The Rajini-Kamal dynamic: Rivals yet friends in cinema and politics

Having taken two divergent paths in cinema, the two actors are now set to take two different routes in politics – but one thing is clear, history is being rewritten.
The Rajini-Kamal dynamic: Rivals yet friends in cinema and politics
The Rajini-Kamal dynamic: Rivals yet friends in cinema and politics
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Tamil cinema basks in its star rivalries and, once in every couple of decades, heroes are pitted against each other on-screen.

The Rajinikanth-Kamal Haasan ‘rivalry’ is a great example of this. They may have shared the limelight together, but their fans remained firmly divided.

And now, the two have managed to split the masses once again – this time through their politics.

For decades now, Rajinikanth has masterfully eluded his fans’ questions of when would make his political debut, always brushing off comments with his diplomatic answer: “Only time will tell.”

Thalaivar, as he is referred to, finally made his entry into politics on December 31, 2017, to a hall packed with his die-hard fans. "My entry into politics is certain. I will form my own political party and contest from all 234 seats in the next assembly election,” he announced amidst loud cheers and hoots.

Now, more than ever, people feel this statement has come late by at least two decades. Rajini’s 1996 political comment against Jayalalithaa is significant even to this date for having turned the tides in favour of DMK. The actor, however, was not ready to even graze Tamil Nadu’s political surface back then, consistently skirting every question that came his way.

On December 31 he officiated his entry to “spiritual politics”. “Devoid of caste, a spiritual governance, spiritual politics, honesty and transparency: That's my goal,” he said.

Since then, many have been trying to read between the lines of the actor’s statement. 

Although it was Kamal who first dabbled in politics, Rajini beat him to it by making his entry official. This scenario is not very different from their initial days in cinema. 

The early years

When Rajinikanth made his debut in films in 1975, Kamal Haasan was already a major star. He was five years old when he played the innocent orphan Selvam in his first film Kalathur Kannamma (1960).

By 1975, Kamal Haasan had acted in more than 25 films. In 1975 alone, Kamal had 14 films to his credit, including four in Malayalam.

And what kind of characters was he playing?

From a young man in love with a young widow in Aval Oru Thodarkadhai to a young man in love with an older woman in Aboorva Raagangal, Kamal did not think twice about lapping up the roles that came his way.

Such was his appetite when it came to doing more and more films – in an early interview he spoke about his enthusiasm, saying that wanted to be a part of all casting calls.

“I used to be overenthusiastic and I was constantly checking all the roles that were being offered. During one season, I learnt that Balachander sir was doing two films simultaneously, one of which I was already a part of. But still I wanted to be sure that they didn't give the better role to the newcomer. So when I ran to the auditions, I saw several of people from various film institutes standing outside. There was also someone from the Pune institute, but he didn't make it,” he said.

He added, “There was one guy, trained at Madras Film Institute, who had also come for the audition. I was a little relaxed on learning that he was coming from Madras Film Institute and not Pune. But director Balachander immediately liked him and he was cast in the film. That actor was Rajinikanth.” 

Fearing that it would be a better role, Kamal requested the director to cast him in the other role as well. K Balachander had to assuage his doubts and assure him that the newcomer would only be playing a small role in it – only then did Kamal let it go.

Rajinikanth’s first movie was K Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal and although he had a small role to play in it, he turned several heads with his iconic entry scene.

His second Tamil film Moondru Mudichu (1976) was with Kamal again and Rajini played the antagonist Prasath. With this movie, Rajini was seen as one of the best anti-heroes in Tamil cinema.

Thus followed a number of films like Avargal, Aadu Puli Aattam, 16 Vayadhinile, etc., that saw Rajini playing the villain.

His first film as hero, however, came only in 1978 with Bhairavi.

Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan went on to work in several films together, from 1975 to 1980. In 1978 and 1979 alone they did six films together – Thappu Thalangal, Aval Appadithan, Ilaimai Onnjal Aadugiradhu, Ninaithale Inikkum, Allauddinum Abhutha Vilakkum and Thaayilammal Naan Illai.

1978 also saw Rajini rise to Kamal’s stature, making a good 20 films in that year alone; he also received the Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize for his stellar performance as Kaali in J Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum.

It was only a matter of time before Rajini’s easy style beat Kamal’s, and he overtook the latter. The duo was last seen together in Ninaithale Inikkum (1979) in which Kamal played the lead.

The split

The relationship between Rajini and Kamal is a unique one. Although arch-rivals, they’ve always been respectful towards each other, speaking nothing but praise when one is asked about the other. The industry, in fact, has prided itself on their relationship off screen.

Both nurtured by K Balachander, took on different styles of acting, establishing their trademark in the industry – Rajini with his swag and Kamal with his acting prowess. 

If we were to compare their careers, it is easy for us to notice how Superstar Rajinikanth attained his cult following with lesser effort than it took Ulaganayagan Kamal Haasan.

All it took for him have the crowds eating out of his hands was him flipping his sunglasses or flipping a cigarette into his mouth with easy grace.

Sharing an anecdote, Kamal once said, “While doing Avargal together, we were talking about our acting styles and I was asking him how long he was only going to keep flipping his sunglasses. And Rajini also asked me how long I was going to pursue my style of acting. And we both kept denying the other’s style, confident that ours alone would win. That day, under the neem tree, those young boys knew what would work for them and they kept at it. I often look back to that day, that conversation.”

Their stark contrast in acting styles is also a reflection of their personalities.

In the ’80s, the two actors went their separate ways and made it clear that they wouldn’t be collaborating anymore. With both of them becoming giants in their own right, it became impossible to expect the two to share screen space again. 

What Rajini did with his style, Kamal compensated for with his performances, fashioning himself as the intellectual.

From early on, he chose films that most mainstream actors would reject – thus putting him on a whole other dimension compared to others in the industry.

As early as 1980, Kamal did Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, playing a youth disillusioned with the socialist idea of a society – a film that explored unemployment and poverty in free India. Kamal won several awards for his performance in this film. 

His 1988 film Sathya was a social drama, where he played the role of a righteous, unemployed youth. The film had strong socio-political themes that explored the plight of the young, middle class, unemployed youths from the country.

Again in 1988, he played the role of a social reformer in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, which also discussed class discrimination.

With films like Nayagan (1987), Thevar Maghan (1992), Mahanadhi (1994) and Indian (1996), Kamal established himself as a versatile performer.

His 1992 film, however, did spell trouble for him, with many accusing him of glorifying the Thevar caste.

An accomplished dancer and singer, by the early eighties, Kamal also started venturing into writing and producing films. His first directorial came in 1997 with the remake of Avvai Shanumki in Hindi: Chachi 420

All this while, Rajini kept building his style repertoire, playing roles that made him popular among the masses. Johnny, Murattu Kaalai, Thillu Mullu, Netri Kann, Enkeyo Ketta Kural, Velaikaaran, etc., marked an upward trend in his star status.

Films like Thalapathi, Yejaman, Annamalai, Baasha and Muthu propelled him to worldwide fame, reinforcing his cult following.  

Ideology in their films

Kollywood is often seen as a stepping stone for actors to pursue their political dreams, and very often we see movies showcasing the star’s political leanings.

These two actors, however, made no explicit advances to show their political interests or leanings in their movies. Unlike MGR, who carefully cultivated his on-screen persona to supplement his entry into politics, Rajini and Kamal did very little in this regard. 

Their films, however, are not completely devoid of politics.

For this, let us first consider two important films that released during the early 2000s – Kamal’s Hey Ram (2000) and Rajini’s Baba (2002).

Hey Ram remains one of Kamal’s most ambitious and brilliant scripts to this date. He wrote, produced and directed this film that won him three National Awards. With heavy references to Gandhian principals set in an India about to undergo Partition, the film is probably the actor’s strongest hint regarding his political leanings.

In great detail, Hey Ram explores religious extremism – something the current political climate is grappling with. Also, ironically, the film did not show Gandhi utter “Hey Ram” as his last words – a classic Kamal touch.

Written and produced by Rajinikanth, Baba was a major flop when it released. The film was largely assumed by many to be a part of his political campaign, especially with references to the film’s climax.

Playing an atheist who eventually becomes spiritual, Rajinikanth placed several elements in this 2002 flick, which are being referred to today. His party’s symbol, the apana mudhra, first appeared in this film. Also interestingly, the film ended with 'To be continued' that, at the time, puzzled his fans about the uncertainty that surrounded his political entry.

Post its release, Rajini also announced that he would take a break from acting in films (which lasted for about three years) that possibly indicated his disappointment over the film’s reception. 

The very next year came Kamal’s Anbe Sivam that can be linked to the political statements he’s making today.

The core of the film was the message that ‘love is god’ and that every human is capable of being god if they knew how to love. Kamal played a Communist playwright who fights against a capitalist and privileged society. 

Fifteen years later, this film serves as a prelude to a lot of his current ideologies and also his intentions behind meeting Communist leader and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The actor has always been an advocate of how there’s a god ‘in’ everyone instead of a god ‘for’ everyone. 

His 2008 film Dasavathaaram ran into controversies even before its release. It showed the actor in ten different roles, including an old, very religious Hindu grandmother and the protagonist who was a scientist. The film showcased the conflict between religion and science, before finally boiling down to Kamal’s final and cryptic dialogue, “I don’t deny the existence of god. Although, I think it’d be nice if he did exist.”

His film Vishwaroopam that came out in 2013 was embroiled in controversies. Caught between two factions, Hindu Makkal Katchi (objecting to its name) and Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu (citing that the film would hurt Muslim sentiments), Kamal took on theatre owner groups when he announced his plans of premiering the movie DTH (Direct to home).

All hell broke loose when then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa defended the ban on the film. It did not help that Kamal and Jayalalithaa did not share a good relationship in general. When asked why she supported the ban, she cited law and order concerns.

Eventually, allegations that the film was anti-Islamic were quashed and an amicable solution was reached when Kamal agreed to remove a few scenes from the film. 

Meanwhile, Rajini’s choice of films post Baba seemed like they had a larger objective behind them. The actor did not shy away from playing the ultimate saviour. In Chandramukhi, his first film after Baba, he played Saravanan, a psychologist who was an atheist (stark contrast to his 2002 film). Shivaji that came in 2007 showed him taking on the corrupt government. His latest Kabali (2016), with director Pa Ranjith at the helm, showed him playing a lower-caste don, who breaks class and caste stereotypes. The stars upcoming film, Kaala, also with Pa Ranjith, has him playing an underworld gangster. 

Another early example of Kamal’s political ambitions comes from his 1996 film Indian. The film has come into prominence again when the actor announced the filming of its second part, after he entered politics. Directed by Shankar, Kamal played an aged vigilante, who was once a freedom fighter. His character decides to take on the ugly face of corruption in the country. Perhaps the actor might infuse more of his political ideologies in its second part.

While Rajinikanth has not been as open about his political leanings in his films as Kamal, his characters have, more often than not, emphasised his image as an on-screen demigod. The actor has always played the protagonist, more white than black, with barely any space in the story for the female lead.

Kamal too has always played the lead, however, he has not hesitated to take on grey tones in his characters. Right from Sigappu Rojaakal to Aalavandhan and Dasavathaaram (if it can be counted), the actor has also played negative characters.

Kamal has also touched on caste violence (Thevar Maghan) and terrorism (Vishwaroopam and Unnaipol Oruvan) in his films. His film Mahanadhi also took on the national issue of unifying rivers metaphorically (with characters named after rivers).

Rajini, on the other hand, has too much to his credit without having tried enough. Though his films have had controversial and patriarchal dialogues (Padayappa, Baasha, etc.) his biggest supporters are women. Jumping to his defence, Jayanthi, one of his supporters says, "Whatever he says is for our own good. When he says a woman should look down and walk, he is just saying that we must stay away from bad things. But when there is any kind of injustice, we will definitely look up and fight against it.”

Entry into politics

The stars’ relationship, however, remains both complementary and competitive.

Speaking at an event in October last year, where Kamal and Rajini were seated on the same stage, the latter admitted that he did not know what was needed to be successful in politics. “Maybe Kamal knows. However, even if he knows, he won’t tell me. He might have told me if I had asked him two months ago (when Kamal had not yet made his political intentions clear),” he said. 

When the 67-year-old actor finally decided to form his own party and contest in the upcoming General Elections, the first person to congratulate him was none other than Kamal.

He immediately tweeted, "I congratulate my brother Rajini for his social consciousness and his political entry. Welcome welcome.”

Ulaganayagan Kamal has been prepping his entry into politics far more carefully. The actor has not shunned away from expressing his political views and his thoughts on social issues.

With his cryptic tweets in poetic Tamil, the actor has always voiced his opinions on matters concerning the government and its policies. His weekly columns in the Tamil magazine Vikatan make it to the headlines every week. This, however, is not something new for the actor.

Kamal’s tweet, “I feel for the people those who are dependent on her. Deep condolences to those concerned” following Jayalalithaa’s demise drew severe backlash from all corners for being insensitive and crude.

Many instantly connected it to the two coming to head during the release of Vishwaroopam

Once, during an interview to Puthiya Thalaimurai channel, Kamal said that his political expressions were not new and that he'd always been interested in politics. He added that he had found a conducive medium in Twitter. "I was vocal about my views even as a 21-year-old boy. I used to write in weekly newspapers," he said.

Like in his films, Kamal has been slowly building up the momentum leading to his political journey and many admit that like in his films, his politics too will take a lot of time for people to understand. Having announced his political tour beginning February 21, the actor has been laying strong foundations for what is to come. 

Rajinikanth, on the other hand, with the launch of his own app, Rajini Mandram, has been working towards gaining more supporters for his political debut in the next Assembly Elections.

In cinema, Rajini always made it through with his mass appeal, while Kamal worked harder, often choosing films that did not work well with the masses. In politics too, their stance seems to be vastly different from each other. 

Speaking at Harvard this month, Kamal set several things clear and among those was his possible alliance with Rajini.

“As of now, I don't see that happening. If this is the route he is going to take and if the hue he is going to acquire is going to be saffron, then I can’t see a clear understanding. Unless he gives some other explanation that convinces my rational mind,” he said.

But what about his hue? “Deep inside, this (black) is my colour. And that, optically speaking, reflects all colours. So, that is what it is. I would like to be versatile but united into one ethos. When I say Dravidian, people think I am going to focus on one string. But mine is a multi-stringed instrument.”

This perhaps might seem like a strange case of déjà vu.

Several decades ago, Tamil Nadu saw two big stars – Shivaji and MGR competing against each other on the political turf and its results are now etched in history.

Now, again, two superstars of the Tamil film industry are pitted against each other in politics and what might come of it?

Perhaps it is for us to wait and watch how they affect cinema and Tamil politics.

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