I had failed to make a train reservation. It was the festive season and college would not reopen till a week later. I had no idea how to make a Tatkal booking online and I shuddered at the thought of rising early — around 4 am — to make the quick walk across the road from our college to the railway station and make the booking in person if I was to have a chance of landing a train berth.
So I decided to take the bus home. Long-distance travel by bus in Tamil Nadu is a fascinating, if exacting, experience. I’m not referring to the air-conditioned, heavy suspension buses that have sleeper ‘births’ similar to the ones in trains. I’m talking about the lean, metal-jangling beasts of the road with clattering windows and minuscule baggage racks. They usually have fellow passengers who doze off with old Illayaraja songs blaring from the mobiles in their shirt pockets (few carry earphones).
Some wonder if you could lend the magazine on your lap, if you’re not reading it.
These buses are a paradox. They are incredibly cramped, yet remarkably airy. If you can find a seat by the window, you’ll have the luxury of going to sleep with the moon shining down on you. You can see small towns become bigger and bigger as you near them and then vanish back into obscurity.
The tera-bad suspensions will wreak havoc on your sleep, but you can make plans.
Travel, in my opinion, is the best time to make plans. They turn out to be more optimistic if you’re seated by the window, as if the certainty of progress outside — non-negotiable, and only in one direction, forward — makes you upbeat over how you will fare in your own plans.
But traveling in these buses is by no means a simple point-to-point affair.
The vehicle would not have crossed the city limits when the first voice of concern is raised. “Yen Saar, padam podaliya?” (‘Sir, aren’t you screening a movie yet?’)
Any frequent patron of these long-distance buses will tell you that more often than not, the movies screened in the TV sets installed in these vehicles are crass offerings with an overload of violence and machismo. To listen to the speakers installed somewhere in the middle of the bus, you’d think someone was roasting corn in the background. The volume would suddenly surge during the middle of a conversation in the movie, then drop off as impulsively.
Frequent travelers like me have grown to stay unperturbed by such intrusions. We have learned to repudiate them by pretending they do not exist, even as we try to align ourselves to the rickety rhythm of our ride and fall asleep. A staple feature of most of these rides is the screening of back-to-back movies. The first movie would scarcely have ended and the ears would have just started to recuperate when the second would start. It was during one of those ‘second’ shows that I realised the magnetic effect Rajinikanth has on Tamilians.
It was well past midnight when they screened ‘Baasha,’ the second movie of the journey. ‘Baasha,’ a flick about a common man turning a dreaded don after another don kills his close friend, is agreed to have been the movie that catapulted Rajinikanth to superstardom from mere stardom. After ‘Baasha,’ Rajini pulled away into a rarefied space of stratospheric wage, expectations and pulling power. Today, his status is only getting bigger — he’s the highest paid actor in India now — 17 years after Baasha’s release in 1995.
When I was making this trip home, it had been 8 or 9 years since Baasha’s release. The film is one of the most frequently telecast on cable TV, and Rajini had starred in a handful of movies since then. However, I was curious how many were still interested in watching the film. Only a few were braving sleep and watching, with the rest content to give the flick a miss this time around.
Or so I thought. A celebrated scene in the movie has an enraged Rajini, now reformed and in disguise as an autorickshaw driver, escorting his sister to meet a minister who had demanded that she sleep with him in order to get admission to medical school. Instructing his sister to wait outside the minister’s room as he talks to the minister, Rajini reveals his bloodstained past with remarkable sang froid, a nonchalant smile playing on his lips.
(A link to the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-XicHO7ETw)
(Watch from 2.00 minutes)
We don’t get to actually hear what Rajini tells the minister, and the affair is seen only from behind a closed door. As Rajini recounts his trigger-happy days, the look of terror brought about in the minister by the revelations is what makes this scene terrific. The music director of the movie has nicked Brad Fiedel’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ theme to use in this scene, as in many other important moments in ‘Baasha’. But that should not detract from the fact that the scene remains one of the most iconic in Tamil cinema.
I knew how popular the scene was among Tamilians, so when it was about to begin, I was curious if anyone would actually wake up from sleep to watch it. I was about to turn around to check when,
Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.
Practically half the passengers in the bus were releasing the hatches of their push-back seats and sitting back upright, shaking off sleep, eyes still bleary.
They wanted to watch.
It was almost 3 am.
It was extraordinary. People waking themselves from sleep — which can be hard to earn on a bus like this — to catch a minute of a flick they might have seen hundreds of times.
It was then I understood, the pull Rajinikanth has on the ordinary Tamilian. That’s the best illustration of star power I have ever seen, including the ones in all those movies.