Is Rajinikanth really the next MGR or NTR?

In a state that has seen three actors become CMs, superstar Rajinikanth’s political entry has come with the weight of expectations.
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Naan eppo varuven eppadi varuven-nu yarukkum theriyathu, aana vara vendiya nerathula correct-aa varuven (Nobody knows when I’ll come, how I’ll come. But when I need to come, I’ll be there).

Rajinikanth’s punch dialogue from the 1996 film Muthu may have as well been a prescient warning to his political rivals in 2020. After all, not many may have seen superstar Rajinikanth’s entry into politics coming, with just six months to go for the Assembly Elections in Tamil Nadu. But in a state that has seen three actors become Chief Ministers, where cinema and politics are deeply intertwined, superstar Rajinikanth’s political entry has come with the weight of expectations.

Rajini’s arrival on Tamil Nadu’s political scene has been compared with three-time Chief Minister and AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran, who translated his mass fan-following into votes, eventually catapulting him to power in 1977. And while Rajini, like MGR, is an icon in Tamil Nadu, is the comparison justified?

“Any actor entering public life will always be compared with MGR because MGR is a record-setter and those comparisons are unavoidable,” says R Kannan, the author of MGR: A Life. For Kannan, the comparisons are valid as both Rajini and MGR have attained the pinnacle of fame, are a god to their fans and as outsiders (Rajini was born into a Marathi family in Bengaluru while MGR was born into a Malayali family in Sri Lanka) Tamil Nadu has been good to them.

But he acknowledges that the context has changed. “MGR was both an actor and a politician. He had a public career in his mind and heart from the very beginning. And that gave him rich dividends,” explains Kannan, noting that the former Chief Minister cultivated his image through cinema. “MGR had built a solid image for himself as a do-gooder. He never did any anti-hero role. Rajinikanth has done a plethora of roles - both good and bad and he has smoked in films, made a name for himself in how he flips a cigarette. He drinks in films. These are things that MGR never did. But the context has completely changed. You don’t need an image anymore. That is where Rajinikanth becomes important, because Rajinikanth has what MGR has to some extent, which is charisma.“

But unlike MGR, whose political career had spanned decades and included stints as MLC and MLA before he floated the AIADMK in 1972, Rajinikanth is a political novice.

Vaasanthi, veteran journalist and author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen and Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography, says, “MGR was already a politician when he was becoming a big star. He was a member of the DMK. He first joined Congress and then he joined the DMK, and he was deeply into it. He was groomed for a political future. Nothing of that sort happened to Rajinikanth.” 

She also points to the differences in the functioning of MGR and Rajini fan clubs. “MGR fans formed the clubs because they were his fans, but they were also part of his political ideology. They became part of the DMK party, and also they were his fans. They started working during the election campaign and booth managing from 1962 onwards. So they were well-versed in it. They weren’t just his idolisers. Rajinikanth became a phenomenon. But then he wasn’t looked upon as a political leader from the start. MGR’s cinema life and politics went along with each other. There was no dichotomy at all,” says Vaasanthi. 

But most crucially, unlike MGR who remained in the Chief Minister’s chair until his demise in 1987, Rajinikanth shows reluctance in wanting to head the state. "I have never wanted to be Chief Minister. In fact, I can't even think of sitting in the Assembly and going through those proceedings! I will be the party chief, and the CM will be someone who is educated, who is farsighted. He will be a person who can govern. And the party chief will be like an opposition leader -- we will be the first to question if anything wrong happens. We will not interfere with the governance -- there will not be two parallel power centres,” he had said in March.

It is perhaps for this reason that Rajini shrugs off any comparison to the AIADMK leader. "MGR was a revolutionary. Not in a thousand years can there be another MGR. If anyone says he will be the next MGR, he is insane. But I have the confidence that I can give the people's government that MGR gave Tamil Nadu,” the superstar had said in March 2018. 

And while the MGR comparison may be farfetched to some, others say that Rajini’s political entry is akin to Telugu star NT Rama Rao in 1982, who launched the Telugu Desam Party with nine months to go for the Andhra elections. “Nobody knew NTR as a man who had ever said anything about public service or public happenings in the country (before he launched his party),” says Kannan.

NTR took the political plunge on the back of the public humiliation of Andhra Chief Minister T Anjaiah by the then Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi. His pitch of Telugu self-respect and pride won people’s hearts, as the TDP defeated the Congress in the 1983 Assembly elections.

Kingshuk Nag, journalist and author of Battleground Telangana, however, says this comparison too is weak. “The times are different. The only thing is they are film actors, but NTR came to the scene because the Congress was ruling the state, and people were basically looking for an alternative. And he was able to provide that alternative, belonging to the film fraternity, he was able to galvanise the crowds,” he says, adding that NTR also tapped into the caste factor in Andhra, by getting the Kammas to rally behind him.

While Rajini hopes to capitalise on the political vacuum in Tamil Nadu following the demise of AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa and DMK’s Karunanidhi, banking on his star value alone is unlikely to thrust him to power. Actors like Sivaji Ganesan, Chiranjeevi and Vijayakant bear testimony to this.

At the age of 70, Rajinikanth is gearing up to play the role of his lifetime. But in arriving late to the political field, he has set himself an uphill battle of taking on the Dravidian parties. After all, unlike in reel life, the superstar will not be able to punch his way out of the poll battle.  


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