There was once a Tamil cinema where Rajinikanth was not the macho hero going about bashing hundred-odd villains. There was once a Tamil cinema where he was both vulnerable and raw – a combination that perhaps made Rajinikanth the most loved actor in the state. He was less intimidating those days. He could make you smile and cry. He could make you laugh and wonder. He was the kind of satisfaction a film-goer in Tamil Nadu would expect to have in a theatre after three long hours.
In J Mahendran’s legendary Mullum Malarum (1978), both his vulnerability and rawness found its fullest expression – vulnerable at the possibility of losing his sister to a love affair and rawness when he braves a handicap caused by a professional hazard. When Rajinikanth breaks into the song Raman aandaalum raavanan aandaalum enakkoru kavalai illa (I care a hoot, whoever rules – whether it’s Rama or Ravana), you cannot help but be awed by his very infectious raw energy.
Somewhere in 1980s Rajinikanth ceased to be that actor. It is as much the loss of Tamil cinema as it is for a once-upon-a-time fan like me. Somewhere in 1980s he began to act in movies like Thanga Magan that gave him an opportunity to express his masculinity and associated ‘power’, than vulnerability and rawness. For those who closely follow Rajinikanth, it is evident that he had then stealthily begun to follow the footsteps of actor turned former Chief Minister M G Ramachandran in his films. Like MGR, he would put down his heroines and ‘tame’ them, while deifying his mother. He would single-handedly bash up the wrong-doers and go on to evolve an inimitable style for himself. Perhaps even then, he had secretly nurtured his still uncertain political ambitions. Only the uncertainty lingers on.
On May 15, when Rajinikanth met his fans and announced that God willing he would enter politics, he was only extending this uncertainty. The game began in 1996 – close on the heels of his very successful movie Baasha – when he strongly voiced his opinion against the then Jayalalithaa government. Rajinikanth perhaps tried to do a real life Baasha – the iconic movie that solidified his position as superstar – in doing so. But the buck stopped there.
Somehow when it actually came to crossing the bridge, Rajinikanth always took a step back. After Baasha, many of his films had either direct or indirect references, he touched upon it directly or indirectly in several of the functions that he took part in. But somehow Rajinikanth could never bring himself to take the actual plunge. The game has now become tiringly monotonous. So when Rajinikanth dropped like what seemed a hint at entering politics on May 15, there was understandably no excitement – except in the camps of BJP which expects him to give the party a lease of life in the state and perhaps among a section of his ardent fans. On the contrary, social media was flooded with memes that took a not-so-kind look at this prolonged drama.
But Rajinikanth perhaps has little choice. He had to keep his fans pleased. They were when he gave his voice in 1996 elections. It is also why he couldn’t bring himself to take the big step now. Rajinikanth knew that he has lost the momentum of 1996 elections when the public sentiment was so overwhelmingly in his favour. He might end up doing another Vijayakanth – and not MGR – if he took the plunge now. That 1996 poll moment that would have ensured a place for him in Tamil Nadu’s political history is now gone. Even if he eventually joins the BJP, Rajinikanth knows the response would be lukewarm, not earth-shaking as it would have possibly been in 1996.
Caught in this uneasy dilemma of keeping his fans pleased and to not rock the boat for himself, Rajinikanth will keep dropping hints while staying away from the political waters. It is in Rajinikanth’s interest that the drama doesn’t end soon. But for others, it is time to end this. Most of us in the state are aware that heroes atop horses on a rescue mission are only fairy tale types. We are no longer waiting for them.