As Rajinikanth's latest movie, Kaala, releases today, the Japanese fans along with the Indian ones are very excited. A report in The News Minute says that two Japanese even flew down to Chennai to catch the first-day-first-show of the latest gangster movie, Kaala. They can even roll out the dialogues with equal elan as a Tamil fan. But what is the Japan connection? Why are the Japanese excited about Kaala? It all began in 1998, with the release of Rajinikanth-starrer Muthu in Japan. When Muthu was released in the country, Japan was reeling under the effects of an economic stagnation that had dragged on for around 7 years. The Lost Decade, as they call it, refers to the ten years following the burst of the Japanese economic bubble in 1991-92. With jobs lost and a stagnated economy, the Japanese were angst-ridden with no seeming relief in sight. Then along came Muthu, with Rajinikanth flaunting his swag, his signature dance moves and clothes that are poles apart from the Japanese's aesthetic -the same things that make Indian fans go wild. Muthu is, in short, the story of a hard-working, loyal and kind person who looks after the horses of a zamindar. The Japanese saw a kindred spirit in Muthu and soon took a liking to the superstar. The movie ran for 23 weeks and earned $1.6 million. Since then, there has been a cult following in Japan.
The adulation that the superstar sees in India can only be challenged by the Japanese. They even have a name for Rajinikanth - Odori Maharaja or the dancing maharaja. Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in an attempt to strike a chord, invoked the Odori Maharaja during his 2006 address to a joint session of the Japanese parliament, the Diet. Unlike what the Japanese are known for, the parliamentarians broke into applause at the mention of Odori Maharaja.
There are Rajinikanth fan clubs and associations in Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe that hold meetings and get-togethers frequently. Muthu did not only introduce Rajinikanth to the Japanese, it also introduced the Indian way of life to the citizens. Fans opened yoga studios, Indian restaurants that offered dishes like rasam, vada and sambhar, Indian movie-style dancing classes and started mehendi services. In fact, in his address Manmohan Singh said that now the number of Indian restaurants has significantly increased in Japan. Some fans have even started frequenting Chennai as show of their affection to the star, while some learned Tamil to feel closer to the star.
A Newsweek report even said that the superstar had "supplanted Leonardo DiCaprio as Japan's trendiest heartthrob". Although movies like Ejaman, Badsha, Robo and Arunachalam were released in Japan and they did well, they never replicated the success of Muthu.
If one is left wondering how the Japanese fans can relate to Thalaivar who is so conspicuously different from them - culturally, stylistically and cinematically - one just needs to understand that cinema and culture can never be bound by borders.