Rajinikanth's visit to Thoothukudi, where 13 people were killed by police firing last week, did not go as smoothly as the actor-politician would have wished to.
Although there were several people in Thoothukudi who welcomed him and took photographs with the superstar, social media was abuzz with a viral video which showed a young protester asking Rajinikanth who he was. Later, at the press conference, Rajinikanth lost his cool and shouted at a journalist who was asking him questions about the police's action against the protesters.
There are broadly two narratives which have emerged from Thoothukudi. While the activists and protesters have been saying that the police did not issue any warning and fired to kill, the state government (which is increasingly being seen as a puppet of the BJP at the Centre) has repeatedly defended the brutality by laying the blame on 'anti-social elements'. Rajinikanth chose to go with the latter narrative, stating that the police retaliated because they were under attack.
Further, to one of the questions, the actor-politician snapped, "If people protest for everything, Tamil Nadu will turn into a graveyard."
The "everything" in Thoothukudi stands for clean air and water, a right to live a life free from disease. On one side are the people who have been fighting a powerful corporate company for years now and had upped the ante with a 100 day protest. On the other side, is Vedanta, a corporate that has given generous contributions to the two national parties, has a dubious record in several countries and is facing allegations of environmental violations in the state.
The situation, in fact, would make for a great Rajinikanth film. Of course, one where Rajinikanth would firmly be on the side of the protesters.
The irony is not lost on the public in Tamil Nadu, which is eagerly awaiting the release of the Pa Ranjith film Kaala. The second trailer of the film, which released only a few days ago, has the superstar thundering about getting people organised in order to protest. The powerful lines that he mouths go, "Our body is our only weapon. We must show the world that. Gather everybody!"
The relationship between director Pa Ranjith and actor Rajinikanth has been keenly discussed by many. Apart from his films rendering the oppressed as powerful and mainstream, Ranjith is also vocal about his Ambedkarite politics as an individual. An atheist, he has repeatedly spoken out against caste oppression, gender inequality, saffronisation, and communalism. He was among the first from the film industry to slam the police brutality against the protesters in no uncertain terms.
Rajinikanth, on the other hand, is religious and is considered aligned with the right wing. He has been terming his brand of politics as "spiritual" (whatever that may mean). And although he had tweeted condemning the police violence on Twitter, in Thoothukudi, his statements focused on "anti-social elements" rather than the killings.
It's not that Pa Ranjith is unaware of these differences. He has been quite clear that Rajinikanth, to him, is a vehicle through which he can take his politics to a much larger audience. At the Kaala audio launch, the director once again reiterated the idea. There's no better way to mainstream his thoughts than amplify them through a mass brand like Rajinikanth.
For the actor, who has already done several films where he plays the underdog who rises to power, a Ranjith film is a much more politically charged, nuanced and intelligent framework which will add to his demi-god image.
However, Rajinikanth's leaning takes on more gravity with the actor's decision to enter politics and contest elections. It leads to troubling questions for both the filmmaker and the actor. When cinema has, in the past, led to the success of actors in politics, is Ranjith willing to continue building up the image of a politician he does not personally agree with? How will Rajinikanth reconcile what the reel Rajini says in a Ranjith film with what the real Rajini thinks? The difference is stark and the public has started calling it out.
If Wednesday's events at Thoothukudi had been part of a film, the young man's "Yaar neenga?" ("Who are you?") to the politician who turned up long after the agitation was over, would have been the punch dialogue uttered by Rajinikanth. No marks for guessing who the villain would have been.
Despite Rajinikanth's statements being against the public mood in Tamil Nadu, Kaala will probably still get a mammoth opening. But perhaps more people will be conscious that what they're watching is more of a Pa Ranjith film and less of a Rajinikanth film.