In the 1977 face-off in Aadu Puli Attam (The Goat and the Tiger game) between hero Kamal Haasan and villain Rajinikanth, the latter has a signature line that is so Rajinikanth. At critical junctures in the film when the tension between the protagonist and the antagonist reaches a zenith, Rajinikanth, who is called Rajini in the movie, laces his retort with “Idhu thaan Rajini style” (This is Rajini style) followed by a menacing laugh.
Sunday too was the day of the one-liner. “Naa arasiyallukku varuvadhu urudhi” (My entry into politics is certain), Rajinikanth declared to loud cheer from the assembly of his fans. It was like the tape had been rewound to 40 years ago. Delivering the punch line, shaking up the political world of Tamil Nadu on the last day of the year, was indeed a case of “Idhu thaan Rajini style”.
After Rajini and Kamal had done a few hit movies together in the 1970s, the latter suggested that the two should not act together anymore. Kamal felt it would allow Rajini to explore himself as the leading man instead of playing the stylish villain opposite him. It is a quirk of fate that Rajini and Kamal now find themselves once again together in the political cinemascope of Tamil Nadu, pitted against each other.
If indeed both Rajini and Kamal stay the course till the next assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, it would be quite a casting coup. Director Shankar had tried it by offering the villain’s role in 2.0 to Kamal opposite Rajini. After Kamal refused, the role went to Akshay Kumar.
It is a given that Rajini in politics affects Kamal more than Kamal in politics affects Rajinikanth. Kamal and perhaps Vishal, as the only two Kollywood-ians trying their luck in the political theatre, would have received some traction from the voters but if two is company, three is a crowd. More so if the third person happens to be Rajinikanth.
Kamal was quick to tweet his good wishes to “brother” Rajini from the US but he knows that just like the regular political parties in Tamil Nadu, he too will have to go back to the drawing board to reconfigure his plans to take care of the Rajinikanth factor. That’s because while Rajini has always been a mass hero with a pan-Tamil Nadu appeal, Kamal, though a far better artiste, has been considered more intellectual, with a more urban appeal. It is felt that this would limit Kamal’s political influence. Rajini’s presence would only emphasise that impression further.
The background they come from also plays a part. Kamal is a Brahmin and this impression of privilege would be deemed a disadvantage in the OBC-driven politics of Tamil Nadu. Rajini by virtue of having started his career as a bus conductor in Bengaluru is seen as having risen through the ranks.
Interestingly, both Rajini and Kamal have chosen the fight against corruption as their political vehicle. It is appropriate given how political corruption at the time of elections has reduced the process to a farce, with the system unable to combat both the bribe givers and the bribe takers.
If Kamal was critical of the ruling AIADMK when he tweeted about corruption in the system, Rajini in May 2017 vowed to keep the tainted elements at arm’s length. “If there is a situation where I have to enter politics, I will never let such people (who are interested in politics for money) even come near me,” he said. But the jury is out on whether mere jingoism from the pulpit will ensure that the people reject those who look to buy votes with wads of cash.
Both Rajini and Kamal bring to the table a similar method to woo the voters – through the big screen. For Rajini, 2.0 and Kaala are perfect political vehicles. While 2.0 will look to impress the young with sci-fi 3D effects and make a mark in urban Tamil Nadu, Kaala will buttress his credentials as a leader whose heart beats for the underprivileged, à la MGR. In contrast, Kamal’s Vishwaroopam, a fight against terrorism, may not find the same traction though the sequel to Indian, which is yet to go on the floors, may reinforce his corruption crusader image.
Many of their fans interestingly note that a Rajini vs Kamal fight will work to the advantage of the Dravidian players. The political parties in Tamil Nadu are fed up of just about every film star wanting to do an MGR and Jayalalithaa, parachuting from Kollywood to Fort St George. Ironical as it may seem, having both Rajini and Kamal together in the arena and cutting into each other’s votes presents them with a golden opportunity to end this campus recruitment forever.
Which is why many of the fans want Rajini and Kamal to join hands. At an event in Chennai in September, Kamal said, “There are questions whether I will join hands with Rajinikanth in politics. If Rajini enters politics, I will join hands with him.”
But statements designed to hit the headlines apart, such a jugalbandi is unlikely to fructify because if in the 70s there was a sense of professional jealousy between the two, four decades later the two are poles apart in terms of ideology. A combo offer to the public may look good on hoardings but the inherent contradictions will make the offering distasteful.
And the two friends are more than aware of how different they are. Enthiran (Robot in Hindi) was originally planned by Shankar with Kamal Haasan but the film did not proceed beyond the initial photoshoot. Shankar subsequently made the film with Rajinikanth.
In Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, the Superstar revealed to his biographer Naman Ramachandran, “I told him you have written the script with Kamal Haasan in mind. If you keep him in mind while looking at me, I can’t do it. Shankar’s reply to me was, ‘Am I a fool?’ He told me he had changed the script to suit me. When I was shooting for Enthiran, I noticed that Shankar kept looking at the monitor. Even after seven or eight takes, he wouldn’t say okay. So I told him, ‘I’d told you in the beginning – forget Kamal.’”
Views expressed are the author’s own.