Who cares about Rajinikanth anymore?

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 04, 2018 11:18 hrs
Rajinikanth, center, gives thumbs up sign to his fans after announcement to launch his own political party, in Chennai, India, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017.

When Kamal Haasan spent most of his time on the Bigg Boss Tamil set making cringe-inducing attempts at announcing his intention to join politics, there was moderate excitement. Here was someone who is known for innovation and intelligence, known for taking risks, known for persisting with his beliefs. What could he do in politics?

The problem was that he had only ever shown those traits in the film industry. He had all the qualifications the elected chief ministers of the past several decades had: an incomplete education and a long career in cinema.

And now, even with Kamal Haasan maintaining his peace on the issue, Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics, more than two decades after hinting at it.

Because of how important Kamal and Rajini have been in Tamil cinema, there will be comparisons to MGR and Sivaji, to Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. But there are crucial differences. Sivaji Ganesan’s attempt to enter politics was not successful, because he was not a “mass hero” as MGR was. People wanted him to act, just as they want Kamal Haasan to act.

The fact that Kamal Haasan has not really acted as anything but a version of his real life self since Anbe Sivam has affected the success of his films, and this does not bode well for his politics.

As for Rajinikanth, he – unlike MGR – has not had a film career which has been carefully orchestrated to win the trust of the people. His films are formulaic, with an entry song, a catch phrase, a memorable soliloquy with a punch line, and some tribute to the “style” which made him popular.

Neither of these actors has been groomed in politics. And now, they’re too old for mentors. No actor has ever emerged independently, without the support of the Dravida parties. Vijayakanth’s relative success is simply that – relative. He will always be remembered more for the Captain memes than for any political achievement.

Kamal Haasan is too outspoken to be co-opted by the Dravida parties, and has got into too many conflicts with them in the past. The only thing he has in common with them is his espousal of atheism.

And Rajinikanth’s religiousness – his announcement even came with a Gwyneth Paltrow-like phrase, “spiritual politics” – will not allow him to join the Dravida parties. We have been speaking of the BJP trying to find an “in” where Tamil Nadu politics is concerned, but an alliance with Rajinikanth would be disastrous for both.

Rajinikanth has never taken clear political stances. He has always played it safe, with ambiguous comments. The one time he made a statement – on the Cauvery water issue – it spiralled into controversy. Any strong comment from him – particularly if it has to do with language, as it will if the BJP co-opts him – will turn controversial, because it would be a reminder that he is not Tamilian.

The other political statement he made was back in 1996, when he said “Even god cannot save Tamil Nadu if you vote for Jayalalithaa.” However, Tamil Nadu voted for Jayalalithaa thrice after his pronouncement. Rajinikanth himself patched things up with her, at the cost of his street cred.

There have been discussions on whether Rajinikanth’s time is past. I wonder if his time ever was. Even in 1996, he did not stand a chance as chief minister, with Karunanidhi still mobile and coherent. And now, his political naïveté has been exposed in his call for his fan clubs to start branches all over the state, and in his promise to contest in all 234 constituencies.  

He has promised to save Tamil Nadu. But that begs two questions: From whom does Tamil Nadu need to be saved? And why do people think Rajinikanth can save them, when he can barely save his own films? His last few offerings on celluloid have underwhelmed, and even angered, fans. A below par political showing would be worse, since there will be no director, producer, or scriptwriter to blame.

Part of Rajinikanth’s success in cinema, and a large part at that, is his enigma. He rarely gives interviews, he rarely makes films. And yet he is seen. His getaways to the Himalayas are elaborately documented. Various anniversaries in cinema are celebrated with the organisation of functions in his honour, by his family. He has been able to maintain the illusion of modesty throughout his career in cinema. But he will not in politics. And Rajinikanth stripped of his charisma is no god.

It is also important to remember that people see a hero in him, and not a saviour. No one has ever saved Tamil Nadu. When MGR came, touted as a saviour of the poor, his one scheme which would have truly benefited everyone of inadequate means – the idea of economic criteria for reservation in educational institutions – was quickly withdrawn on the back of a power showing in the Lok Sabha elections.

In Tamil Nadu, religion has never really been divisive. But caste has. And no chief minister or political party has been able to successfully tackle caste. The early politics of the Dravida movement focused on combating Brahmin hegemony. But there is a new set of Brahmins now – the “caste Hindus” as they are called. And Dalits are being killed for marrying women who belong to these castes.

No chief minister or aspiring chief minister has dared to take on casteist violence because the most violent castes also form the most powerful vote banks.

Everyone who aspires to political power in Tamil Nadu makes the noises on jallikattu that will be most appreciated by the castes who are fondest of torturing bulls.

The fact is this: politicians have become largely irrelevant in Tamil Nadu. It is why there was no anarchy when the sitting chief minister died, when Sasikala tried to jam her feet into the newly emptied shoes, when the OPS-EPS combine took over, when the various Dravida regimes took turns at power. We are aware that every chief minister and every politician has an agenda to follow, and we work around it.

Tamil Nadu’s people don’t need saving because we largely save ourselves. We organised ourselves when the tsunami hit in 2004; we organised ourselves during the floods of 2015.

At a time when even seasoned politicians are irrelevant, does anyone care about an ageing celluloid superstar?

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