Portrait

Rajinikanth: The Last Action Hero

Rajinikanth
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Is Rajinikanth the future of Tamil politics?

AFTER 20 YEARS of empty shadow boxing, Superstar Rajinikanth, 68, has finally assented to his biggest-ever role: that of a real-life hero out to reclaim Tamil Nadu from the amoral Dravidian wasteland. Smelted in the furnace of discontent in the state since former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s death a little over a year ago, he has vowed to make metal worthy of the people’s mighty electoral hammer. On the final day of 2017, at a wedding hall in Kodambakkam, Chennai, owned by him, the actor’s decades-long dalliance with politics was formalised in the presence of thousands of fans. They looked up at the white kurta-clad figure, the picture of Gandhian virtue, and saw not a man walking the exhausted path of Tamil politics, but a messiah and his rhetoric of grace. Calling for a ‘spiritual politics’ to uproot the lesion of corruption and to end the godless reign of the Dravida Kazhagams, Rajinikanth obliged the crowd and launched into eloquent platitudes about gratitude, morality, and his sense of duty towards Tamil society.

Thalaivar’s first waypoint on his messianic journey will be the next Assembly elections, which he intends to contest all 234 constituencies. A new party, free of hubris, will take on the headless giants of Tamil Nadu in a battle a la AAP. With 50,000 registered—and millions of unrecognised—fan clubs potentially translating into party cadre, Rajinikanth may not have to slip into the streets to canvass for support as NT Rama Rao did, clocking 75,000 km in his Chevrolet-made Chaitanya Ratham ahead of the 1983 Andhra Pradesh polls. Rajini’s popularity as an actor may have diminished, but a generation of Tamils who believe in what he stands for—simple living, equality, honesty and magnanimity—may yet choose him over the DMK, which is only just beginning to shake off the taint of the 2G scam, and a divided AIADMK.

That Rajinikanth has been mulling a career in politics is no secret. Tantalising hints abound in his films. “No one can say when or how I will come, but I will come at the right time,” says his eponymous character in Muthu (1995). The following year, he was coaxed by his mentor, Cho Ramaswamy, into lending his support to the DMK-TMC combine with a damning statement against Jayalalithaa. It was Amma’s unmaking in the 1996 Assembly elections. Neighbours in Poes Garden who later warmed to each other, Rajini and Jayalalithaa were together in the realisation they were opportunists exploiting a seemingly inexhaustible wave of popularity. “Pera kettaale chumma adhirudhulla (Doesn’t the mere mention of my name cause everything to quake)?” says Rajini’s character in Sivaji (2007). His punch dialogues notwithstanding, the superstar is a lesson in humility in real life. He insists that he is not entering politics to propagate his own myth. Indeed, his decision seems to be precipitated by the sham that was the RK Nagar by-election, with TTV Dinakaran emerging victorious. The instability brought on by Jayalalithaa’s passing and the Sasikala family’s venomous grip on Tamil Nadu politics have forced Rajinikanth—and fellow actor Kamal Haasan who announced his political foray late last year—to stop pussyfooting around the problem and give the people what they seem to want: a heroic mass leader.

Rajinikanth has made it clear that he will not scramble to contest local body polls, but he remains silent on his strategy for the 2019 General Election. There is speculation that he may extend his support to the BJP, which badly needs a star campaigner to make inroads in the state.

But in the likely event of Assembly and Lok Sabha polls coinciding next year, neither Rajinikanth nor Kamal Haasan may be ready in time. Much of politics is sweat and tears. To keep alive the tenuous hope Tamil Nadu sees in him, Rajinikanth must sweat it out now rather than regret later.