CHENNAI, India (AP) — Private companies declared a holiday and parents kept children out of school as an air of celebration swept southern India on Friday for the premiere of Indian superstar Rajinikanth's latest film.
Hundreds of thousands of fans thronged cinemas across Tamil-language India and Malaysia to catch the early morning showing of "Kabali," a gangster movie that left patrons jumping from their seats and dancing in the aisles at the sight of their hero.
Crowds waited outside theaters all night before the first showing, and in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, Rajinikanth enthusiasts burst firecrackers and distributed sweets outside cinemas.
Inside the Woodlands theater, one of the city's oldest, fans rose to their feet, danced and sang along as the superstar made his first appearance. When Rajnikanth landed punches on the villain, he was egged on with cheers and whistles.
Huge cutouts of the star and gigantic posters loomed large in the street outside the theater. In several places, fans poured big cans of milk over the cutouts in a Hindu ritual to bless the star and wish him a long life.
Rajinikanth, 65, is one of India's most popular stars and many of his 150-plus films have broken box-office records. "Kabali" is being released in more than 12,000 screens across India, as well as in the U.K. and Malaysia, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking population. It also premiered in 400 U.S. theaters. Rajinikanth himself attended a special screening in San Francisco on Wednesday.
For one fan, the film came after a long, two-year wait. Alandur P. Sridhar, an insurance company employee, came to watch the film in a group of 30 fans, all dressed in white T-shirts with Rajinikanth's picture. They enthusiastically took pictures with a selfie-stick near a poster of their favorite star.
"He's a terrific actor. But what I love about him is: He may be India's biggest star, but he remains a simple man at heart. He hasn't changed one bit," said Sridhar.
Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, the superstar worked as a bus conductor for three years before joining an acting school. He started in small roles as villains in Tamil cinema and worked his way up, even landing roles in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.
"This film is a celebration. This day is a celebration," said Sridhar, as he rearranged the group for yet another selfie outside Chennai's historic Albert Theater.
Sandhya Ramani, a graduate student at University of Colorado, Denver, said she had timed her vacation to be in Chennai for the film's release.
"It's something that can't be explained in words. It's just Rajinikanth. He's mind blowing," Ramani said, as she came out from the theater with her friends.
Shubhra Gupta, one of India's leading film critics, said the Rajinikanth phenomenon was not easy to explain.
"There is no logic to how and why Rajinikanth has become the superstar of superstars," Gupta said. But she referred to his impoverished background as appealing to the masses.
"People see themselves in Rajinikanth and the fact that he has made it so big. There's an aspirational connect that people make with him," Gupta said.
Several private companies have given their employees the day off to enable them to catch the film on its first day.
Fyndus, a Chennai-based data-processing company, gave away free tickets to employees and said it decided to declare a holiday to "avoid piled-up leave requests to its human resources department."
The Malaysia-based AirAsia budget carrier organized a special round-trip flight from the southern city of Bangalore to Chennai for the movie premiere. An AirAsia plane dedicated to Rajinikanth and painted with his picture was flying to 10 destinations in India.
The opening scenes from the film show a grey-bearded Rajinikanth being released from a prison, swearing to avenge his enemies. In his search for revenge, he is reunited with his family and rains destruction on his foes. The film also stars Taiwanese actor Winston Chao.
Rajinikanth merchandise was selling briskly outside theaters in Tamil Nadu. T-shirts and jackets sporting the superhero's face and his trademark dark glasses were hot favorites. One finance company in southern India has minted special silver coins with Rajinikanth's visage and priced the five-gram coin at $5.30 each.
Associated Press writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.