Superstars in Chennai emerge from cinema or politics or both. Then came along a cricketer from Ranchi
It begins when he steps over the boundary. A rasping chant. A name.
"Baashha!" A drumroll. "Baashha!" Another drumroll.
There are urgent bars of instrumental orchestration, and as they swell to a crescendo, a voice pierces the air: "Let's welcome the new batsman, Mahendra Singh… Dhoniiiiiiiiii!"
The timing is just right. The announcer's voice gives way to the power-packed vocals of SP Balasubrahmanyam.
Pattalathu nadaya paaru
Pagai nadungum padaya paaru
Coatu suitu rendum eduthu
Poattu nadakkum puliya paaru
Behold the warrior-like stride
Behold the army that sends
shudders down enemy spines
Behold the tiger in coat and suit
By this time, MS Dhoni has walked from the boundary edge to the far end of the pitch, sharing a word with his batting partner along the way. He marks his guard now, and kicks a piece of debris off the pitch.
Sutterikkum vizhiya paaru
Raththam vervai rendum konda
Raajaangathin mannan dhaanadaa
Behold the eyes that burn
like a blazing fire
Of blood and sweat
Is the kingdom he rules
He lifts his arms, loosening his jersey at the shoulders. He takes in the fielders' positions as he adjusts his gloves and helmet grille, and shifts his gaze down the pitch, straight at his adversary.
Ivan perukkule kaantham undu unmaidhaanadaa
There's kaantham in his name, it's true
There's kaantham in his name, it's true
The repetition of the last line reinforces its multiple meanings. Kaantham can mean magnetism, beauty, electricity. It can mean any of those things and all of them.
There is film music at every IPL venue, but this is different. This is the title track from the 1995 blockbuster Baashha, probably the first movie you'd show someone seeking a crash course on the phenomenon of Rajinikanth, and the kaantham in his name. This isn't just any Rajini song, but a Rajini intro song (re-intro song in this case, housed within a flashback). The grandiose lyrics, glorifying an all-powerful hero, work within the universe of a Rajini film precisely because of the poetic licence at play: the hero wouldn't be all-powerful or worthy of glorification without his millions of fans accepting it, and demanding it.
"Baashha Paaru" would backfire as a background track in most other contexts; to play it when just any batter walks to the crease is to risk slathering the entire exercise in irony. To play it when Sir Ravindra Jadeja or Lord Shardul Thakur makes an entrance, for instance, would be to reduce both the player and Rajini to the level of the Chuck Norris jokes that all three have been the subject of, jokes that exemplify how misunderstood Rajini is outside South India. To play a Rajini intro song for the wrong player, in Chennai, would amount to sacrilege.
Every once in a while, though, a cricketer comes along and emboldens the stadium DJ to reach into his Rajini repertoire, and something just clicks. At least 75% of the crowd is in Chennai Super Kings yellow, and 99% of the yellow shirts have DHONI and 7 on their backs. The MA Chidambaram Stadium, eardrum-splitting at most times during CSK games, becomes a pulsing bowl of pure noise.
Dhoni's presence is enough, in and of itself, to spark frenzied scenes at Chepauk. He doesn't even need to be playing a cricket match - some 12,000 fans turned up to watch a CSK training session in the lead-up to the 2019 IPL season, and greeted him like this:
Overlaid on that kind of adulation, a background track might seem like an intrusion, turning a spontaneous celebration of a cricketing hero into a manufactured spectacle. Over the two months of IPL 2023, however, Senthil Kumar, aka DJ Zen, made it work. The tracks he chose, particularly those that accompanied Dhoni to the crease, didn't just add a layer to Chepauk's atmosphere, they seemed to both draw from and heighten an emotion already present within the fans. Along the way Zen became something of a celebrity, appearing in a slew of media interviews after his background scores to Dhoni's Chepauk entrances went viral.
"My Instagram account now has 23.7 million views," Zen tells me a day after he DJ-ed his last match of the season, the Eliminator between Mumbai Indians and Lucknow Super Giants.
Senthil Kumar aka DJ Zen, CSK's official DJ, has provided the soundtrack to Dhoni's walks to the crease
Senthil Kumar aka DJ Zen, CSK's official DJ, has provided the soundtrack to Dhoni's walks to the crease Karthik Krishnaswamy
That number has no doubt grown substantially since then, not least from my repeated viewings of Dhoni's entrances. There is something mesmerising about them, his walk to the crease and pre-first-ball routine in eerie synchrony with the background track. Zen tries to make this happen with his choice of tracks and how he crops them, but acknowledges that it's mostly out of his control. He takes the example of CSK's first home game of the season, against Lucknow Super Giants. On that day he chose a song from the recent Kamal Haasan starrer Vikram to accompany Dhoni's walk to the crease: "Once Upon a Time, There Lived a Ghost."
It was the perfect choice: this was Dhoni's first game in Chennai in nearly four years, and his first competitive game of any kind since IPL 2022. Zen says he was initially torn between that song and another from the same movie, "Nayagan Meendum Varaan" - "The Hero Returns", with the word nayagan playing on the title of one of Kamal's most celebrated films.
"Instinctively I went for 'Once Upon a Time', because we also roughly calculated the duration it takes for the player to reach the pitch," Zen says. "So approximately, if you're [batting] at the [opposite end from the DJ's console], it takes 30 to 45 seconds, whereas if you're at [the near] end, it takes 45 seconds to one minute because they have to walk the whole pitch length. This song had about 30-35 seconds of intro music and then the 'once upon a time'. So I kind of had that in mind, but you really can't be 100% planned about it. He'll have conversations with the other player, or he'll directly come to [his end], so we roughly calculated it, and it just clicked. The moment he went there, he tapped his bat on the ground and the [vocal] track opened."
The same sort of timing is evident in the most popular video on Zen's Instagram (2.2 million likes and counting), Dhoni's entry against Delhi Capitals. For this Zen spliced together two tracks from Rajini's 1999 film Padayappa: the instrumental theme followed by lines pulled from the hero's intro song. Having reached his end, Dhoni plays a couple of shadow drives, takes guard, and then simply stands still, with bat leaning against his thigh, while the fielders arrange themselves around him. At this point:
Tamizh thaai naadu thandha anbu podhume
I don't need garlands or a crown of gold
The love of my Tamil motherland is enough
"Rajini is not Tamilian by birth, but everybody sees him as a Tamil guy, right? Dhoni is someone who is like that now," Zen says. "He is nowhere related to Tamil by birth, but now he's one of the most celebrated names in Tamil Nadu. Those lyrics are perfect - how it suited Rajini, it suits Dhoni the same way."
Rajinikanth, born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad to a Marathi-speaking family in Bangalore, made his Tamil film debut in 1975. He continues to pronounce Tamil words in odd and idiosyncratically Rajini ways: to take three iconic examples from Baashha alone, ulla po (go inside) becomes ulley po, anga paaru (look there) becomes angey paar, and oru dhadava (once) becomes oru dhadavey. It isn't a flaw; it's just another quirk that endears him to Tamil audiences.
Dhoni, whose family has roots in the hills of Kumaon in present-day Uttarakhand, grew up in Ranchi - formerly in Bihar and now the capital of Jharkhand - which is separated from Chennai by over 1700km of road. In November 2018 he made an Instagram video featuring his daughter Ziva. She asks him how he is, and he replies that he is well. They have this conversation first in Bhojpuri, and then in Tamil.
A sand sculpture at Chennai's Elliot beach that appeared after CSK narrowly lost the 2019 IPL final calls Dhoni "Our leader, our pride"
Arun Sankar / © AFP/Getty Images
A sand sculpture at Chennai's Elliot beach that appeared after CSK narrowly lost the 2019 IPL final calls Dhoni "Our leader, our pride" Arun Sankar / © AFP/Getty Images
It's a sign of how much of her life Ziva has spent in Chennai and around the CSK ecosystem that her "Epdi irukkeenga?" sounds like a three-year-old Tamil speaker could have articulated it. Dhoni's "Nalla irukken", however, retains a characteristic North Indian flavour.
Before the IPL and Chennai Super Kings, there were the Indian Cricket League and Chennai Super Stars. If the name didn't tell you already, this ad laid out exactly in whose image the team would be built. The captain and star player is, essentially, a comic-book Rajini, who, batting helmetless while chewing a toothpick, commands the ball to stop just before it reaches him, asks the crowd where they want him to hit it - "Outside!" - and proceeds to grant them their wish.
You could read this as representing a yearning within Chennai for a cricketing hero with Rajini-like characteristics: a man capable of hitting a cricket ball in extraordinary ways, yes, and a man with a stylish, alpha-male vibe, but above all, a man of the masses.
Into this breach stepped Dhoni. He's a man of reasonable privilege in the context of India the country - a Rajput (a caste group that, in the majority of Indian states, falls outside the list of oppressed communities that qualify for affirmative action) educated in a reputed English-medium school - but an earthy outsider in the context of India the cricket team, which until the decade of his arrival had mostly been populated by big-city types with big-city ways of being.
Dhoni's journey had taken him to unusual places, such as the railway station in Kharagpur, West Bengal, where he was employed as a ticket collector in his early cricketing days - another parallel with Rajini, who had been a bus conductor before he became a movie star - and he played in the manner of a small-town autodidact, a manner, perhaps, relatable to the man in the crowd.
"[T]he kind of cricket I play, everyone in the stadium feels they can play that kind of cricket because there's nothing orthodox about it," Dhoni said after CSK won the IPL final, when he tried to make sense of the churning seas of yellow that had chanted his name throughout the season, not just in Chennai but all over the country. "I feel they can relate to me more than anyone else."
There's nothing orthodox about Dhoni's cricket, and there's a highly individual flair too: the whirling wristwork of his helicopter shot; the back-foot slap through extra cover, powered by a hip swivel that lifts him off his feet; the incongruous straight-battedness of his leg-side bunts for two; the no-give keeping technique against spin that makes him the quickest stumper on the planet.
Skin in the game: alpha male, deeply individual, a thinker and a man of the masses - Dhoni has imprinted himself in India's consciousness
© Getty Images
Skin in the game: alpha male, deeply individual, a thinker and a man of the masses - Dhoni has imprinted himself in India's consciousness © Getty Images
In this, too, Chennai perhaps saw echoes of Rajini and the whirlwind flourishes of his on-screen gestures. He had this mesmerising way of inhabiting a screen right from the time he threw open the gates of Tamil cinema - it's literally how he makes his entrance in his debut film - and fans responded to it from the start, even if he spent most of his early years playing either outright villains or complex characters with negative shades.
The ingredients that coalesced into the later Rajini were already present in the early Rajini. The characters he played in Mullum Malarum and Aval Appadithan (both 1978) were nothing like the bulletproof do-gooders he would come to be synonymous with, but in those films he was already doing recognisably Rajini things: speaking of himself in the third person while delivering "punch" dialogues, for instance, and making smoking look dangerously stylish.
By the time Rajini became Superstar, in the early 1980s, he was fully formed: an actor with a sizeable fan following, a performer coming to grips with the boundless potential of his charisma. The industry would embellish Rajini's image with layers of careful mythmaking in the decades to come, but there was always something organic at the core of his relationship with his fans - pretenders to his status have often lacked this.
When the IPL began, there was a distinctly synthetic flavour to the relationship between its teams and the cities they claimed to represent. Chennai's cricket fans may have had to go through a period of adjusting to the reality that Matthew Hayden and Parthiv Patel were representing them when they walked out to open CSK's batting. But they probably took an instant liking to the idea that Dhoni would be their captain. When he arrived at CSK, Dhoni was already a fully formed fan magnet: a world-class keeper-batter with a unique, crowd-pleasing style and a proven track record in all three formats, and a captain with a T20 World Cup already in his cabinet.
It's no surprise that ARR Sriram, the vice-president of the Whistle Podu Army, a registered CSK fan club with over 2.6 million followers on Instagram, harks back to pre-IPL times on being asked when he became a Dhoni fan. He rewinds to 2005, Dhoni's first full year in international cricket, and the two ODI innings with which he first announced himself: the 148 in Visakhapatnam and the 183 not out in Jaipur. In this he's hardly alone: all of India fell in love with Dhoni then.
"I loved that long hair and flamboyance," Sriram says. "When I saw [those two innings], I was like, 'Ipdi oru kaattu adi epdi adikka mudiyum?' [How does someone hit the ball so savagely?] In his interviews then, he would say his strength came from drinking two litres of milk [daily], and I was like, 'Aha, I should do this too, and maybe I'll become like him.'"
By the time the IPL happened, Chennai already knew Dhoni and loved him; with his arrival at CSK, a stage was set for that love to become a kind of deification.
The cricketer as rock star: Dhoni came into CSK's fold having laid the foundation of his stardom with his distinctive style and a T20 trophy in his cabinet
Emmaunel Dunand / © AFP/Getty Images
The cricketer as rock star: Dhoni came into CSK's fold having laid the foundation of his stardom with his distinctive style and a T20 trophy in his cabinet Emmaunel Dunand / © AFP/Getty Images
Over all the years of watching and cheering him, fans gained an appreciation not just for the power and panache of his batting but also his gestures and mannerisms, and the way he orchestrated CSK's on-field rhythms.
"If you're at the stadium, you'll only have eyes for him - the small movements he makes, his tactics, his bowling changes, his field placements, the way he works out angles," Sriram says. He names among his favourite Dhoni moments two instances of tactical acumen: placing Hayden at an unusually straight mid-off, almost right behind the bowler, for Kieron Pollard during the 2010 IPL final (Pollard was caught there, almost inevitably); and moving a fifth fielder into the off-side 30-yard ring during the 2023 Qualifier, to have Hardik Pandya caught by that fielder moments later.
"Just from watching the players, he executes his plan," Sriram says. "It's very instinct-driven, not driven by numbers."
It's clear how deep Sriram's identification with his thala is when he reveals that Dhoni's 42nd birthday will coincide with another special occasion.
"My wedding is on 7th July," he says. "They had given me three-four dates for the muhurtam, but when I saw July 7, I chose it because it was already going to be a memorable day. Now it will be even more auspicious."
It isn't rare for Tamil Nadu, and Tamil cinema in particular, to embrace outsiders. Examples abound. Playback singers TM Soundararajan, PB Sreenivas, P Susheela, SP Balasubrahmanyam, S Janaki, KJ Yesudas and KS Chithra dominated the industry from the 1950s to the early 2000s; none of them spoke or speak Tamil as their first language. The two biggest female stars of Tamil cinema at the turn of the century were Simran and Jyothika, both North Indians born in Mumbai. Ajith, one of the leading male stars of the last two decades, was born to a Malayali father and a Sindhi mother.
The biggest example, of course, is of MG Ramachandran, or simply MGR, who was born in Kandy, in British-ruled Ceylon, to a Malayali family, and went on to command a level of adulation that perhaps dwarfed even that which Rajini enjoyed after him. MGR went from starring in populist entertainers drenched in political messaging to serving three terms, spanning over a decade cumulatively, as Tamil Nadu's chief minister.
The MGR story illustrates another truth about Tamil Nadu: cinema permeates every corner of daily life there in a way it does in few other cultures. It has defined the state's politics for over half a century. The only two Tamil Nadu chief ministers who served for longer than MGR were closely tied to his film career. Mentor-turned-antagonist M Karunanidhi wrote a number of MGR's scripts. J Jayalalithaa, MGR's protégée and eventual successor, acted opposite him in many of his later films.
Actors play MGR and Jayalalitha - both long-time chief ministers - in a show during an election campaign. In Tamil Nadu, films are an inescapable part of daily life
HK Rajashekar / © The India Today Group/Getty Images
Actors play MGR and Jayalalitha - both long-time chief ministers - in a show during an election campaign. In Tamil Nadu, films are an inescapable part of daily life HK Rajashekar / © The India Today Group/Getty Images
"In Tamil Nadu you'll find people who don't watch cinema but then they can't escape it in any fashion," says the film journalist Aditya Shrikrishna, who also hosts The Other Banana, a podcast on South Indian cinema. "They'll see memes, they'll see it used in politics - I mean, a political rally will have [film] songs. You can't have a political rally even today without MGR songs."
Shrikrishna likens the Chepauk DJ's choices of entry music to the effortless way Tamil internet memes - a subject he has explored in depth - riff on scenes or songs or dialogues from Tamil films to comment on events in the wider world.
"The Tamil meme is really at its peak during elections and during the IPL," he says. "You have a reference for everything, you have a dialogue for every moment. And they make fun of other teams too, it's not just about CSK. That's how they communicate."
Many of the nicknames fans have given CSK's players also exist in this intersection of Tamil cinema and memes. Thooku Durai, given to Faf du Plessis for the way he lifts his bat high in his stance, is the name of Ajith's character in Viswasam (2019) - the word thooku means raise or lift (and, in its darker noun form, a noose). Parasakthi Express, for Imran Tahir, refers both to the legspinner's wicket-taking celebrations - exultant sprints that sometimes take him all the way to the boundary rope - and a line of dialogue from the landmark 1952 film Parasakthi, where Sivaji Ganesan says "Odinaal, odinaal, vaazhkaiyin orathirkke odinaal." [She ran, she ran, she ran to the very edges of life.]
There's a meme-ness to some of Zen's song choices at CSK games too. When Jadeja walked out against Kolkata Knight Riders, for instance, he played "Mannipaaya?" ["Will you forgive me?"] from the 2010 film Vinnaithandi Varuvaayaa. This happened days after Jadeja had complained, perhaps only half-joking, about the Chepauk fans' tendency to cheer his dismissal if Dhoni was next in.
Zen says he played the song to ask Jadeja for forgiveness on Chennai's behalf. As it turned out, most fans interpreted it differently, that Jadeja had been ventriloquised into asking forgiveness for having come out ahead of Dhoni.
It also helps Zen that Tamil cinema is chock-full of songs made to backdrop the alpha-male hero's entry. Intro songs became a Tamil cinema staple during MGR's reign; they have remained integral to populist mass films ever since, no matter who has fronted them.
The mass film and the intro song were once central features of Hindi cinema too - a number of Rajini films, in fact, are remakes of Amitabh Bachchan superhits from the 1970s and '80s - but they have become increasingly peripheral there. While working-class protagonists and working-class concerns haven't entirely disappeared from Bollywood, the defining male protagonist of commercial Hindi cinema tends to be the privileged globetrotter rather than the angry young man. The music at IPL stadiums outside South India tends to reflect this.
A giant cutout of actor Rajinikanth is bathed in milk, much like deities in temples are, before the theatrical premiere of his 2016 film Kabali
Arun Sankar / © AFP/Getty Images
A giant cutout of actor Rajinikanth is bathed in milk, much like deities in temples are, before the theatrical premiere of his 2016 film Kabali Arun Sankar / © AFP/Getty Images
"I have not watched an IPL match outside Chepauk, but they probably play the latest [Bollywood] club numbers in other stadiums, right?" Shrikrishna asks. I reply that they typically do. "Typically. So it's not easily identifiable with a single person or any such thing.
"But there are so many style-and-swagger-based songs and numbers in Tamil, so it's easy to associate a song with a player, or associate a movie reference with a player.
"The culture of the hero's walk, the swagger, even how you film it - feet first, low angle - it's there in all cinema, but maybe some other industries have given up on it. Tamil has never given up on it."
With the Tamil mass hero came uniquely Tamil forms of hero worship. In The Image Trap: MG Ramachandran in Film and Politics, the social scientist MSS Pandian notes:
"The ebullient crowds gathered to watch MGR films burn camphor before larger-than-life cutouts of the hero and distribute buttermilk and water to the populace - as one would do before a Hindu deity during temple festivals. It may be noted here that it is indeed a thin line that divides entertainment from ritual and various kinds of social festivities in rural Tamil Nadu. MGR films are located in this interface between entertainment and ritual."
It is now over 35 years since MGR died, but such scenes are still commonplace in theatres across Tamil Nadu. In the hours leading up to the predawn opening shows of films featuring Tamil cinema's biggest stars, fans often perform a paal abishekam, dousing towering cutouts of the star with milk, a practice drawn from temple priests' ritual bathing of deities' idols.
There's a sense of ritual to the fans' wait for the hero's entry scene: a word often used in this context is dharisanam, a direct reference to Hindu ritual and the first sighting of the deity at a temple. In the case of Rajini's films, the fans receive their dharisanam even before their demigod has appeared on screen.
In most of his films since Annamalai in 1991, the opening credits have announced Rajini's name in the same way. The words SUPER STAR appear, letter by letter, in blue dotted capitals on a black background, accompanied by a rousing tune with vague echoes of James Bond and the Pink Panther. Then the word RAJNI (there's never an I between the J and the N here, for some reason, though his name is usually spelled with one), spelled out in gold. Each time this happens, the air explodes with cheers, whistles and sometimes even the blast of firecrackers.
Something similar happens at CSK's home games, when the stadium announcer calls out the playing XIs. You can judge how popular each player is by the noise that greets his name; Dhoni's, of course, is a cue for pandemonium.
S Chockalingam, the man behind CSK's Whistle Podu campaign: "When anybody hears the whistle, there should be only one team that comes to mind, so that's how it was born"
Karthik Krishnaswamy / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
S Chockalingam, the man behind CSK's Whistle Podu campaign: "When anybody hears the whistle, there should be only one team that comes to mind, so that's how it was born" Karthik Krishnaswamy / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
During IPL games at Chepauk, the thousands of yellow plastic whistles in the stands produce an astonishing range of effects. Amid the indecipherable morse code of short and long blasts from all directions, whistlers with skill and ambition make themselves stand out. Some trill out an insistent, drill sergeant's tune that echoes the beat of empty plastic bottles on chair backrests, from a time when bottles were allowed into Indian stadiums. Some perform ululations of the kind that exorcise evil spirits. Contesting artistes engage in jugalbandis, challenge thrown from one corner of the stand, response emerging from another.
There is, in this agreeable din, an echo of cinema theatres past and present. CSK were only tapping into an already existing fan culture when they first asked their fans to Whistle podu, ahead of IPL 2009, which was held in South Africa because of the general elections in India at the time.
S Chockalingam, Chocka for short, is the creative director at OPN Advertising, which handled CSK's branding and social media from 2008 to 2020. He can't help but smile when he recalls the circumstances surrounding the birth of "Whistle Podu".
"Dhoni and other big names were going straight to South Africa, so we weren't even going to see them," Chocka says. "A few other players were coming to Chennai before going to South Africa. We usually get 15-20 minutes per player, so we planned the entire shoot within those 15-20 minutes - can we make them say something, make them be part of an anthem?
"We obviously knew they can't sing, and we didn't have the time also, and we didn't know what to make them sing. We thought, let's try to do something with whistles. The whistle idea came from us being Rajini fans. We said, can we own that signature? When anybody hears the whistle, there should be only one team that comes to mind, so that's how it was born."
The lyrics of "Whistle Podu" also gave rise to the epithet now synonymous with Dhoni. It came about in an entirely organic, spontaneous way, the product of a jam session involving musicians Aravind Murali and Jaishankar Iyer - then relative unknowns, now national-award-winning composers - and DJ Ravi, who ended up writing the lyrics and singing the song.
Enga ooru Chennaikku periya whistle adinga!
Enga Thala Dhonikku periya whistle adinga!
Belt out a big whistle for Chennai Super Kings!
Belt out a big whistle for our city Chennai!
Belt out a big whistle for our leader Dhoni!
The word thala, leader, simply happened to fit the tune, and Dhoni's persona and role within the team. That there was already a thala in Tamil cinema, Ajith, was a risk the creators were willing to take.
Thala story: Ajith, the actor originally bestowed with the moniker, now shares it with Dhoni
© NurPhoto/Getty Images
Thala story: Ajith, the actor originally bestowed with the moniker, now shares it with Dhoni © NurPhoto/Getty Images
"Of course, a lot of Ajith fans are still upset with us," Chocka says. "We still get abuse on social media. 'There's only one thala. How can you call Dhoni Thala?' You have to mute those conversations, because they'll call us every name [possible]. But most people have accepted that Dhoni is also thala."
South Indian stars have always had honorific titles. MGR was both Makkal Thilagam (the Pride of the People) and Puratchi Thalaivar (Revolutionary Leader). Jayalalithaa, who took over his political mantle, took the female version of that title, Puratchi Thalaivi. MGR's great contemporary Sivaji Ganesan was Nadigar Thilagam (the Pride of Acting). Fans of Kamal Haasan, Sivaji's successor as Tamil cinema's foremost acting talent, call him Ulaganayagan (World Hero), and even Aandavar (God).
Ajith's fiercest rival from his own generation, Vijay, was initially Ilaya Thalapathy (young Thalapathy) - a moniker that proclaimed he was, essentially, the successor to Rajini, who had starred in the 1991 film Thalapathi - and is now just Thalapathy, which again means commander or leader.
Since the early 1980s, Rajini has always been credited as Superstar (Tamil cinema also has a Lady Superstar in Nayanthara, who earned that title while delivering a string of hits from the mid-2000s to the early 2010s). But partly organically and partly, perhaps, as a reaction to Thala and Thalapathy, Rajini is also widely referred to as Thalaivar. Another word for leader.
The dawn of the IPL coincided with a period in Tamil cinema during which digitisation and the rise of multiplexes changed the nature of audiences at movie halls. In the essay "Will the Real Kollywood Fan Please Stand Up? Tamil Film Fandom in the New Millennium", the media anthropologist Roos Gerritsen explores the effect this had on both the nature of the films Tamil cinema was producing and how they were being consumed.
Examining the 2010 Rajini release Enthiran, Gerritsen notes that first-day-first-show tickets, until then the preserve of Rajini's fan clubs, now went on sale, online, to the wider public. This, and a concurrent rise in ticket prices, contributed to what Gerritsen calls a gentrification of the theatre audience, a shift from "working-class and poor young men" to "primarily middle-class families, men and women and children".
Within this new, upwardly mobile audience, though, Gerritsen identifies a growing nostalgia for an older and more "authentic" form of working-class fan culture - paal abishekams and all - that they may have previously disdained. These displays of fandom, she observes, became as much of a spectacle for consumption as the films themselves: "[T]he figure of the fan has become a figure of nostalgia, sought after by others than the members of the 'fan audience' themselves. The fan has become an experience, an afterimage."
The Dhoni live experience is a privilege not everyone can afford
The Dhoni live experience is a privilege not everyone can afford © BCCI
Gerritsen's essay opens with a description of the scenes at 4am at Rohini Theater in Koyambedu - a venue noted for its first-day-first-show celebrations - ahead of the near-simultaneous Pongal 2019 releases of Rajini's Petta and Ajith's Viswasam. There is the obligatory paal abishekam, and there are drums and firecrackers, but what sets the scene apart from those of earlier decades are the smartphone cameras, wielded both by the insider fan at the centre of the spectacle and the outsider fan fascinated by it, and the cameras of the news channels covering the releases.
The scenes at Chepauk during CSK games aren't all that different. The fans are there for the sporting contest but they are also there for the experience of fandom itself: performing it, recording it, and sharing it with the wider world. Dhoni's entrances this season were captured from every vantage point at Chepauk, and shared widely on social media with the obligatory fire emoji and goosebumps hashtag. They have become a media story too, grist for articles like this one.
There is also, probably, a fair overlap between Rajini's gentrified fan base and IPL crowds at Chepauk, which tend to be largely drawn from the affluent classes. This is almost out of necessity, because IPL tickets are both expensive and scarce.
Ticket sales at Chepauk for IPL 2023 told a tale of supply falling well short of demand. The Indian Express reported a thriving black-market trade, with racketeers hoovering up tickets worth Rs 2000 ($24) apiece and selling them for upwards of Rs 5000 ($60).
Not all Dhoni fans, then, can afford Dhoni dharisanam.
N Srinivasan, former BCCI president and ICC chairman, and head honcho at India Cements, which owns the CSK franchise, likes to tell the tale of how he bagged Dhoni at the first IPL auction.
Five other teams had committed to having an icon player - Mumbai Indians (Sachin Tendulkar), Kolkata Knight Riders (Sourav Ganguly), Royal Challengers Bangalore (Rahul Dravid), Kings XI Punjab (Yuvraj Singh) and Delhi Daredevils (Virender Sehwag).
"They asked me [if I wanted an icon player]," Srinivasan recalled at the Sportstar Sports Conclave last year. "I said no. Because my father taught me some arithmetic."
Arithmetic, my dear Watson: N Srinivasan has said bagging Dhoni for CSK in 2008 was simply a result of number crunching
Arithmetic, my dear Watson: N Srinivasan has said bagging Dhoni for CSK in 2008 was simply a result of number crunching © AFP
The icon player would have to be paid 15% more than the team's highest earner at the auction. With every team's total spending on players capped at $5 million, Srinivasan calculated that having an icon player would not allow him to raise high enough bids to secure a coveted asset such as Dhoni, who was then already India's white-ball captain but had no geographical links to the cities that owned the eight original IPL franchises.
Mumbai came closest to outbidding CSK, but arithmetic won out in the end. By the time the auctioneer asked for a bid of $1.5 million, Mumbai pulled out, realising that bidding any further would mean spending more than three-fifths of their entire purse on just two players.
"It was 100% arithmetic, no other reason why we got him. [Mumbai's] anxiety to get their favourite player was greater than the arithmetic."
It's a good story, but it's only half the story. Mumbai made Tendulkar their icon player because he was a homegrown legend. There was no one of remotely similar stature playing for Tamil Nadu at the time. L Balaji and Dinesh Karthik, the state team's two biggest names at that point, were India players but not regulars, while R Ashwin and M Vijay, who would go on to become Tamil Nadu's highest Test wicket-taker and run-getter respectively, were yet to make their India debuts.
Before Ashwin and Vijay, Tamil Nadu's most successful internationals had been good cricketers who fell a fair way short of being world-beaters: S Venkataraghavan and Kris Srikkanth captained India in Test cricket, but they were, respectively, an offspinner with a mid-30s bowling average and an opening batter with a high-20s batting average.
Tamil Nadu's players have always tended to be characters - "Tell Dennis Lillee I have arrived," the opener TE Srinivasan, who played one Test match, is reported to have announced when India landed in Australia for their 1980-81 tour - but they haven't always had mass appeal. Among the many reasons for this is one uncomfortable fact: a disproportionate number of Tamil Nadu's players have tended to come from the Anglophone Brahmin elite that only represents an estimated 3% of the state's population.
Whether this is by accident or design is hotly debated. The 2014 film Jeeva, whose eponymous protagonist is a talented cricketer from an unspecified non-Brahmin caste, makes the outright allegation that caste bias runs through the power structures of Tamil Nadu cricket. In one scene, as the TNCA president presents the Player-of-the-Match award in a club game, he pats Jeeva's back and his hand lingers for a prolonged moment.
"I thought he was patting my back," Jeeva says, in voice-over. "I didn't realise he was stroking it" - stroking it to feel for the knotted thread Brahmins wear round their upper bodies.
Kamal Haasan (far right), erudite, experimental, controversial, is not an everyman hero in Tamil Nadu
© PA Photos/Getty Images
Kamal Haasan (far right), erudite, experimental, controversial, is not an everyman hero in Tamil Nadu © PA Photos/Getty Images
The Tamil Nadu team has grown more diverse over recent seasons, which have coincided with an increase in the representation of players from districts outside Chennai, most of them from non-Brahmin backgrounds. The Tamil Nadu Premier League, which began in 2016, and the talent hunts that accompanied its growth, have contributed to widening the selection net.
At the time the IPL began, though, the Tamil Nadu team was overwhelmingly Brahmin - they made up, for instance, over half of the XI that lost to Uttar Pradesh in the 2008-09 Ranji Trophy semi-final. The team, then, was filled with cricketers of a certain type: not unrelatable to the broader fan base, but not easily relatable either. The state's greatest player by far, Ashwin, probably exemplifies this: he's loved by Chennai's crowds, but he's loved in a Kamal Haasan way rather than a Rajini way.
Among the many epithets he is known by, Kamal is also Sakalakala Vallavan (master of every art). He is celebrated for his acting, but he has also written and directed numerous films, and sung a number of his own songs. At his best he has pushed the boundaries of commercial Tamil cinema; at his worst, his films have suffered from an unchecked tendency to narcissism. To his fans he is boundlessly knowledgeable about history, politics, art and world cinema; what his critics think of this can be summed up by a quote from his first wife, Vani Ganapathy: "Kamal can talk about anything. He's the sort of person who can read the first and last pages of a book and discuss it at length."
Ashwin is more Rajini fan than Kamal fan, but his career has had a distinctly Kamal tinge to it. He's a relentless experimenter, for which he has earned both high praise and relentless criticism. He has tried to push the boundaries of cricket's laws to earn any advantage he possibly can, and fronts a popular YouTube channel on which he doesn't just talk cricket but also interviews non-cricket celebrities, including notable figures from Tamil cinema. To his fans he is one of cricket's great thinkers; to his detractors he's the game's biggest overthinker.
Kamal is a celebrated figure in Tamil Nadu, but he has never enjoyed Rajini's mass following. There's the fact of Kamal's Brahmin background, but there's more to it. There's a mystique to Rajini and Dhoni because they keep their lives hidden from public view, leaving blanks for their fans to fill.
"Kamal is his own man," Shrikrishna says. "He's had his share of controversies, and he's very public about his personal life, so he doesn't have the kind of aura Rajini has, or some political figures, or Vijay and Ajith, or even [the composer AR] Rahman for that matter. That humility - or the humility that the outside world sees - is what works in their favour. It appeals to a Tamil Nadu audience.
Dhoni's balance of humility and swagger has given him a sort of universal appeal
Dhoni's balance of humility and swagger has given him a sort of universal appeal © BCCI
"The way [Dhoni] kind of hides himself in the background, but when he's on the field, when he's batting, you have the Dhoni style and swagger - I think that mix appeals to the kind of audience Tamil Nadu is. It's a very potent combo that has worked and it will never not work."
Just as the scope of Rajini's roles narrowed, with a few notable exceptions, the deeper he dived into superstardom, so Dhoni became, as the years went by, more and more CSK's thala to the exclusion of other roles. He gave up Test cricket in late 2014, stepped down from India's white-ball captaincy in early 2017, and retired from international cricket after the 2019 World Cup.
Since then, the IPL is the only competitive cricket he has played. It has forced his fans to adjust to a new reality, of getting to watch him for only two months each year, with the knowledge that this too will cease in the not-too-distant future.
It has added a new dimension to their adulation. If watching Dhoni as a fan during the last years of his international career was fraught with anxiety, given that his place in India's XI ahead of younger challengers was a constant source of debate, it has become a warmer and fuzzier experience since his India retirement. Watching him in the IPL has become a celebratory experience, a shared act of thanksgiving for all he has achieved in the past.
Captaincy has always been a significant contributor to Dhoni's aura - his instructions to bowlers and fielders, captured on stump mic, have an affectionately chiding tone that might remind CSK fans, at least subliminally, of the older-brother characters Rajini has often played. Of late, with his batting showing the effects of age and slowing reflexes, captaincy has become more central to his appeal. CSK have remained a title-winning force in this time and Dhoni's leadership has seemed to make a tangible impact on their fortunes. He gave up captaincy in the lead-up to the 2022 season, and took it back after CSK lost six of their eight matches under Jadeja. Back under Dhoni, they won four of their last six games of that season, and kept that momentum going through their triumphant 2023 campaign.
"We know what happened when he wasn't the captain, and the change was so significant once he stepped back into the shoes of captain," says Manya Pilani, an Ahmedabad-born Bengaluru-based data scientist, who is a vocal CSK and Dhoni fan on social media. "Everybody had made peace with the fact that you're not supposed to expect a lot from a 41-year-old guy. You don't care if he scores 400 runs in the tournament or 300 runs, you're fine if he's just leading the team in the right direction and grooming the next captain and all that.
"His batting performances didn't matter that much. Whatever two-three balls people could see of him, they would not expect a lot out of it. It sort of relieved the pressure on you as well."
It was in this low-expectations frame of mind that Pilani travelled to Chennai for her first-ever experience of Chepauk: CSK's first home game of the 2023 season, against Lucknow Super Giants. CSK batted first, and the crowd greeted every wicket by chanting Dhoni's name.
No. 7 army: fans at the IPL final in 2023 make clear who they have come to see
Sajjad Hussain / © AFP/Getty Images
No. 7 army: fans at the IPL final in 2023 make clear who they have come to see Sajjad Hussain / © AFP/Getty Images
"I found it really funny," Pilani says. "It was the first match of the season, and I didn't expect it to happen, but it did. I was telling my friends, he's not going to come. I know MS, he's not going to come unless he's the last [recognised] batsman. He would send Deepak Chahar over him but not come to bat. And when he walked out in the final over, you couldn't hear yourself even if you tried. You couldn't. People were going crazy."
Pilani kept her expectations resolutely low.
"He's taking his guard, he's strapping his gloves, and Mark Wood is steaming in, and I remember thinking, 'Ah, Wood, I don't think MS can do much.' If he can get a boundary or something, that would be good, but a really express bowler and MS facing his first ball, I didn't expect much.
"And then he slashed his first ball over third man. People had already started screaming, and I think there was a deep third man there, and I was like, he might get caught, but once it cleared the boundary, I went crazy. People were taking out their phones and there were flashes everywhere. The whole stadium had gone to the next level. Again, nobody cared about what happened off the next ball. Nobody really cared about the total that CSK were going to get. I cared a little bit, but in that moment I was like, yeah okay, cool, what's he going to do now?"
What he was going to do was, well, Rajiniesque.
"The first six, if you thought people went crazy, then you had to be there for the second six," Pilani says. "The first one was just a slash, right? It barely made it over the boundary, but the second one - you love pull shots, you see your favourite batsman smacking a 150kph bowler's bouncer for six. I just remember people jumping on the seats at that moment when he hit it. You can't make sense of what is happening. People were on their seats, they were jumping, I was jumping. It was crazy. The noise, if it was possible, had gone up by a few hundred decibels more."
There's far more uncertainty in cricket than there is in the plot of the typical Rajini blockbuster, but the finisher role Dhoni plays in white-ball games gives him the chance to live through a very Rajini kind of triumph-against-the-odds narrative. There is the moment Dhoni arrives at the crease, with his team needing to stem the loss of wickets and stay in touch with a steep asking rate. He does both, but only just, all the while revealing none of the strain of the furious calculations that whir away behind the strong, silent façade as wickets tumble at the other end. He throws the odd punch, but he mostly holds back, aware that his team's best chance lies in whittling the contest down to a last-over one-on-one against a bowler who may be defending a sizeable number runs, but whose sweaty palms reveal an awareness that he is up against a supreme six-hitter with a fully loaded six-shooter.
Momentary lapse of reason: Jadeja's final-ball four to win the 2023 title prompted a rare display of unrestrained emotion from Dhoni
Momentary lapse of reason: Jadeja's final-ball four to win the 2023 title prompted a rare display of unrestrained emotion from Dhoni © BCCI
And Dhoni has an advantage over Rajini here. If the weakest bits of Annamalai and Baashha are their endings - because we know both what will happen and what simply cannot - a successful Dhoni finish always feels cathartic, because it has overcome the very real possibility of failure.
That a high-wire chase feels as cathartic to Dhoni as it does to the viewers isn't often evident in his body language. The one time Dhoni let it show was in 2010, in Dharamsala, in a must-win game against Kings XI Punjab. CSK needed 16 at the start of the final over, and Dhoni hit Irfan Pathan for 4, 2, 6, 6. When the winning hit flew into the stands, he gave full vent to his emotions and punched himself in the helmet.
It's interesting to place this next to his most famous winning six in an India shirt. When he hit Nuwan Kulasekara over long-on at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011, Dhoni remained, for a delicious moment, within his bubble of intense focus on the ball, and his bat, having completed its follow-through, performed what may well have been an entirely involuntary twirl.
These moments illustrate a wider pattern: Dhoni seldom lets his emotions show on a cricket field, but if he has let his façade crack at all, it has typically happened in CSK's yellow rather than India's blue or white.
There was, for instance, the time he marched onto the field from the dugout to argue against a no-ball call, a moment in which star power threatened to overwhelm the nominal authority of the match officials.
There was also, most recently, the climax of IPL 2023. When Jadeja's winning boundary streaked past the rope, the producers cut to a shot of Dhoni seated in the dugout with his eyes clenched shut. It later emerged that this may have been a technical glitch, and that this footage had been captured before the last ball was bowled rather than after, but imagine for a moment that the sequence of visuals we watched matched chronological reality - that the tension of that finish, and the weight of what it meant to him, reduced the man with the iciest nerves in the game to a state of not being able to watch.
What came after that was Dhoni like you've never seen him before: he sprang onto the field, wrapped Jadeja in a bear hug and lifted him off the floor.
In 2018, Rajini starred in one of the most ambitious films of his career, the Pa Ranjith-directed Kaala, set in Dharavi, the Mumbai slum that is home to a large, predominantly Dalit population of Tamil migrants. Rajini played the elder patriarch of the community, leading a protest against plans to clear their homes and replace them with a luxury gated complex. He was, as in many of his previous films, a face of underdog resistance, but where his earlier plots tended to hinge around an individual's revenge, Kaala was a call for a people's movement to overturn a system built on their oppression.
Much as fans have reconciled the dramatically different politics of Rajinikanth the film star and Rajinikanth the politician, so too have they elided the scandals that have touched Dhoni
© Associated Press
Much as fans have reconciled the dramatically different politics of Rajinikanth the film star and Rajinikanth the politician, so too have they elided the scandals that have touched Dhoni © Associated Press
The year of Kaala's release coincided with protests in Thoothukudi against the proposed expansion of the Sterlite copper smelter plant. In May 2018, police opened fire against the protesters, killing 13 people.
Addressing the media after the deaths, Rajini suggested that "anti-social elements" had infiltrated the protest and triggered the police violence. He urged the Tamil Nadu government to "crush the anti-social elements with an iron hand".
It wasn't the first time Rajini had contradicted what he stood for on screen. His past political statements have included glowing endorsements of Bal Thackeray, whose Marathi-chauvinist Shiv Sena first gained political currency in Maharashtra through a campaign of xenophobia against migrant South Indians in Mumbai.
You might think statements of this nature may have turned Rajini's fans - or at least a section of them - against him, but fandom isn't as simple as that.
I ask my friend Sooraj, a lifelong Rajini fan with leftist leanings, how he reconciles his love for Rajini with his politics. His reply goes into considerable detail: the first part of it deals with the fact that he, like a lot of Rajini fans, became a Rajini fan in his childhood, a time of instant, unthinking and unshakeable identification with a hero.
"Only after a very long time do you realise that there's a real person behind this," Sooraj says. "Only then do you realise that there is more to this image, it's not real, and it also does not align with what we as people look for in a better world. And I think at that point in time, the whole thing shatters. You ask yourself, can you make that separation between, so to speak, art and artist?"
In the contradiction between the politics of Kaala and the politics of Rajini's Thoothukudi statement, Sooraj found a counterintuitive sort of license to remain a Rajini fan.
"For somebody who acted in such a movie to not even take away its basic message gives you - gives me, at least - the leeway to make that separation [between art and artist]," he says. "At that point in time, it becomes easier to say, this is Rajini in the eyes of Ranjith, which is something you can accept, suddenly.
"Again this is not necessarily a great way of thinking of politics, I suppose, but this does happen for a lot of people, and it does help you continue to be his fan."
Not too long ago, CSK and Dhoni fans may have had to endure similar soul-searching as their team served a two-year ban from the IPL for involvement in a betting scandal that shook Indian cricket to its core. Among those implicated were Srinivasan and his son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan, a team official who had sat at CSK's auction table and in their dugout.
Fans didn't walk away from CSK, though. They didn't walk away from Dhoni either, even after he sat silent and poker-faced through a press conference, refusing to answer questions about the scandal. They didn't walk away from Dhoni when reports of his testimony in front of the Supreme-Court-appointed probe panel led to accusations that he had downplayed Meiyappan's role in CSK affairs to protect Srinivasan.
Fans sign petitions in support of Chennai Super Kings to have the team's suspension from the IPL revoked in 2015
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Fans sign petitions in support of Chennai Super Kings to have the team's suspension from the IPL revoked in 2015 © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Rather than walk away from CSK or Dhoni, a group of fans, in fact, began a "Save CSK" campaign to try and have the ban rescinded. They were never going to get their wish, but that group eventually grew into the Whistle Podu Army, easily the most prominent of CSK's fan clubs.
When I ask Sriram, who was part of that founding group, about the circumstances surrounding the birth of the fan club, his reply is simple: whatever CSK's involvement in the scandal may have been, none of their players were named in it - unlike the Rajasthan Royals trio of S Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila, who copped lengthy bans after being implicated in spot-fixing.
"We don't know exactly what happened," Sriram says. "But we were very clear that nothing wrong happened involving the players. So we were obviously backing our thala and our team. There wasn't even a small doubt."
The sheer size of the crowds that have turned up for CSK games, home and away, since the team's return to the IPL in 2018 suggests most fans have embraced a similar sort of logic. You might think it should be a little more complicated than that, given that the Mudgal committee's report on the betting scandal found Meiyappan guilty of illegal betting, and stated that Srinivasan, who was at that time the BCCI president, knew about an IPL player violating the code of conduct but took no action.
The most pointed critique of all this may have come, weirdly, in a movie starring the other thala.
In Thunivu, an Ajith film released earlier this year, the villain is a bank chairman who launches into this spiel when a journalist attempts to question his crooked ways:
"A few years ago, a cricket team was banned for fraud. Do you remember? The cricket team returned after a few years. At that time, what should the public have rightfully done? They should have protested, saying, 'You betrayed the faith we had invested in you. You brought disrepute to cricket.' They should have shown their anger.
"But what did they do? They stood in queues for hours, spent thousands to buy tickets in black. They protested for other reasons and got beaten up by the police. They said they'd sacrifice their lives for this team. What does this show? The public doesn't care about good and bad, good people and bad people. They'll forget me. I'll be back to cheat them, they'll be back to get cheated. The entertainer is their leader. The entertainer is their star."
It's clear that the betting scandal caused no dent in CSK's popularity, or Dhoni's. The two years CSK spent outside the IPL, in fact, allowed the team to build a narrative of victimhood around it.
While speaking at a CSK event before their comeback season in 2018, Dhoni visibly held back tears while speaking of the ban. Between pauses to breathe away the constriction in his throat, and before his vice-captain, Suresh Raina, rushed to him with a bottle of water, he managed to speak these words: "We went through a lot. It's never easy. And even through the tough times in life, what's important is to go through everything with a smile on your face."
I don't know if I'm a Dhoni fan - 15 years in cricket journalism have dulled my ability to watch cricket in the manner of a fan, for better or worse - but when I take my seat at Chepauk's J Upper Stand, next to my openly CSK-supporting father, I feel like one. I'm not in yellow, unlike nearly everyone else around me, but as CSK begin their innings in their Qualifier against Titans, I am, like everyone else, anxious for Dhoni to emerge.
Fans turned up in numbers in CSK's yellow all over the country during the IPL this year, like at Eden Gardens, as if acknowledging that each match could be Dhoni's last
© Getty Images
Fans turned up in numbers in CSK's yellow all over the country during the IPL this year, like at Eden Gardens, as if acknowledging that each match could be Dhoni's last © Getty Images
Once upon a time, there lived a ghost. Dhoni is a ghostly figure for most of IPL 2023; he only faces 57 balls over 12 innings, eight of them not-outs, and he scores 104 runs off those 57 balls, hitting ten of them for six.
In his 16th IPL season, Dhoni has whittled his game down to its core. If it's within his control, he only bats against the fast bowlers, and only within the last two overs. Within that restricted space he is still a force.
He is nearly 42, something like the cricketing equivalent of Rajini's 72, and is playing with a wonky knee. Retirement can't be far away.
The roar of the crowd alone gives you a fair idea of what's happening. It is deafening when Ruturaj Gaikwad and Moeen Ali hit sixes, and perhaps even more so when Dhoni, padded up, merely appears on the giant screen.
When he walks out to bat with two overs remaining, the roar obliterates everything else. I have to wait until the next morning to find out what song the DJ played - "Neruppu Da" from Kabaali, followed by a bit of Rajini dialogue from Kaala.
This is Kaala's fortress. You can't take from here even a fistful of mud.
This is Dhoni's fortress, but today isn't his day. He slaps his second ball straight into the hands of extra-cover, a preview of his first-ball dismissal in the final. An entirely inappropriate blast of synchronised fireworks goes up around the boundary edge, disturbing a moment of poignant silence within which hangs a deeply discomfiting question. Chepauk has been the scene of numerous landmark moments in Dhoni's career - among them his Test debut, a back-to-the-wall ODI century against Pakistan and a magnificent Test double-hundred against Australia, to say nothing of everything he has done here for CSK.
You wonder now if he has played his last innings here, and whether this one off two balls - brief and anticlimactic, but electrifying while it lasted - will be Chennai's last Dhoni dharisanam.
The answer, which arrives just under a week later, is a tantalising "maybe".
There is, in Dhoni's words, the kind of gratitude that Rajini, breaking the fourth wall, often conveys to his fans in his intro songs. "[I]t will be more like a gift from my side [to the fans]," Dhoni says. "It's not easy for me but the way they've shown their love and affection, that's something I need to do for them."
If he does manage another season, who's to say he'll find it any easier to let go?
Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.