Only this bracelet from Mantralaya. Rajini is an honest person. He doesn’t go here and say one thing and say another thing somewhere else. So my customers come in and see Rajini’s photos and they’ll think, ‘Okay, this is an honest place. Simple people. They will do my job properly. I can believe them. Depend on them.’ We also want that.”
As I walked away, I looked back at the Rajini flags fluttering in the breeze, but I could no longer see Rajini’s face. I only saw a promise hanging. A young Hindi-speaking couple-the man in yellow t-shirt and jeans and the woman in cotton churidar, walked in to his office. I saw them exchange glances as they were confronted with the massive photo of Rajini with Harsha, and noticed Harsha beaming at them.
I wasn’t the only one to have trusted Harsha’s ‘Rajini promise’ that day.