My grandmother, with her razor-sharp instincts, typecast men into three neat categories. The Ramas, the Krishnas and the Rakshasas. The Rakshasa represented the dark side of human nature and, she claimed, everyone had some component of that in their make-up, while some were pure Rakshasas.
Applied to South Indian cinema, this pop-psychology is productive. The cinema narrative here is largely around this dual trope. While Gemini Ganesan was Krishna, Shivaji Ganesan was Rama; while Prem Nazir was Krishna, Sathyan was Rama; if Mohanlal is Krishna, Mammooty is Rama; if Nageswara Rao was Krishna, NTR was Rama; in Kannada cinema, Rajkumar could shift from Krishna to Rama, though he had foils in Shankar Nag and Venkatesh. So too MGR, who could swing from Krishna to Rama within the same film. Kamal Haasan remains an out and out Krishna prototype.
The sole rakshasa in this star pantheon is ‘superstar’ Rajinikanth.
Rajini represents the noir in Tamil cinema. He represents the suppressed, dark other of Tamil society. Though a Kannada-speaking Maharashtrian, when director K Balachander inducted him into Tamil films in 1975 with Apoorva Ragangal, he was introducing Tamil society to its own hubris.
The history of oppression of the Dravidian race, the sense of subjugation, the feeling of second-class citizenship, the complexes about being dark-skinned, of not really being part of the national mainstream and a clear whiff of political and cultural marginalisation at that point in time, were all encapsulated in the character of Rajinikanth and his screen persona.
And here was a character who, in film after film, could flip it over and celebrate it as effortlessly as he flipped a cigarette to his lips or produced some whiplash action with his fingers and wrists, with the self-congratulatory – if rhetorical – question, Ithu eppidi irukku? (What do you think of this?). With Rajini, Tamil cinema, and by extension, Tamil society learnt to be kosher with being ‘bad’. It was no longer something that someone was going to make them feel guilty about.
Rajini taught Tamil society to abandon platitudes about Rama as maryada purushottam and accept the possibility of a Ravana or a Duryodhana actually being good. When Rajini stared directly back into the camera with his narrow, mean, slits for eyes and hissed from the corners of his mouth even as he executed his side-winded walk of electric energy, tossing his tousled hair, he became the new and manifest example of hitherto suppressed expressions of desire, no matter how risky or preposterous it seemed.
And the Tamil audiences loved him. After four decades of chubby, fair-skinned heroes, this lean, mean anti-hero emerges as a version of updated masculinity, which seems — in its exaggerations — to be a concession to a sense of ‘male lack’. Rajini is the first of the ‘dark stars’ (literally) of Tamil cinema, which itself becomes a signpost for celebration throughout his 40-years-long career, approaching 175 films. The validation of Rajini’s dark skin has, in itself, now become a sub-cult in Tamil cinema with chartbusting songs belting out lines like Namba ooru Superstaru Rajinikath karuppu thaan (Even our Superstar Rajinikanth himself is black!). Or a variation like Superstar karuppu, aana Superstar manasu romba veluppu (Superstar is black, but his heart is entirely white). One would need a psycho-analyst with high literary skills to capture the social import of such sentiments.
Rajini’s screen persona is far larger than the narrow canvas of his infinitely pedestrian life. His body is the molecular construct of his public, his audience. Most analyses of his films fail as they crash on the rock-bed of a comprehensive incomprehension of the audience base of this superstar, which turns him into a humungous cultural totem-pole, with over 70,000 registered fan clubs in his name. He has more references in popular culture than any performer, other than perhaps the late Michael Jackson.
Yet, in the past few years, film after film starring Rajinikanth has flopped, despite the huge euphoria and media build-up preceding it. It was almost as if the fans did not need to see the films anymore. Baba, Sivaji, Kuselan and Enthiran formed a chain of flops, for some of which Rajinikanth even had to keep his distributors happy — unprecedentedly — by returning them their lost financial investments. In fact, after Enthiran, in which, as a robot turned mutant, Rajini clones himself an infinite number of times, I had offered a reading that this might be his swan-song. The hunger of his audiences to have more of him, had led to a digitally enhanced strategy of copious multiplication of his image in a carnival of excess that would be difficult to repeat. It was like Rajini’s image burn-out.
Which is why Kabali was anticipated with such excitement. This was to be a do-or-die moment for both Tamil cinema and its global audience. Director Pa Ranjith has played a deft trick in the film by subduing Rajini’s personal stylistics and on-screen antics, to pave the way for an explicit theme of social justice and for restoring dignity to Dalits.
It opens out two options for Rajini — either of being redeemed or of self-destructing. It is clear that the demographic base of his huge following is not rooted in the social-justice ideas of Ambedkar or ‘Periyar’ Ramaswamy Naicker. On the contrary, this is a population that believes in maintaining caste distinctions, in caste panchayats (called katta panchayats) and in brutal honour killings.
The Tamil film audience, which depends on an iconised Rajini to valorise the rakshasa aspect of their pathology — endorsing all their cultural negatives — will resist this ‘politicised’ Rajini, who ends up critiquing his own fan-base in the film. He could be metaphorically dealt an honour killing as his fans abandon his flirtation with reality. However, he might actually end up becoming a Dalit icon and a new emblem on the side of Dalit assertion.
Sadanand Menon is a writer and critic based in Chennai
The views expressed are personal