Who’s the boss?
“Oh! You came back!” The ticket-taker looked surprised when I handed her my printout from Indiaglitz.com. One adult admission to Sivaji: $14 paid. She’d turned me away from the previous night’s sold-out show when, having misjudged the demand for the Guild Theater’s popular Indian movie screenings, I’d failed to pre-purchase tickets. She likely remembered me because, on both nights, I’d been the only non-Indian person in a line more than 100 long.
A half hour before showtime, the corner of 35th and Broadway sang with the chatter of families and friends greeting each other in a mix of languages and swapping excited tidbits about the film. Sivaji, which had opened two weeks earlier in India, is the country’s most expensive film to date, with a budget of $16 million. Rajinikanth, the film’s singing, dancing action hero, is India’s highest paid star and, at age 57, shows no signs of dimming. Sivaji, subtitled The Boss, is his 100th picture.
I had no idea what to expect. A poster online featured a menacing Rajinikanth in dark sunglasses and a wide-legged tough-guy stance, but the flyer on the theater door showed the mustachioed actor strumming a guitar. Whether “the Boss” was more Godfather or Springsteen remained to be seen.
The ticket queue moved slowly as the Delta breeze played with the scarves of women in popsicle-colored saris: orange, lime, blue raspberry. I followed them into the crowded theater, feeling plain in my jeans.
When the lights dimmed, the audience whooped and whistled—a response that grew louder through one trailer (Rajinikanth as a gladiator in the upcoming Sultan) and a promotional short that simply spelled out “Super Star” in radiant white letters before showing the actor with windswept hair and a smile brighter than the words.
Influenced by the cheers, I applauded with enthusiasm as the film began. My eagerness ebbed slightly when I realized that, despite a rumor of subtitles posted on Indogram.com, the film was in Tamil with no English translation. I felt like the canine in that Far Side cartoon about “What dogs hear.” What I heard: “Blah blah blah Sivaji. Blah blah Sivaji. Sivaji? Blah blah. Cool.”
I rallied when Rajinikanth glided into an early scene wearing mirrored sunglasses, unwrapped two pieces of gum and ricocheted them off his palm into his mouth with Fonzie-like cool. This was one of several trademark gestures that cued the audience to swoon and holler like ’tweens at a Justin Timberlake concert. Sure it was cheesy, but the man had undeniable charisma, and the audience’s willingness to be charmed made me an instant fan of the whole experience.
And that was before the dance numbers! Though the film was technically about one software engineer’s fight to build affordable universities and hospitals despite rampant political corruption, Rajinikanth and his resplendent (and poorly dubbed) co-star Shriya Saran occasionally appeared in lavish music videos. Where MTV has dropped the ball, Indian cinema has kicked it through the goal posts. The couple sang and shimmied with throngs of backup dancers through crystal palaces, lava fields, marigold-strewn beaches, and Venetian courtyards. It was so ostentatiously distracting that it took me a while to realize these videos happened whenever the couple was about to make out. Censors take note: Viewers will forget all desire for sex scenes at the sight of 50 men in lion masks dancing in unison on a mountaintop to a catchy pop beat.
It was fascinating, but after two hours of epic song-and-dance numbers, corny comedy, and fight sequences that leaned on everything from The Matrix to El Mariachi, I was overwhelmed to discover we’d only reached intermission. Fatigued from my total lack of language comprehension, I stumbled into the Guild lobby to discover hot trays of samosas for sale. Their warm potato comfort was all I needed to see me through the second half. I doused two samosas in tamarind sauce and nodded happily when the ticket-taker-turned-samosa-server asked if I was enjoying myself.