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Rajinikanth and realpolitik: In search of the Superstar’s political script

In a post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu, superstar Rajinikanth’s entry to politics is ideally timed. But can he pull off more than just a superhit movie?

india Updated: Jan 28, 2018 10:17 IST
Naman Ramachandran
Tamil superstar Rajinikanth announced on December 31, 2017, that he would float a political party that would practice “spiritual politics” and contest the next Assembly polls.
Tamil superstar Rajinikanth announced on December 31, 2017, that he would float a political party that would practice “spiritual politics” and contest the next Assembly polls. (IANS Photo)

Naan arasiyal-kku vandhal, yen vazhi, thani vazhi-aa irukkum,” (“If I join politics, my path will be a unique path”) –– this is Rajinikanth, speaking in 2012 at the launch of the book Chidambaram: Oru Paarvai.

The Superstar was of course referencing his punchline from his 1999 monster hit Padayappa. The path he has chosen since announcing his decision to join politics on the last day of 2017 has been pragmatic rather than unique. The actor’s as yet unnamed political party will contest all 234 seats in the Tamil Nadu elections, whenever they are next held –– either in 2021, or earlier, in the event of a mid-term poll.

As a first step, Rajinikanth launched the Rajini Makkal Mandram (Rajini People’s Foundation), a website and Android only app (not available for the relatively privileged iOS users), designed as membership drive gateways for the party. Members of Rajinikanth fan clubs across Tamil Nadu are currently visiting each of the state’s 32 districts, requesting people to join the Mandram. The party’s aim is to gather 10 million volunteers, roughly 13% of the state’s population, before a name is revealed. Rajinikanth is in the process of putting together a core team whose initial function will be to screen and appoint district level party officials.

The idea that Thalaivar wants to gather only good people around him is sound, but that is easier said than done in the morass that is politics. It is expected that those fresh to politics will be encouraged than those with previous political experience wanting to climb on the Rajinikanth bandwagon. What is not immediately clear is what Rajinikanth’s party’s ideology will be. Upon announcing his political intentions, he had said that his party would practise ‘spiritual politics’ leading to conjecture as to what exactly he meant by the term. He later clarified, “Honest and secular politics is spiritual politics.” Be that as it may, the Mandram logo is the mudra the actor deployed in the 2002 film Baba that had deep shades of spirituality, and the music on its website is also from AR Rahman’s soundtrack for the film.

Rajini in a new avatar (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Taking the plunge

The 67-year-old Shivaji Rao Gaekwad could not have chosen a more opportune time to enter the political arena. After the unexpected death of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2016, matters within the ruling AIADMK party have been fractious with O. Paneerselvam and K. Palaniswami jostling for power before settling on an uneasy truce. Though Amma’s associate Sasikala Natarajan is serving time in prison, the massive victory of her nephew TTV Dhinakaran winning as an independent candidate in the RK Nagar by-election was a jolt to the AIADMK. N Maruthu Ganesh, the candidate from opposition party DMK lost his deposit. DMK supremo M Karunanidhi is 93 and his sons Alagiri and Stalin are forever at loggerheads. The script, then, seems set for an all-conquering hero to step into the breach and lead his party to a famous victory. Except, there are two heroes in the equation.

Rajinikanth’s contemporary, friend and frequent co-star Kamal Haasan has also announced his intent to join politics and will announce details on February 21. Upon asked whether they would join hands, both stars hedged with a ‘time will tell’ response.

The first direct political activity Rajinikanth engaged in was in 1995, when he met the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao and lauded him for being the first non-Nehru family member to complete a five-year term in office. The actor was impressed by Rao’s economic liberalisation methods and it looked like he was leaning towards supporting the Indian National Congress. However, when the INC decided to contest the 1996 Tamil Nadu assembly elections in alliance with the AIADMK, Rajinikanth was not impressed as he disagreed with a few of the latter party’s policies. Rajinikanth famously stated “Even God cannot save Tamil Nadu if AIADMK returns to power.”

The INC-AIADMK alliance duly lost. Much later, speaking after Jayalalithaa’s death, a contrite Rajinikanth said, “I was one of the main reasons why she lost the elections.” He praised her as a role model and lauded her for carrying on the legacy of her mentor MG Ramachandran who took her party from strength to strength.

The dark knight

Ever since he flung open the gates in his introductory scene in his debut, Apoorva Raagangal (1975), Rajinikanth has been a disruptor. Dishevelled and sporting a stubble, Rajinikanth strides forward. The frame freezes and the text ‘Shruti Bedam’ (A Variation of Pitch) appears. The film’s director, the late legend K. Balachander, decided to cast him on the basis of a meeting at the Madras Film Institute where Shivaji Rao Gaekwad was a student in the Kannada wing. Since there was already a Sivaji Ganesan present, he christened Gaekwad Rajinikanth after a character in his 1966 film Major Chandrakanth.

Upon the advice of Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth gradually moved to solo hero movies and away from multi-starrers. (HT Photo)

Fair skinned heroes like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Sivakumar dominated Tamil cinema at the time of Rajinikanth’s debut. The increasingly popular Kamal Haasan was also fair complexioned. It took a visionary filmmaker like Balachander to go against the grain and cast the dark skinned Rajinikanth, albeit in a negative role. According to Balachander, no filmmaker at the time would cast dark complexioned actors in any type of role –– positive or negative –– and it was a considered decision to cast against type. It worked, as audiences could finally identify with an actor who looked like them.

Following Apoorva Raagangal, Rajinikanth was cast in a series of negative roles in films like Katha Sangama, Anthuleni Katha, Moondru Mudichu, Baalu Jenu, Avargal and 16 Vayathinile. What shone through was the actor’s sense of style and mannerisms, something that he had deployed to great effect in his years as a bus conductor with the Bangalore Transport Service. Just as commuters had thrilled to the young man’s antics en route to their various destinations, audiences rejoiced in Rajinikanth’s on-screen affectations that often put the film’s leading man in the shade. It wasn’t long before producers woke up to this and in Kavikkuyil (1977), he was cast as the second male lead, with Sivakumar in the lead. Several films followed where Rajinikanth got second or third billing.

By now Rajinikanth was pulling multiple shifts and working around the clock. Though he was popular, his superstardom was carefully constructed. Upon the advice of Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth gradually moved to solo hero movies and away from multi-starrers. The image building exercise began with Bairavi (1978). The film’s canny distributor Kalaipuli S. Dhanu recognised the actor’s potential and put up a 40-foot cut-out of Rajinikanth at Madras’ Plaza Theatre and also plastered large posters all over Tamil Nadu anointing him Superstar.

The actor was also cast in roles that endeared him to family audiences in films like Mullum Malarum and Aarilirundhu Arubathu Varai. SP Muthuraman, who directed Rajinikanth in 25 films, describes Murattukkalai (1980) as a turning point in the actor’s career. Muthuraman, the writer Panju Arunachalam and AVM Studio’s M. Saravanan decided to reinvent the actor as a mass hero with each scene and song sequence conceived and shot as a set piece. This too worked. And, with Naan Potta Savaal (1980), the now famous practice of the words ‘Super Star’ flashing on screen during the opening credits began.

Mass contact

Rajinikanth’s immense popularity soon grew into a cult and spawned more than 50,000 fan clubs. But the actor, always simple, continued to remain respectful to his co-workers irrespective of their level of importance on the project. In real life he was modest and self-deprecating and unlike many of his contemporaries refused to sport a wig or make-up when not shooting and dressed in the simplest of garb off-screen. In his public appearances he always thanks his fans and requests them to perform charitable acts, which is why every Rajinikanth release is an occasion for them to conduct blood donation camps and other humanitarian activities.

Superstar Rajnikanth’s fans perform hawan for his quick recovery at a temple in Mulund, Maharashtra (Praful Gangurde / HT Photo )

Of Rajinikanth’s later films, Baashha (1995) is a watershed. For half of the film he plays a mild mannered auto-driver. He explodes only at the interval point, a calculated risk taken by directed by Suresh Krissna. Baashha is like Sholay, a phenomenon that defies analysis. Rajinikanth’s punchline from the film ‘Naan oru dhadavai sonna nooru dhadavai sonna madhiri’ (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times) remains his most quoted line. While the actor has had bigger hits, Baashha made Rajinikanth much more than a Superstar or Thalaivar and he could do no wrong thereafter.

He was even forgiven Krissna’s Baba (2002) that tanked at the box office. In the film, his well-wishers urge him to solve the political crisis in the state and become the chief minister, but he demurs, handing the job instead to an honest politician. His character states that a direct entry into politics is not required to help the people, supporting honest politicians will suffice. The ending of Baba would prove to be prophetic. Rajinikanth’s chief ministerial candidate is shot dead. As the song “I won’t forget the Tamil land, I won’t crave political parties or high positions” plays on the soundtrack, Rajinikanth walks back towards the political chaos and he does the mudra referred to earlier. The image freezes with the caption “To be continued”.

A decade and a half on from Baba, Rajinikanth’s political story is indeed continuing, complete with the Baba mudra. What it translates to in realpolitik remains to be seen.

THE SUBTEXT OF RAJINI’S FILMS

Rajinikanth has been teasing his fans with politics onscreen for a long time. In 1982’s Thanikkattu Raja for example, he plays a people’s man and the saviour of the poor. In one of the film’s song sequences he sings, “I am not Puratchi Thalaivar, I am not Dr Kalaignar, I am an ordinary man and your friend,” Puratchi Thalaivar being MGR and Dr Kalaignar being Karunanidhi.

In Guru Sishyan (1988), there is a reference to infighting in the AIADMK following MGR’s death. The film opens in a prison where inmates are fighting over a chair. Rajinikanth makes an entry, singing, “People who fight for a chair are mad.”

In 1990’s Athisaya Piravi, Rajinikanth plays Kaalai, a man who dies too early due to a clerical error made by Yama’s assistant Chitragupta. When Kaalai asks to be sent back to earth, Chitragupta’s assistant Vichitragupta (played by the late Cho Ramaswamy, political commentator and Rajinikanth’s great friend) says that Kaalai returning to life is like the opposition party returning to power. What is being referred to here is the opposition DMK returning to power after MGR’s death. Also in the film Vichitragupta remarks that Kaalai’s face is respected on earth and politicians were wondering what would happen if he entered the arena.

In Uzhaippali (1993) his character is named Thamizharasan (King of Tamil Nadu).

In Muthu (1995), there is a not so subtle sequence where Rajinikanth is persuaded to get on a stage – it seems a heavy-handed shorthand for the political stage – and in the Kuluvalile song there is a verse that asks which party he would join.

In Arunachalam (1997), Rajinikanth’s character floats a political party and there is a song with the lyrics “A lion has begun a journey”. In the ‘Devuda devuda’ song in Chandramukhi (2005), Rajinikanth’s character asks the almighty to bless his fans and addresses the working classes (including janitors, sewage cleaners, farmhands and washerfolk) directly.

Naman Ramachandran is the author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography and writes for Variety and Sight & Sound