Ever since Rajinikanth, the superstar of Tamil films, announced his intention to make a formal entry into the political fray in Tamil Nadu, both national and regional media have been speculating endlessly on the impact the actor’s intention might have on the present players, and prospects of his emergence as a significant political force in the electoral politics of the state. For his part, Rajinikanth has clarified that he intends to form a political party just a few months ahead of the 2021 elections to the state assembly; he has exhorted his fans and followers to refrain in the meantime from criticising the government of the day or agitating over any social/political issues. Before we try to demystify this outline of his programme of political action, we must make sense of his career in the film industry thus far, and, thereby, his popular image which underlies his political aspirations.
Shivajirrao Gaikwad, a working-class youth from Bangalore in the Seventies, came to Madras looking for acting opportunities in the Tamil film industry. He was spotted by K Balachander, an eminent filmmaker who went on to win the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Balachander gave him his debut role in the film Apoorva Raagangal (1975). As a young man of fiery temperament at odds with the world, Rajinikanth was chosen, over the next few years, to play men with dark sides to their character. His acting talent, backed by men like Balachander, was never in doubt. The actor was featured as the first or second male lead in a series of remarkable and successful films such Moonru Mudichu (1976), Avargal (1977), Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri (1977), 16 Vayathinile (1977), Ilamai Oonjaladugirathu (1978), Mullum Malarum (1978) and Aval Appadithan (1978). Impetuous, defiant and exuding a rough charm and bad-boy glamour, he was instantly popular with the audience in spite of the negative characters he portrayed. His wit and humour were not lost on leading filmmakers like SP Muthuraman and Balachander, who cast him, respectively, in entertainers like Priya (1978) and Ninaithale Inikkum (1979), which were highly successful at the box office.
By 1980, Rajinikanth had developed his unique “style”, comprising a set of mannerisms, body language, and a studied — almost preposterous — nonchalance. All he needed was that essential hallmark of the “action” hero: the ability to fight many men single-handedly and emerge triumphant. AVM, one of the biggest production houses in the south, obliged by making Murattu Kalai (or Ferocious Bull) in 1980 with all the ingredients of a mass entertainer. G Dhananjayan, film historian writes, “With Murattu Kalai, Rajinikanth went from being an acting hero to an action hero. He became a larger-than-life hero and superstar after this film.” This was the first blockbuster film that the “superstar” made with AVM and its resident director, SP Muthuraman. Rajinikanth would make 20 more films directed by Muthuraman based on scripts tailormade for his superstar image.
The turn in Rajinikanth’s film roles coincided with a larger trend in Tamil cinema of that time. Starting in 1980, a set of Tamil films made that were critical of the social reality of that time — Thanneer, Thanneer (1980), Ezhavathu Manithan (1982), Kann Sivanthal Mann Sivakkum (1983), Oru Indhiya Kanavu (1983) and Acchamillai, Acchamillai (1984) either ran into trouble with the censors or failed miserably at the box-office. Though such films were bold in their treatment of the deteriorating social environment during the second term of MG Ramachandran as chief minister (1980-84), the scope for making such films simply vanished under a repressive regime. The focus of the Tamil film industry on mass entertainers was now single-minded, with Rajinikanth leading from the front with his assiduously cultivated superstar image.
The male lead played by the “superstar” in most films was simple, virtuous, and rose from a humble beginning to great heights. He triumphed with ease over men of great power and daunting circumstances. He also fought his enemies ferociously, reducing them to pulp in what seemed like no time to the accompaniment of well-produced sound effects. Each film had an introductory sequence for the hero, dramatic with extreme prejudice and aimed at pushing all the buttons of his adoring audience, who broke into a frenzy, whistling and clapping, the moment he appeared on screen. The whole exercise was manipulative and regressive, but the mindless adulation of fans was sold to the public as a thing in nature, unavoidable and unquestionably benign, a good thing.
The advent of the Nineties shifted the Rajinikanth paradigm. The proliferation of electronic media, along with the new-fangled capability for multi-pronged marketing and promotion of a film through all available media, provided the producer/distributor had the money to invest, changed the way superstar vehicles were made and marketed. The budget for such films and the salaries of stars who acted in them climbed to astronomical levels, as did the outlay on advertising and promotion. Through relentless chatter over a variety of media, the star (or his image) was made an integral part of the popular culture, which shaped and enhanced the reception of each individual film at the time of its release. In Bollywood, a similar phenomenon was set in motion for Amitabh Bachchan, a superstar brand that was maintained in place by the concerted operation of big capital and corporate media, with not a little help from the political class. The making of Rajini, the superstar, followed the same pattern. A brand like Rajinikanth, when marketed with saturation coverage, is a winning proposition for everyone involved: producers, distributors, media outlets, marketing and advertising agencies, theater owners and all others whose survival depends on the film industry at various levels.
The new paradigm had its own implications. With big budgets, the number of films came down drastically. Rajinikanth starred in 64 films during 1978-87 but only 26 films were made during the next 10 years. Fairy-tale plots that deliberately avoided any semblance of reality were a reliable feature of Rajinikanth films during this period. There was drama, but no dominant values in society were ever challenged. In particular, the subordinate position of women was repeatedly emphasised and reinforced in films like Padayappa (1999) and Annamalai (1992). Everything revolved around the superstar and his image. He was deified not only off screen but in the course of a film’s narrative as well. It would be fair to say that Rajinikanth’s cinema was, like any successful business, conservative, risk-averse and highly profitable.
The only time Rajinikanth the superstar played a political role was in 1996, when he delivered a blistering speech, advising the people of Tamil Nadu against voting for Jayalalithaa, the incumbent chief minister, in the assembly elections held that year. The actual difference he made to the eventual victory of the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress combine is anybody’s guess, but Rajinikanth was soon back on cordial terms with Jayalalithaa and never crossed her or indeed any other politician again in the 20 years since. In fact, Enthiran, released in 2010, was able to commandeer more than 75 per cent of all available screens in Tamil Nadu, largely on the basis of the political clout of its distributors, who were connected to the DMK’s ruling family. It is, perhaps, to maintain such amicable relations that he has advised his fans to refrain from criticising the government or the political class until he is ready to make his move.
Given the above background — a mishmash of superhero image, saturation marketing and social and political conservatism — that promised move must remain a chimera for most observers who privilege material reality over abstractions and false projections. That it is being discussed so avidly in Tamil Nadu is only a symptom of the hollowed-out nature of the state’s extant political discourse.
N Kalyan Raman is a writer and translator in Chennai. He wrote an overview of Tamil cinema in the book Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India.