“I am a pachai Tamizhan,” thundered superstar Rajinikanth in May this year. Born into a Marathi family in Bengaluru, Shivaji Rao Gaekwad – now famously known as Rajinikanth – had hoped to set the record straight, once and for all, over where his loyalties lie.
It was in the last fans meeting held in Chennai in May that the actor had addressed criticism over his identity, stating, “I am always asked if I am Tamizhan. I am 66 years old. I lived for 22 years in Karnataka and for 44 years in Tamil Nadu. I may have come here as a Marathi or Kannadiga. But you all gave me love, respect and fame. You made me a Tamizhan. I am a pachchai Tamizhan.”
The intention behind the declaration was clear – to leapfrog over the attack that would be directed at him, once he made his entry into politics. But over the past 40 decades, what has the superstar done to espouse the Tamil cause?
Interlinking of rivers
It is over the Cauvery issue that Rajinikanth has been most vocal while demanding the state’s share of water. It was in October 2002 that the star was perhaps first forced to react over the Cauvery water dispute after director Bharatiraaja accused him of not raising his voice for Tamil Nadu – insinuating that Rajinikanth’s loyalties lay with Karnataka. The very next day, on October 12, Rajini undertook a nine-hour fast in Chennai. Leading a contingent of those belonging to the film fraternity, the superstar demanded that the Karnataka government release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, as ordered by the Supreme Court.
It was at the same hunger protest that Rajinikanth pledged to donate Rs 1 crore for the interlinking of rivers – an issue that has remained dear to him. Arguing that the solution to the water disputes lies in the interlinking of the Himalayan and peninsular rivers, Rajini had then said, "If the government says it has no money to implement the scheme, then I hereby announce a personal donation of Rs 1 crore from my personal funds.”
In a follow-up interview to The Hindu days after his much-publicised fast, Rajinikanth had expressed his desire to launch a “people’s movement” on the Cauvery issue and the interlinking of rivers.
“Politicians were not interested in thinking beyond an election. They did not have a vision for even five years — just for ‘three or four years’ — he said. Thus, there was need for persons like him stepping in: Persons who did not have a political plank and who could talk to leaders of different political parties,” said Rajinikanth to the daily.
But the people’s movement, he had envisioned, remained only on paper. In fact, 15 years after the Cauvery fast, the superstar was reminded of the pledge in June this year, when farmers requested Rajinikanth to hand over the promised sum of Rs 1 crore to the Prime Minister, in order to kickstart the ambitious project.
In 2008, a fiery Rajinikanth raised his voice after protests broke out in neighbouring Karnataka over the Hogenakkal project – which aimed to drinking water to the parched districts of Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu. Participating in the hunger strike called by the film industry, an aggressive Rajini launched an attack on Karnataka’s political class – who he accused of politicking for the sake of elections in that state.
But only days after his attack, the superstar was forced to make peace after pro-Kannada groups threatened to disrupt the release of his film Kuselan. Expressing regret over the remarks he made, Rajini said, “It was a mistake. I have learnt a big lesson. What's important is that the mistake is not repeated. I will be careful while speaking in future and see that I don't hurt anybody."
Since then, the superstar has remained largely reticent – choosing to remain silent even when the Tamil Nadu has erupted in protests over various issues.
That long silence will now have to be broken. As Rajini – the pachchai Thamizhan – forays into politics, he will not only have to make his voice heard, but also have to make it count.