Meet India's biggest film star

Balding, paunchy, 61-year-old Rajinikanth is an unlikely leading man. But his new film, out this week, looks set to break all records
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The Independent Culture

In Mumbai, the print of his film was driven at dawn to a temple by horse-drawn carriage in order for it to be blessed. In Chennai, the 4am showing of the film sold out, forcing fans to hustle to get tickets for the 5am slot. In Milton Keynes, movie reviewers were charmed, and in the US, hard-to-get tickets were reportedly selling for up to $40 (£25).

This is how things are in the world of Rajinikanth, an Indian movie star of utterly larger-than-life proportions whose every film is a guaranteed hit. Remarkably, while he may be little known outside India, Rajinikanth is the second highest-earning Asian actor, pipped for the top spot only by Jackie Chan.

This weekend, the 61-year-old veteran of more than 150 films is earning even more money. The star's latest film, Endhiran – English title The Robot – opened to good reviews and huge, adoring crowds who queued overnight outside cinemas across the nation to watch the latest, high-adrenaline adventure. Inside, the audiences shouted and cheered at their hero's unlikely moves while outside fireworks were set off and drums played.

But this movie is different for several reasons. Not only is it the most expensive Indian movie in history, costing around 1.6bn rupees (£23m), a vast sum for a film in this country even if it's nothing compared to Hollywood. But the film was also simultaneously released globally at more than 2,000 cinemas, the largest ever distribution for an Indian film and a decision that underscores the star's appeal with south Asian communities around the world.

"He has a tremendous following. I'd say he is the ultimate Indian movie star," said Taran Adarsh, a leading film critic. "Other film stars could not get away with what he does in films – he shoots with his fingers, he swallows helicopters and he turns into an anaconda – but whatever he does the fans love."

Even by the usually brash standards of popular Indian cinema, Rajinikanth is no ordinary star. A balding former Bangalore bus conductor who makes no effort to hide his paunch, the actor has a connection with fans that his rivals can only wish to match. He famously makes little effort at realism in his films.

Rather, they are usually unbelievable stories in which his performance is completely over the top. There is lots of comedy as well, and plenty of music and dance routines. The actor's trademark move is to throw a cigarette into the air, catch it deftly between his lips and then light it, all in one move.

"He is no mere actor – he is a force of nature," said Grady Hendrix, writing in the online magazine Slate. "If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth."

What makes the actor's story and record-breaking success even more intriguing is that he is not even a product of Bollywood, the much-celebrated Hindi-language movie industry based in Mumbai. Rather he comes from what is sometimes known as Kollywood, the Tamil-language film scene based in the city of Chennai. In Chennai, formerly known as Madras, Rajinikanth's new film opened in 45 cinemas on Friday.

For years, Rajinikanth, whose real name is Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, worked as a struggling stage actor. Once he made his breakthrough, he never looked back. There have been occasions when directors have tried to kill off one of his film characters and fans have responded by threatening to burn down cinemas.

His new film tells the story of a robot, played by him. The film's team includes Yuen Wo-ping, who worked on The Matrix, Stan Winston Studios, which worked on Jurassic Park, and the Academy Award-winning composer AR Rahman, best known in the West for the score to Slumdog Millionaire.

First reports say the sci-fi movie's technical effects and graphics are better than in any previous Indian movie and for the first time are of international standard. It's also estimated that this latest offering will set a new box office record for the nation. The legend of Rajinikanth is set to soar even higher.