Hiroyoshi Takeda is not a typical Japanese man. Instead of a suit and tie, the 39-year-old Tokyoite wears T-shirts with technicolour caricatures of a moustachioed south Indian movie star. Rather than bowing, he dances. He doesn’t ride the metro, but travels the streets in a gaudily adorned autorickshaw imported from Tamil Nadu. And the smoothness with which he can toss his hair while simultaneously removing his sunglasses is wolf-whistle worthy. In fact, in almost everything he does, Mr. Takeda channels the spirit of his shirt-hurling, cigarette-flipping, lungi-dancing hero, Tamil superstar Rajinikanth.
His popularity in the Japanese archipelago can come as a surprise. Mr. Takeda estimates there are about 3,000 members of the Rajinikanth fan club in Tokyo alone, with other clubs also active in cities like Osaka and Kobe. The fans watch Rajini movies obsessively and organise special viewings. Some, like Mr. Takeda, have even learnt Tamil.
The actor’s popularity in Japan took off in June 1998, when Muthu, called Odoru (dancing) Maharaja in Japanese, began a run that lasted for 23 weeks and grossed $1.6 million. Something in Rajini’s hyperbolic acting style, kinetic costume changes and exuberant dancing improbably clicked with the understated and reserved Japanese audience. At the time, the bursting of the Japanese asset bubble had left both the economy and many citizens themselves depressed. Rajinikanth’s zingy dialogues and irrepressible panache provided laughs, escapism and an antidote to the suppressed angst suffered by many cinemagoers.
On a June afternoon, this writer met with several members of the Tokyo Rajini fan club, all in their 30s. Shinya Asanuma, a clean-shaven, curly-haired man, recalled how he’d been gobsmacked by Rajinikanth’s expressions. “They [his expressions] were so different from us Japanese.” Mikan, a young women, explained her attraction to Muthu by its story line, which showed “how a little money is enough to live peacefully”.
The influence of Rajinikanth has been far reaching for some. In 2008, Mr. Takeda and a fellow fan, Shinji Kashima, set up a Tokyo-based south Indian food catering business called Masalawala. They now make a living serving sambar, vadas, rasam and the like in fully traditional style on banana leaves. Ms. Mikan teaches Indian movie-style dancing at a dance school in Tokyo, while Atsuko, another woman fan, has become a henna artist.
India has long exerted a civilisational…