Unlikely record for India's Tamil star Rajnikanth

Endhiran,” toplined by Tamil star Rajnikanth made history in the U.S. with last weekend’s box office bow of $2 million, a record for a Tamil film.

He is an unlikely star — 61, balding and paunchy — and makes no attempt to hide this offscreen. But onscreen, bewigged and heavily made up, he is one of India’s highest paid thesps, earning around $7 million per film.

Rajnikanth, who doesn’t even work in India’s most visible film industry, Bollywood, has a fanatical cult following around the world.

In India, the Sun Pictures release drew $22.5 million, better than Bollywood titles. In the U.K. it was No. 9 at the B.O. with $538,000 and in the United Arab Emirates it grossed $387,000.

Rajnikanth’s previous teaming with director S. Shankar, 2007′s “Sivaji: The Boss,” was a big hit by Indian standards, grossing around $40 million worldwide, and became the first Tamil film to break into the Brit B.O. top 10. The pair reunited for “Endhiran” — “Robot” and “Robo” in its dubbed Hindi- and Telugu-language versions.

Pic, which also stars Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, centers around a scientist who invents a robot that looks like him, but its introduction to humans causes catastrophe. Rajnikanth portrays both the scientist and the robot.

With a production budget of $34 million and a P&A spend of about $9 million, “Endhiran” is India’s most expensive film to date and is going out on 2,250 prints worldwide.

The film features animatronics and special makeup by Stan Winston Studios, stunts by Hong Kong martial arts choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping and costumes by designer Mary Vogt (“Men in Black”).

The crew includes sound designer Resul Pookutty (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and composer A.R. Rahman, both Oscar winners for “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Shankar is sanguine about the film’s box office prospects.

He told Daily Variety: “This film has a universal subject which can be easily understood by even someone who doesn’t know the language. It has visual effects and animatronics equal to that of a mainstream Hollywood film. If this film is marketed well, then I believe this also has the potential to become a big hit equaling a Hollywood film.”

Shankar’s films are all spectacular and deliberately over the top, but they usually have an underlying social message about corruption in society, and “Endhiran” is no different.

“No person is born corrupt. The situations around him/her and greed, lie, envy, cheating of other humans leads him or her into that. This is the message,” he said.

In the meantime, he must be hoping that Rajnikanth’s popularity, even in unlikely places like Japan, where he is known as the Dancing Maharaja, will make for boffo “Endhiran” results elsewhere.

If the film achieves that, it will cap a fairy tale life for an actor who began his career as a bus ticket checker in Bangalore.

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