Open Essay

The Robotic Politics of Rajinikanth

K Hariharan is professor, Film Studies and Broadcast Journalism at Ashoka University, Sonepat
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A divine comedy featuring an enigmatic superstar

I CANNOT IMAGINE any other Indian state in a more pathetic situation than the people of Tamil Nadu. A long hoary narrative of Tamil chauvinism and Brahmin bashing in the background of skyscraping cutouts from where starry icons smiled and blessed their ‘masses’ has all come crashing to the ground with the death of Jayalalithaa. The giant cardboard edifice of Dravidian mythology has also gone to dust, leaving the masses with nobody to look up to. But from this dusty atmosphere, a digital cutout called Rajinikanth is being reprised and made to appear as Tamil Nadu’s next messiah.

Honestly, no one, including Rajinikanth, has a clue whether he will enter active politics and if he does, what kind of role he will play in 21st century Tamil history. For the moment, it seems that his appearances at his fan clubs where he performs rhetorical exercises, balancing his two-handed gestures like Vishnu holding his ‘conch’ and ‘wheel’, is a fantastic promotional strategy for his forthcoming Robot 2.0. A dream-come-true opportunity at no cost for the marketing agents to prop up their superstar in order to raise expectations as large as Bahubali 2. While this publicity campaign proliferates across all media, one also wonders what augurs behind the ‘open’ secret meetings between Amit Shah and Rajinikanth, Panneerselvam and Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal meeting with protesting Tamil Nadu farmers at Jantar Mantar. What is the plot, where is the action and how is the romantic interest going to play out?

Yes, it sounds like a screenplay from a non-linear Chris Nolan narrative which requires some serious introspection when the audiences know one thing for sure—becoming a chief minister or a parliamentarian in India needs no experience, no education and very little talent. It is all about popularity and how much it can peak on the election date. Sadly, this is the trend in many of the developed nations too. The question is, how much does the ‘popularity’ quotient match with its ‘progressive’ intent and capability? Pertinent here is also the fact that every Dravidian party has the term ‘Murpokku’ or ‘progressive’ in their party names. Rajinikanth’s popularity in Tamil Nadu is undoubtedly unmatchable by anybody else in the state. But is there any ‘progressive’ intent to move forward a state stuck in a political ICU? Going by one of his statements, it betrays any potential of such kind. As quoted in The Hindu, he said, “Tamil Nadu has good leaders like Stalin, Anbumani Ramadoss and Seeman but the system is itself rotten. Democracy is rotten. People’s notion about democracy needs to change.” Cleverly he has not lauded anybody from the present AIADMK set of infighting leaders.

He makes it clear that progress can be driven only by able leaders but when the system is rotten, they can do very little. The meta- talk informs us that these ‘clean, non-corrupt’ leaders have indeed worked very hard like himself to increase their ‘popularity’ ratings but ‘progressing’ or moving forward a system is not their responsibility and therefore they should not be held accountable. What kind of ‘politics’ is this where systems of governance have to be executed by other forms of agency while elected leaders have to merely organise centenary celebrations for their leaders? The statement is obviously an indictment of the existing legislative, judicial and executive apparatuses. Rajinikanth seems to be telling us that this ‘system’ has atrophied and rotted to such an extent that when he takes on a new political avatar, a real war will have to be waged. There is no contesting of the governing leaders and yet he declares that when he does step into the arena, ‘god-willing’, he will ensure that all the corrupt elements shall be eliminated. How does he plan to do that? Does he have any means other than a ‘democratic’ platform to come into a position of leadership? Is he in the process of authoring a new political credo called ‘Rajinikanthism’ for his beloved masses? ‘En Vazhi, Thani Vazhi’ (My path is always different). I am sure fans will be chuckling away on hearing such superstar aphorisms.

For the first time we are witnessing in a Dravidian space recognised for its atheistic beliefs, a potential leader who openly advocates that he is listening to some god’s voice

It is indeed sad that an actor like him who has seen days of bitter struggle from the early 70s in an alien terrain of Tamilians and challenged demigods like Sivaji Ganesan and MGR feels like this today. Forgotten are his mentors like K Balachander, Bharatiraja and Mahendran who had the guts to take upon the decadent platforms of Dravidian platitudes and syrupy concoctions of feudal patriarchal sermons. He was blessed to be part of a crusade where ‘going back to the grassroots’, resonated in the brilliant music of Ilayaraja, the layered lyrics by Vairamuthu and the earthy screenplays by Bhagyaraj. These were not artists who complained that the system was rotten but leaders who took on the onus to change and make ‘progress’ happen. Rajinikanth was accommodated into such a system largely because he was capable of immense hard work and the trust that he placed in his fellow filmmakers. Where is that Rajinikanth today?

Yet again, it is sad to say that his fans strongly believe he can gain access into the larger BJP-driven political arena because of his constant invocation of an almighty who ‘guides’ his vision. For the first time we are witnessing in a Dravidian space recognised for its atheistic (at least, strongly agnostic) beliefs, a potential leader who openly advocates that he is listening to some god’s voice. This must be sounding so melodious for the ‘Ayodhya Temple’ conch-blowing BJP leaders from Delhi. Images of Rajinikanth’s Babaji have already appeared in his films and stories of his frequent ‘secret’ trips to the Himalayas to visit his spiritual mentor are common folklore in Tamil Nadu. One can realise the comfort that BJP leaders will experience in such company at his Poes Garden residence in Chennai. And just a few streets away in Alwarpet, his dear compatriot Kamal Haasan continues to be a strong critique of the political failure in Tamil Nadu while declaring himself to be an atheist and one of the last torch bearers of the Periyar legacy. In the ocean of electoral politics that the BJP is trying to navigate, this Alwarpet island would be the last point they would like to drop anchor.

Coming back to the debate of whether the Tamil Nadu system is rotten or not, a bit of education is necessary. Rajinikanth needs to recognise that Tamil Nadu is actually in the forefront when it comes to primary health services being offered across India, the noon-meal schemes, women’s education, industrial growth especially in the IT sector and efficiency in the state’s intra-regional transport connectivity. The MGNREGA scheme in Tamil Nadu have successfully empowered women and Dalit communities in appreciable ways. To quote from The Journal of Agrarian Change, ‘It has also produced significant transformative outcomes for rural labourers, such as pushing up rural wage levels, enhancing low-caste workers’ bargaining power in the labour market and reducing their dependency on high-caste employers. These benefits are not only substantial but also transformative in that they effect rural relations of production and contribute to the empowerment of the rural labouring poor.’ Though this sounds like the victorious climax scene from an earlier Rajinikanth film called Yejmaan, it could not be happening if the system was totally rotten. The reason for the state’s backward image is actually thanks to the self-gratifying ‘good’ political leaders that Rajinikanth has referred to. Of course, there is corruption in other sectors, but one can reasonably conclude that progress happens when the agency for grassroots action is conducted by competent personnel and where authority is delegated in manageable proportions. Are all these schemes listed above also ‘popular’ and getting their due media attention? The answer—does it matter? So long as it works, it does not need to be popular. True progress is silent while popularity tends to be noisy. Either we quieten the noise of today’s politicians or we rise above it to see where and how progress is taking place.

Rajinikanth is now more of a mascot for the quixotic lumpen from the 70s, dreaming loud and rebelling louder against all establishments

So, will Rajinikanth enter politics or not? We need not tense ourselves much on this. He has been giving false alarms such as this for the last ten years and Tamilians have learned to sleep happily with this alarm clock. If he does not enter, it is back to the Himalayan folktale. But if he does this time around, then there are the following options. Last on the list is a Rajya Sabha membership. If not anything else, this will put him in the inactive ‘couldn’t-care-less’ club of celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha. And his fans will add the suffix ‘MP’ on all their banners. Next on the list could be playing the role of a ‘Brand Ambassador’ for the BJP and their various schemes from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to Pravasi Bhartiya Sammelan where a special wing could be created to address NRIs from Malaysia, Singapore and maybe Sri Lanka. Higher on the list is the complicated job of getting all the infighting AIADMK members to come onto a common platform. Refrain them next from genuflecting, as is their Pavlovian condition when they see supremo Narendra Modi on the day of reckoning when the alliance will be solemnised. Though imagining such an occasion requires a very high level of creativity but as they say, anything is possible in Indian politics.

Let us also remember that such alliances are not new in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. The DMK, AIADMK, DMDK and MDMK have at various times joined hands with the Congress, CPI, CPM and the BJP to form or break governments. This time around, juggernauts like MGR are not alive. Could Rajinikanth masquerade as one? Will he be accepted as the supremo, an incorrigible practice, so far in Tamil Nadu’s party politics? We can already see the sad fate of ex-film star Vijayakanth within the ranks of his DMDK and its electoral disasters. Yet again, can Rajinikanth, an admirer of Amitabh Bachchan, reinvent himself and fit into the ‘old-age’ roles like his friend? Can he learn from the political misadventure of Big B? But before Rajinikanth can even take his first step up, he is already being accused of not being a true Tamilian. In short, it’s not going to be as easy as one thinks.

To do some deeper reading ,one also needs to introspect inside the new wave of Tamil cinema today. The leaders of young Tamil cinema have successfully distanced themselves from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, quite in the same way their mentors jettisoned Sivaji Ganesan and MGR in the 70s. Tamil cinema fortunately does not work inside the claustrophobia of a star system like Bollywood which dictates costs, rates and release dates. Tamil cinema has other problems to face and can do very well today without the presence of Rajinikanth. He is now more of a mascot for the quixotic lumpen from the 70s, dreaming loud and rebelling louder against all establishments. Can Rajinikanth keep himself afloat without the cinematic life jacket? I am sure he can. His last few films saw him more as a comfortable clone inside a spectacle created by a complex maze of special effects and gigantic sets. And from all reliable sources, he is known to be an honest spiritual recluse and therefore this sudden catapulting himself into a ridiculous political trapeze seems a pure marketing gimmick for Robot 2.0. So when he said in conclusion “Go home and do your work. The day we have to fight the war, we will take care of it”, the fans could have actually understood it as “Go buy tickets in large numbers. The day we launch Robot 3.0, you shall be duly informed.”