The man behind the persona named Rajini

Everyone knows that Rajinikanth’s real name is Shivaji Rao and that his life started in namma Bengaluru. He worked in this very city issuing bus tickets during his tenure with the BTS (KSRTC now) and was put on the route 10A. He was close to his colleague and driver of the same bus, Raj Bahadur.

While citizens and netizens are busy congratulating Rajini, we meet four of his close friends who know him as Shivaji Rao and have been a part of his struggle. The men, who continue to be friends with Thalaivar, take us back in time and introduce us to the man Shivaji Rao behind the larger-than-life Rajinikanth. For them, he is still their good old Shivaji Rao.

Actor-producer Ashok

My real name is Venugopal. So till date, I am Venu to him and he is my Shivaji. We were not just classmates, but also room mates in South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce’s film institute. It offered us acting courses in four languages — Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Shivaji and I were in the Kannada batch and megastar Chiranjeevi was our junior.

We have all been friends ever since. We were notorious on campus. Umpteen books have been written about our escapades (laughs).

Today, I am thrilled with him being conferred with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award. He should have got it a long time ago. Still, better late than never. My only regret is that he could not enter politics. Had he forayed into that field, he would done immense humanitarian work, for he is that kind of a person. It was due to health reasons that he backed off. Now he is better, and has resumed shooting too.

He was in Bengaluru to recuperate in January. For me, Shivaji is a miracle. I have seen him transform from a bus conductor to a superstar. When he was a conductor, his looks and body language were crude. He would smoke and drink and was a total ruffian.

The manner in which he transformed himself, be it in his body language or style in the last 40 years is amazing for us friends to see. I see him as our prodigy. He is a genuine person and does not behave like a star at all, a true gem.

Shivaji is one person, who never gets jealous if someone is doing better than him.

It was during our film institute days that we discovered his passion for acting. He was bitten by the acting bug when he worked for BTS. They had a cultural union and he was an active member. In fact, he was famous for his portrayal of Duryodhana and Kamsa on stage. I would always see him in front of a mirror, practising his style and expressions. We friends prayed hard for him to succeed as an actor.

And when he did get a break, we all celebrated. Director K Balachander moulded him and Shivaji has the desire to learn at every step and appreciates the good. Unfortunately, he did not get a good opening in the Kannada film industry and had to migrate to Tamil Nadu to become a star. I don’t find that strange as, in cinema, 10% per cent is our efforts and 90% luck. Fate also plays a huge role in cinema. No one can predict who will click and who will not.

Those days he would tell me that he dreamt of being a notorious villain on screen like Vajramuni, Tooghudeepa Srinivas or Tiger Prabhakar. He would also tell me that his looks were suited for a villain and that I would be a hero. And soon I should hire him as my manager!

Then I would tell him to just wait and that the tables would turn for sure. And look, where he is today. It was harder for my generation to become actors as those days this line was looked down upon by friends and family. We would become jokes at social gatherings. Yet, we went ahead and each of us have achieved something.

Cinematographer BS Basavaraj

It was 1975 and Shivaji was still an upcoming actor. Ashok, Shivaji and Hema Choudhary are classmates from the film institute. It was during a shoot of a Kannada film at Prasad Studio, Madras, that Shivaji visited us. The director wanted to cast him, but the producer was not willing as he found Shivaji’s complexion too dark. Shivaji was so upset that he almost stopped visiting us on the sets.

Look at the irony! The same man who was made fun of because of his skin colour and rustic looks, is today the winner of the 51st Dada Saheb Phalke Award.

Hulli Chandrashekar, childhood friend and assistant director

Rajini and I have been friends since childhood. We were neighbours in Hanumathnagar where I still live. We are 70 years old now and have been together for almost all that time. Our homes were just one street apart.

We became friends when we were studying in middle school. I studied in Basavanagudi Boys Middle school and Shivaji was in Acharya Patashala Public School. So we had a small street cricket team in Hanumanthnagar. And that is when we got together. We were a group of five to six boys who would take off to the Harohara mountain to play cricket. We do meet often and every time he comes to Bengaluru, he makes it a point to meet all of us.

I was the first to join the film industry as an assistant director in the early 70s. At that time Rajini was already working with the BTS. My first film was Aatma Milana. Rajini’s film career started in 1974. He was keen to learn about my experiences on the film sets. And he was put on the bus number 10 A that would go via Gandhinagar. Every time I would take the bus to reach Gandhinagar to meet producers, he would refuse to give me a ticket.

We did not know he was crazy about acting. It was only seeing his performance as Duryodhana at the BTS cultural events that we saw his style. The manner in which he would lift the mace was so stylish, his entire body language would change when he was in character.

In college he was doing mono-acting and we realised he was gifted. I believe his style is inborn. He is very quick in his movement — be it sitting, walking or even getting off a bus. As a youngster, Shivaji was energetic and over enthusiastic. We would sit in movie tents and watch screenings of films of Dr Rajkumar, Shivaji Ganesan, MGR. And then head to a local bar to discuss cinema.

Some days we would be so broke that we would sit outside the tent and listen to the dialogues. Shivaji was a man to have in fights. One night we were at our regular Naidu bar. Some man provoked Shivaji and he took on a group of tough men on his own. I was impressed by his strength and agility.

Vijay Kumar (a friend)

We are in touch on phone to this day. I met Shivaji through my friend Ravindranath. Shivaji, Satish, Raghunandan and Hema Chowdhury and Ravindranath were all classmates. His BTS colleague, driver Raj Bahadur, would support him by sending him money.

Once I visited Vijay Vani studios in Chennai with Gubbi Shivanand. After the shoot, when we were all walking out, we saw a huge cut-out of MGR and Shivaji asked us, if we too would have our cut-outs like that. And we all laughed. And today he is a Dada Saheb Phalke Awardee. His cut-outs are in everywhere. Shivaji has not forgotten his struggling days. Even today he keeps in touch with us. When he comes to Bengaluru, he disguises himself and the entire group loiters in and around the streets of Bengaluru.

When Ravindranath passed away six years ago, Shivaji, sent money to his sister to help them cope. He made a film, called Valli and cast his batch mates and friends from the film institute. He also acted in it and treated everyone like a star.

We would meet at a hotel called Sharada, where he would entertain us with his stylish mannerisms be it tossing his hair, lighting a cigarette or wearing his goggles. We would all hang around late into the night and then head towards Majestic where he would take a second class sleeper and head back to Madras.

And one such night, people flocked around him screaming “Rajini, Rajini” and we knew he had made it. There has been no looking back for our Shivaji. He still treats us as brothers when we meet up. He built a choultry called Mantapam in Madras and invited MGR to inaugurate it. The guest of honour was his colleague Raj Bahadur, who was treated like a king with MGR.

That was Shivaji’s way of showing his gratitude to Bahadur for helping him during his struggle. I also remember he was asked to do a guest role by a common friend. By then he was a star. When the producer asked him what he should pay him, Shivaji said, “give me a pack of cigarettes, that will be my fee.”

Ashok, Shivaji, Satish, Raghunandan and Ravindranath were called the panch pandavas those days as they would be together all the time. Today he is a great celebrity, but one who remembers his roots. And treats his friends with the same love that he had when he was young.

As told to Shilpa Anandraj

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