It was 1980, and Saidai. G. Ravi fell in love with a bell-bottom-clad “god”. Rajinikanth’s double act as don and village bumpkin in the film, Billa, left Ravi wide-eyed and eager to start a fan club. “I am an atheist, but I started to worship him as a god,” Ravi, in his forties now, told documentary filmmakers many years later, the windscreen of his auto-rickshaw plastered with photos of his Thalaivar (leader).
Earlier this year, he was expelled from the All India Rajinikanth Fans Welfare Association for “acting against the unity, discipline and regulations” laid down by the actor. Sources close to Ravi — he could not be contacted — blamed a disagreement between him and the association head. Some admitted that Ravi had opposed the idea of the actor’s entry into politics.
In May this year, Rajinikanth said that he would like to change the “corrupt” system in Tamil Nadu and asked his supporters to wait for the “war”. In Chennai, fans struggled to interpret the speech. Many saw it as a typical film dialogue. Television channels speculated that he was joining the BJP. “Nobody knows the meaning of ‘war’,” said a fan.
“Superstar” Rajinikanth’s “family” roughly extends across 40,000 fan clubs in Tamil Nadu, as well as multiple Facebook and WhatsApp groups. To place that in context: MG Ramachandran, who ruled Tamil Nadu politics from 1977 till his death in 1987, had 28,000 fan clubs when he floated the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1972.
The legions of Rajinikanth’s devoted fans are a socio-cultural phenomenon, but do they add up to a political force? How enthused they are by Rajinikanth’s possible reinvention depends, perhaps, on their age.
Those who were young men in the 1980s come with the baggage of having voted for one Dravidian party or another for years. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the AIADMK have ruled the state for 50 years. But the younger fans declare their love via the internet. They are cynical about party politics and will gladly offer their vote to a man they say they know intimately.
As a “hardcore fan”, Ranjani Manoharan finds Rajinikanth a very “down to earth” person. I’d be the first one to go line up in a polling station in support of him,” said the 27-year-old IT professional, who was among the thousands of Jallikattu protestors in Chennai early this year. “People are in a phase [in Tamil Nadu] where they are ready to accept a new leader and new ideas for the state, and this is the right time for Rajini to leverage that,” she said.
Fifty-four-year-old Ponneri Sekar is the head of Aduthu Varisu Fan Club in Thiruvallur district, named after Rajinikanth’s 1983 film by the same name. His politics has largely mimicked the pendulum-swinging politics of Tamils, voting in and out the two main Dravidian parties by turn. “I have always voted based on who the local candidate is,” Sekar said. This pattern was broken in 1996. “That year, Thalaivar told us to vote for the DMK, so we did.” What if Rajini joins politics? “Vandhal magizhchi, varlena magizhchi. If he joins politics, I will be happy. If he doesn’t, I will be happy,” he said.
1996 was an anomaly for 56-year-old T. Nagar S. Palani’s voting patterns too. An ardent fan of MGR, Palani voted rettai ellai (two leaves, the symbol of the AIADMK) for years. This would change in the late 1970s, when as a tenth-grader, he watched his first Rajinikanth film. “My friends and I would also get together and cycle to Poes Garden to see him,” he said. At the time, it was easy to catch a glimpse of the actor, often spotted wearing a lungi and hanging around his front porch.
In the run-up to the 1996 polls, there was a tiff between Rajinikanth and AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa, prompting his now famous comment that even god would not be able to save Tamil Nadu if she was voted back to power. “A few years before that, Rajinikanth’s film Annamalai had released and there was a song that showed him pedalling a cycle — TMC’s symbol at the time,” recalled BS Gnanadesikan, Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) senior vice-president and ex-Member of Parliament. The actor helped firm up the alliance between the TMC, led by GK Moopanar, and the DMK. It swept the polls.
If that was a year ripe for Rajinikanth’s transformation into the politician, it passed off uneventfully. The years to come, especially the early 2000s, saw a lull. His clout was challenged in 2004, when the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) of S Ramadoss swept all the seats it contested despite the actor appealing to his fans to work against the PMK. Ramadoss had miffed Rajinikanth by questioning his on-screen smoking habit.
With Rajinikanth’s films releasing two or three years apart, the fan clubs grew restless, even inactive. “Rajini’s fans were getting old,” said one of his millennial fans. The internet would save the day. In 2008, a group of young men in Chennai began discussing Rajinikanth on the then social-networking website, Orkut. The actor had just taken part in a hunger strike to protest Karnataka’s stance on the Hogenakkal Falls water dispute. “There was only one website then, called ‘onlysuperstar.com’,” said G. Sathyakumaran, 27, one of Rajini’s early online fans. “Within a year, the Superstar Rajinikanth Orkut page had one lakh members,” he said. Two years later, when Tamil men started signing up for Facebook, Rajinikanth’s fan base grew online. It now has over 4 lakh fans.
Desingh Periyasamy, a 33-year-old filmmaker, always votes for a “third party other than DMK or AIADMK”. “Every fan will tell you they transformed from being a fan of Rajini ‘the actor’ to Rajini ‘the human’. Only the latter remains for us,” he said.
But there are sceptics too. “Politics cannot be a retirement activity for Rajini now,” political commentator Aazhi Senthilnathan said. “He may be a superstar but he has to stand for something. He does not have an ideological base or a powerful community backing him in Tamil Nadu,” he said. Senthilnathan cited the example of Tamil-actor ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth, who floated the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, and served as leader of opposition in the Tamil Nadu assembly for five years. Before that, he had spent a considerable amount of time, mobilising his fan clubs along caste lines.
Others say that the very idea behind Rajinikanth is a caste-neutral one. This neutrality, which comes from not being a member of the majority castes, had helped Karunanidhi, MGR and J Jayalalithaa transcend power squabbles. In Tamil Nadu, members of majority castes like Gounders, Vanniyars and Thevars have been comfortable working under an outsider than a leader from a competing caste. But is this enough to see him through?
“MGR played roles that helped him mobilise support off-screen. He never drank on-screen, for instance. That was one of the main reasons he had so many women supporters since Tamil Nadu has an alcohol problem,” said Karthik, a photographer who documents MGR fan clubs. “The same cannot be said of Rajini. You cannot apologise now for roles you have played in the past.”
But 33-year-old Periyasamy will, without a doubt, vote for Thalaivar. “Has anyone you know returned after voting and said: ‘Pa, inniku samma da (What a great day!)’? We don’t know anything about our candidates. But we know everything about Rajinikanth. We follow him blindly,” he said.
Hero and hero worship: (Top) A political poster outside Raghavendra Marriage Hall in Kodambakkam, Chennai, where Rajinikanth met fans in May; and first day-first show celebrations for the actor’s 2014 film Lingaa. The poster reads “golden leader”.