Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and Tamil actor Rajinikanth were neighbours at Poes Garden for decades but not friends. The streets leading to Poes Garden have many a tale to tell about how the ground shook when the two titans confronted each other.
And that’s why when the Superstar, as Rajinikanth is called, spoke on Sunday about the former CM as a “Kohinoor diamond” and large-hearted, everyone sat up and took notice. At a condolence meeting organised by the association for film artistes for the former CM and journalist-actor Cho Ramaswamy, he said: “I had hurt her [Jaya]. I was a key reason for her (party’s) defeat.” He was referring to his 1996 statement: “If Jayalalithaa is voted back to power, even god cannot save Tamil Nadu.”
This was a time when Rajinikanth was, perhaps, at the zenith of his popularity as an actor with movies like Baasha. His dialogues in the movie, “Naan oru thadava sonna, nooru thadava sonna maadiri” (Anything I say once is equivalent to saying it a hundred times) had become a popular statement. Needless to say, it influenced the elections as well. Of the 234 seats in the assembly, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK won four. And Jayalalithaa lost from the two seats she contested.
There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about the rivalry between the two. Once the actor’s car was stopped by the security personnel who were clearing the road to the CM to move. Annoyed by the inconvenience, Rajinikanth got out of the car, stood on the road and lit a cigarette (Some say he walked to the nearby roadside vendor and bought a cigarette). In no time, the area was mobbed by fans and created a scare for the CM’s security personnel. Rajinikanth, the Superstar, had sent a message.
But that was then, and much water has flowed under the bridge.
Today, many cinema and political observers feel that Rajinikanth’s time has come and gone.
“He could have clinched it then, in 1996, but he didn’t,” says G Babujayakumar, a senior journalist in Chennai. “That was a time when Rajinikanth had spoken against what was seen as a bad government.”
“He didn’t use that window, and now it has gone. Nobody wants him in politics now. Interestingly, it was the events then that inspired [actor] Vijayakanth to later enter politics.”
A film-maker, who did not want to be named, feels the same. “No one takes his political ambitions, if there are any, seriously. Today even his movies are tanking. Back then, any movie of his was minimum a blockbuster. Not anymore,” she said.
One of the reasons for speculations surrounding Rajinikanth’s political foray is his personal camaraderie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It should not be forgotten that in April 2014, just before the polls, Modi while campaigning in Chennai called on Rajinikanth. Though it was a “courtesy call” many saw political undertones to it. With the demise of Jayalalithaa, it is expected that a politically ambitious BJP would try to strengthen its presence in Tamil Nadu.
Kombai S Anwar, a political analyst and documentary film-maker, feels that it won’t be that easy for Rajinikanth. “Just because you’re a popular actor it does not mean an easy entry into Tamil politics. MGR was wedded to the Dravidian movement and that helped him in politics. His contemporary Shivaji Ganeshan came a cropper in politics,” says Anwar.
“Last election had a strong message and that was the consolidation of the Dravidian vote. Rajinikanth (in many ways) is not identified as the son of the soil. Vijayakanth fits that role more.”
Rajinikanth is still loved and adored by his fans and, without doubt, is a popular entertainer. But it is highly unlikely that he could encash that popularity in politics.
Today is Rajinikanth’s 67th birthday, and if there was one wish a fan could ask the Superstar, it is: Please stay away from politics.