THE PEOPLE OF Tamil Nadu never had it so good. There is never a dull moment for the man on the street. The epic battle between the indefatigable film scriptwriter Karunanidhi and the former actor and relentless fighter Jayalalithaa—leaders of the two Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK respectively—that engaged popular interest for more than two decades has come to an end. However, analysts who expected state politics to lose its colour and verve after the death of Jayalalithaa, the imperious queen who had an astonishing hold on Tamil masses and her party, are in for a surprise.
High theatre is back. The symbiotic relationship between cinema and politics is still alive. Recent Income Tax raids in 200 places on 40 relatives of Jayalalithaa’s close aid and ‘sister though not born from the same womb’ Sasikala are just a distraction. To the theatre- addicts that Tamils are, the actual power drama is elsewhere. The future they forecast belongs to second and third generation cinema heroes who have had a great innings on the silver screen and are now street entertainers: some of them bold and confident, some egoistic but hesitant, and others adventurous in their search for ballot success. Perhaps they look at the mirror, a constant companion in their profession, and hear—as King Janaka did—the grey hair around their ears whisper, “Hey, you are getting old.”
How long can you be a swash-buckling hero? A Vishwaroopam 1 which would have been a flop had it not been for the threats and controversy it faced, and going ahead with Vishwaroopam 2 may not upgrade your stardom as the title suggests. You think you can do a Clinton Eastwood here? That would be too ambitious. Will you be out of a job? Not to worry, there are vacancies elsewhere, going abegging.
Thalaiva, are you listening? You cannot pretend any longer. Tamils are of the earth, earthy. Even if the medium smoothens your wrinkles digitally, turns you into a robot loaded with punch lines, it’s only a mockery your old self, and those punch lines no longer draw the tumultuous applause they once did. Thalaiva, wake up! Look round. There are avenues, new and beckoning. March forward. We are behind you. Make your move before other stars, younger and more articulate, capture the space that should belong to you. The others have started speaking, whether through film scripts or on stage. They have begun gesturing artfully with their hands, clad brightly in pink, black or whatever. Do not worry; they are Don Quixotes, fighting the windmills. You are the Sancho Panza to bring sense to the prevailing madness.
Who is this ‘thalaiva’? There seem to be more than one, rushing as it were like jallikkattu bulls once the vaadivaasal gate opens at Alangaanallur. Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, even the boyish- looking Vijay aka Joseph Vijay, while yesteryear hero Vijaykanth peeps in to show that he’s still around, experienced and bruised in politics but someone who may have a few valuable tips to share. Don’t listen to him. His account may depress you.
There is a crowd in front of Rajini’s house. It has been there for ages now, waiting with bated breath for his nod. They are worried that out-of-the-blue has come another, Kamal Haasan, ready to upstage their hero by making a political debut. His language is difficult to understand; he quotes English scholars and foreign filmmakers they are not familiar with. He meets chief ministers of other states and catches national attention. Techno-savvy, he has launched a phone app to facilitate anti-corruption activism. The media throng his meetings; English news channels revel in interviewing him in their language, though his intentions still appear unclear. “I have just started cooking, I can find out what it is only after the cooking is over,” he says. What kind of chef has no idea what he is cooking? Yet, they gush over his entry to politics.
Rajini has again gone back into a shell, not venturing to speak politics. Perhaps sensing the 63-year-old Kamal Haasan is taking the wind out of his camp, the elder star has gone silent
Rajini’s fan clubs are worried. Their thalaiva, meanwhile, sits within in meditation, perhaps invoking his guru, Babaji in the Himalayas, to show him his path. That is the problem with cine stars as soul searchers. Look at the other. He has no such qualms. He, a Brahmin by birth, boldly declares he is an atheist. He does not meditate nor hesitate, speaks as if he has already won the state, though he says plans for it are yet to be made (or in the process). But thalaiva, he speaks like a street fighter, a social doctor, not like a man who will lead people to paradise —the one that’s not in the papers. He appears to be riding Rocinante, the skinny and clumsy horse of Don Quixote. People want a stallion. You will be the thalapathi, the commanding rider. We will make you one. We need you in that role. Especially now, when Tamil Nadu is leaderless. What is there to fear, thalaiva, when more than ‘50,000 fan clubs’ are there to give you the support no other actor can boast of? We expect a concrete answer on your birthday, December 12th. We will wait.
There has been a social churn in Tamil Nadu due to the Dravidian movement and the resultant resurgence of marginalised sections, each vociferous about their grievances, but people at large still look for a leader, a single charismatic figure who speaks their language and they can trust. You fit the bill as a representative of the underclass. Haven’t people seen you in Muthu, Annamalai, Padiappa, Arunachalam, Thalapathi and many such? The simple youth, cheated and exploited for his loyalty and humility, who turns his righteous rage into a fight for everyone’s rights? The good and honourable must lead, and people must be disillusioned with the power an upper-caste woman held over them, with the corruption cases that chased her till the end. Now they are ready for someone of integrity who will empathise with their mundane problems. Haven’t you dealt with them in your films? Just with a flick of your fingers? MGR was thrice voted to power because movie-goers believed he would translate all that to real life. You too have the same appeal, thalaiva. Your upcoming Endhiran 2 is going to rock. You are truly awesome. Trust our instincts. A few months ago, you gave us hope. You were present at a gathering addressed by Modi just the other day, and that led to speculation. Where are you now?
RAJINIKANTH IS AWARE of their anguish. On the screen, his words would sound Delphic, authoritative and unambiguous, with his sardonic smile, characteristic clap of the palms and fingers pointing out a void, as if the world were at his feet. His fans would applaud every reference to the political scene of the times, forgetting that he was just playing to a script written for him; especially for him, given the political impact it would make. In 1996, the one time he spoke his own dialogue off-screen, urged by his friend Cho Ramaswamy, editor of Tughlak, on the eve of an Assembly election, saying that even the gods would not forgive Tamil Nadu if the AIADMK was voted back to power, the party met a humiliating defeat. That was the ‘Rajini effect’.
No further word about Rajini entering politics. The gods must have failed to call him; maybe he realises the futility of the Star Wars of Tamil Nadu
But he preferred to stick to a script someone else wrote. While millions of fans exhorted him to enter politics, he stood aloof. Politics bewildered him. There were issues he did not understand. There were giants in the arena. ‘Don’t hesitate,’ said his fans, ‘Your popularity will carry you through.’ But he took his time. In hindsight, that was wise. He would not have been able to challenge Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa as the ruling stars. Once the field was thrown open, of course, he did decide to speak up. Rajnikanth, who turns 67 this December, ventured to say at a huge gathering of fans that he may enter serious politics at last. He sounded oracular. “Tamil Nadu politics needs a change. Be ready for war,” he thundered. “The system is corrupt, we all need to work together to change it.” His fans were jubilant. But some were sceptical. He’d dropped hints before and then backed out. At long last, was he finally ready for war?
They would love to see him don the prestigious garb of the Chief Minister of the state that saw the birth of the Dravidian movement, a state that has had chants of ‘Udal mannukku, uyir thamizhukku’ (this body unto the soil, this life unto Tamil). Never mind if his original mother tongue was Marathi and was born in Karnataka and spoke Kannada. He cannot yet speak the lilting chaste Tamil the Dravidian leaders spoke. The mastery of oratory came easily to them. But wasn’t MGR a Malayalee born in Kandy Sri Lanka? Wasn’t he the most popular Chief Minister the state has ever had? Wasn’t he also a superstar of his times?
To resounding claps and cheers, he had asked fans with passion in his voice, “What is wrong in serving the people who have raised me to the top? Why should I not expect their lives to prosper?” Indeed. There was belligerence too. “Don’t be swayed by the negative abusive comments that keep circling online. It is an opportunity to grow, mind you. A plant can grow only if you press the seed under the earth. They are applying pressure to help us grow. They do not know that.”
In a series of meetings with fans, he threw hints of the possibility of entering politics—about which he knew little, except that he had played many a hero fighting the tyranny of hierarchy and dictatorship. But again, he would end his speeches saying his electoral debut depends on a call of the gods. A message from above. The metaphor was telling.
Sceptics among his fans recall that he sets up a mirage of entering politics before the release of every film of his, and then it vanishes from sight. In a few days now, his Endhiran 2 is about to be released. Were his statements just film promotions? The fans know that even for his films to succeed, they need a good script. Many have failed of late, despite his name on their banners. To achieve box office success, producers and directors have to wrack their brains and spend huge amounts. He is no longer the young debonair hero he was. He has aged and balded, and makes no effort to hide it. And when he is on the screen, digitally altered, he looks a plastic copy of the original Rajini. Yet, hundreds of fan clubs—a more realistic count—are run in his name and funded in the hope of a commercial windfall should he achieve even more than he already has. They await returns. It is these clubs that generate the hype before the release of every film of his and bear the disappointment of having wasted their money and effort when it flops. They also face the wrath of the distributors who mortgage their assets to get a film’s distribution rights. Asking him to enter politics seems like a desperate effort to shore up their finances.
NOW, RAJINI HAS again gone back into a shell, not venturing to speak politics. He seems blown off by the 63-year-old Kamal Haasan’s entry into the arena. The two are professional rivals, though always cordial to each other. Perhaps sensing Haasan is taking the wind out of his camp, the elder star has gone silent. The BJP was knocking at his doors, but he seemed wary of alienating the minorities among his fans. At his last meeting with fans, he praised the DMK’s deputy chief Stalin as ‘a good administrator’, patted the back of Anbumani Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) as an educated man with some good schemes, and avoided any mention of Modi. He even had a good word for the controversial lines on the GST in the Vijay-starrer Mersal.
No further word about his entering politics. The gods must have failed to call him; maybe he realises the futility of the Star Wars of Tamil Nadu. Rajini and Kamal and Vijay are mere ideas, ones that rely on billboards for traction, towering above the problems and emotions on the ground. Like the robots of Endhiran. To become real is a dream. To think it’s easy is a delusion.
The fans still stand at the gate, but their thalaiva does not emerge. Maybe he has gone to Babaji’s cave near Almora in Uttarakand to meditate, someone says. Kamal and Vijay have gone off on shootings. The fan clubs are busy painting billboards of characters fit for another Cervantes parody, full of Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas who believe they are entrusted with the task of saving the world.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi visits the ailing DMK chief at his Gopalapuram residence, and it gives the Congress High Command shivers. The BJP insists it is a courtesy call. To quell rumours, MK Stalin, the DMK’s deputy chief, dons a black shirt and leads an anti-BJP and anti-demonetisation rally with his party men. The Congress, the Left and other secular parties protest. The ruling AIADMK in tied up with its internal squabbles. The Income Tax raids are a distraction. But there is still no sign of the Star Wars awaited by the media.