The buzz before a Rajinikanth movie is nothing new. As sure as night follows day, the excitement among the Superstar fans is always at a fever pitch in the days leading up to the release. Massive cut-outs, queues outside theaters to buy that coveted first-day-first-show ticket, companies declaring holidays — we have seen all that before.

But, as someone who has grown up around all that buzz, I can definitively say that the expectations have never been as high for a Rajini movie as it has been for Kabali — his latest movie which will hit the theaters on Friday, 22 July. Ever since he announced the movie with a crew that did not have any of the familiar big names associated with his movies, his fans — old and new — have not been able to stop talking about how Kabali could mark a return to the era of Rajini, the actor who K. Balachander introduced to the world, and not just Rajini, the superhero who could do anything on a screen and the man who inadvertently became the butt of Chuck Norris-type jokes. 

This one promised to be different. He was going to play a role where he would play his age (at least for the majority of the movie). And the moment the teaser came out, the buzz reached previously unseen levels — just a matter of million views within a week and it now stands at a phenomenal 26 million!

“Hope this movie would put to rest the gross generalisation that Rajini is just about style, punch-dialogues and romancing actors half his age and that he can’t *actually* act.” This was the sentiment among fans who have followed him all through his meteoric rise from a bus-conductor to the greatest star of southern cinema, perhaps even Indian cinema.

And there is a good reason for that, because Rajini is a man who can act, a man who can make characters come to life just with his eyes and voice modulation. 

For those who are thinking “Oh come on, that’s such a fan-boy statement,” here’s a list of five movies where Rajini showed what a good actor he is. It was not always about flipping cigarettes in air and catching grenades, y’know?

1. Thillu Mullu – 1981

By 1981, Rajini had already developed an image of being a bad-ass action hero. Which is what makes Thillu Mullu, remake of the cult comedy Golmaal starring Amol Palekar, an unique movie in Rajini’s filmography. Rajini’s comic sense has always stood out but this remains the only out and out comedy Rajini has done till date and for that, Tamil cinema is poorer. 

While remaining faithful to the Amol Palekar original, Rajini charisma shines through the movie. The younger brother role is essayed with a brash arrogance that he had inculcated over his initial years of playing the villain.

Forbes included the performances of Rajini and Thengai Sreenivasan, the man Rajini dupes on its list, “25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema” — the list that includes Gabbar from Sholay and Amitabh Bachchan from Deewar. 

2. Mullum Malarum (1978)

“Ketta payan sir indha Kaali!” (This Kaali is a bad man)

Rajini’s Kaali in this movie, which is widely regarded as one of the milestone movies in the history of Tamil cinema, is the Walter White of Kollywood. A protagonist who adores his sister, is an occasional do-gooder but predominantly an angry young man. It is a movie which Mani Ratnam talks about fondly as the one that inspired him to make visually appealing, character-driven films. 

In fact, I’d challenge you to find any article that talks about Rajini’s brilliance as an actor without mentioning this movie. So much so that Rajini considers this to be his personal favourite in his 40 year acting career.

3. Baasha (1995)

Yes, this is still a commercial blockbuster. Yes, this is not an offbeat movie by any stretch of imagination. Yes, he was already the king of Tamil cinema.

4. Avargal (1977)

Before he became the superstar, Rajini was a villain like no other. This is what Baradwaaj Rangan, the famous Tamil movie critic, had to say about the 1977 women-centric movie where he plays a nagging husband.

“Villains have existed since the beginning of cinema, but here was someone who enjoyed doing to people what a kid with a magnifying glass would do to an ant on a sunny day. Except, he wasn’t obvious. He wasn’t a Nambiar [an erstwhile over-the-top villain] wielding a whip. He didn’t let you see that he was holding the magnifying glass, and he didn’t let you know that he regarded you as an ant. You ended up fried all the same.”

5. Thalapathy (1991)

Saving the best for the last. 

The biggest credit that can be given to Thalapathy is that, in 25 years since Mani Ratnam gave us this timeless classic, there has not been another Rajini movie which belonged to the director. Rajini was merely playing the part — a modern-day adaptation of Karna’s role in Mahabaratha — in a movie that tugs at your heartstrings and sets your pulses racing in equal measure.

Where, if at all, will Kabali feature in this list? We’ll find out soon.