A year ago superstar Rajinikanth’s action drama Petta collected more than 200 crore. Now, Rajinikanth, whose latest action thriller, Darbar, released on Thursday and garnered 32 crore on day one, is struggling to connect with young audiences.

The superstar plays a cop on a hunt for a dreaded gangster in the film directed by A.R. Murugadoss but industry experts say the magic is missing though, like in Petta, he is playing a character much younger than his age.

“He’s continuing with his acting career even after announcing a political foray but it isn’t the same anymore,” said a trade analyst on condition of anonymity.

Darbar, which hit the screens right before the big Pongal holiday weekend in the south, generated a mixed buzz, the analyst said. The film is yet to sell its satellite and digital rights. The superstar has had more than a chequered box office record of late.

Before Petta, Rajini’s science fiction movie 2.0 (2018) had grossed more than 600 crore worldwide but the analyst said that it had a lot to do with the north Indian market captured by Akshay Kumar who played the lead antagonist in the film.

In Darbar, Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty plays the villain, who doesn’t really command the same draw.

His film before 2.0, Kaala (2018) hadn’t really set the cash registers ringing, making only 64.5 crore in India across three languages, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, over its opening weekend. Kabali (2016), which had released before that, hadn’t stormed the box office either, making 48 crore from all its versions on the opening day.

His Lingaa and Kochadaiiyaan, both released in 2014, had only managed lifetime box office collections of 149 crore and 70 crore, respectively, and were unprofitable considering their massive budgets.

“There is a whole generation among the youth that either doesn’t identify with him as a superstar or has only seen him play older characters, like in Kaala and Kabali,” the analyst said. “What is also not helping is that he has come to be identified as pro-government these days and has remained mum on key political issues, something that has not gone down well with the youth,” he said.

Rakesh Gowthaman, managing director of Vettri Theatres in Chennai, said films such as Kaala and Kabali had not done much to further the Rajini cult among the 18-25 age group that has its own set of younger superstars to admire. Over the past few years, actors such as Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vijay Sethupathi have emerged as the top draw among Tamil cine-goers.

Kabali was the highest advance booking we have ever seen. We were sold out for the first three days within a couple of hours of opening bookings. Tickets will eventually be sold out this time too, but the pace is not the same,” Gowthaman said. As the Pongal holiday falls on Wednesday next week, most people will be busy at work or with purchases this week and are unlikely to turn up for the film in huge numbers, he said.

The festival next week is more likely to bring good news for the superstar.

However, there is another catch. In the north, Rajini’s film had to compete with Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhapaak and Ajay Devgn’s period drama Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, both of which released on Friday. Alongside, Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu’s action drama Sarileru Neekevvaru and Allu Arjun’s Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo, also released over the weekend.

“The US, which is Rajini’s big domain, will also be heavily affected, especially with Mahesh Babu’s film. The point, with Darbar or even Salman Khan’s Dabangg 3, is that the trend has changed and audiences do not want to watch big stars driving mindless masala narratives,” the analyst said.

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