The Rajini conundrum: Actor vs Politician

While Rajinikanth's ideological leanings support the view that he is a right-winger, his films which released after he announced his political entry suggest otherwise.
The Rajini conundrum: Actor vs Politician
The Rajini conundrum: Actor vs Politician
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Even a year after Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics, the lack of clarity about his political ideology continues to provide airtime to many political pundits and analysts. With every move closely scrutinised, a good number of parties and politicians in the state have branded the fledgling politician a stooge of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu, a softer right, the BJP’s B Team to entice the disenchanted middle-classes in the state.

However, a closer examination of his movies that have released since December 2017, when he announced the certainty of his political entry, throws up an interesting conundrum: why is Rajinikanth, the politician, so far removed from Rajinikanth, the actor? Or have people misread him?

While Kaala saw Rajinikanth play the role of a local Mumbai don, a Dalit leader fighting for the rights of the Tamil people, his latest release Petta takes a number of digs at the saffron party as well as the ruling AIADMK in the state. Of course 2.0, which released in November last year, doesn’t figure in the debate; it doesn’t make the cut since it is just not political enough. Do these not-so-subtle signs in Kaala and Petta help us in understanding ‘political’ Rajinikanth? Or are we to assume that despite the political jibes in his films, Rajinikanth is merely a style-over-substance actor, one who understands his appeal with the masses-- nothing more, nothing less?

While both contemporaries-- Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan-- have long painted the public narrative that one is a ‘mass’ star doling out epic entertainers for his fans and the other is a method actor whose performances take a special kind of appreciation, it is a fact that they have used their decades-long celebrity status to launch their political vehicles. It is in this context that the choice and content of Rajinikanth’s films post December 2017 warrant a political reading.

When Kamal Haasan receives flak-- and rightly so-- for attempting to revive his 1992 film Thevar Magan, which celebrated caste pride, shouldn’t the same yardstick be applied to Rajinikanth?

In Kaala, where Rajinikanth plays the titular character, an epic scene unfolds after the villain (who is a curious amalgam of real life Hindutva touting leaders) sets fire to homes in Dharavi for refusing to part with land for a large-scale infrastructure project. Kaala, the leader in whom the rest of the neighbourhood trusts, says that they have every right to their land. The resounding words from a people that refuse to be silenced bring the city of Mumbai to a standstill, with an entire populace learning about the indispensability of the labour that makes their daily life possible. While the brilliantly-made film espouses the powerful politics of its creator Pa Ranjith, the filmmaker himself has observed elsewhere that Rajinikanth requested that the film takes into consideration the enjoyment of his fans as well, jovially citing the example of 2016's Kabali, which many critics had termed a Ranjith film.

However, Pa Ranjith has also noted that apart from cutting down lengthy or out-of-context dialogues during takes, Rajinikanth largely does not interfere during the filmmaking, placing his trust on the proverbial captain of the ship. Would an actor with over four decades of being at the top in the film industry unthinkingly let himself to be a mere tool for the politics of the filmmaker? Or does it seem far more plausible that he understands the extent and context of the political messages that are carried by the weight of his superstardom, to fans he hopes to woo unto his political outfit and possibly beyond?

In Petta too, decidedly a fanboy tribute to the Superstar directed by Karthik Subbaraj, the set-up for the bad guys is a scene in Uttar Pradesh where hapless couples are married off for celebrating Valentine’s Day, a jibe at actual right-wing Hindu nationalists who have proclaimed the revelry to be against ‘Indian cultural values’. More significantly, the main antagonist is the leader of a party of cow lynchers, killing anyone who is suspected of eating beef. Rajinikanth rescues a pivotal character from being attacked by such a mob, ending the villain in a triumph of good over evil, even as his vermillion-sporting coterie lies in a pool of blood.

Both films have seen Rajinikanth the actor prominently include Muslim characters in positive light, a minority community which has been vilified by the anti-secular principles of the ruling party at the Centre throughout its five years in power. The notion put forth by the stereotypical, Islamophobic portrayals of Indian Muslims as terrorists and secret agents for Pakistan were challenged with the normalising of their presence in the narrative of both films. In Kaala, the residents of Dharavi include members of the Islamic community and Rajinikanth is also seen sporting the taqiyah. In Petta, Rajinikanth’s primary mission is to protect his late Muslim friend’s son. 

However, in real life, Rajinikanth has not put so much distance between himself and the saffron party. The superstar has lauded the prowess of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, posing not-so-cryptic questions on how powerful he must be if a grand alliance of over 10 parties is forced to come together to defeat him at the Lok Sabha polls. Rooted as he is in devotion to saints in the Himalayas, his brand of ‘spiritual politics’, too, appears largely in line with the Hindu ideals professed by even those dubbed moderates within the BJP. While the politician in Rajinikanth makes the occasional observation on the BJP losing influence, his on-screen persona thrives on the anti-BJP sentiment in the state. One must remember that when he had the freedom to make his own film, the result was Baba, a far cry from anti-Hindutva politics.

Rajinikanth has drawn flak for his political statements since December 2017 quite a few times-- and deservedly so for an aspiring politician who aims to change the ‘system’-- but the last few months have been rather quiet on the Rajinikanth political front, with the focus having shifted to back to back film commitments. Those close to him say that films are necessary is he is to float a political party. While an assessment of Rajinikath’s politics puts him right of centre, the films of the actor have arguably challenged the popular media punditry of his political ideologies. For now, the on screen Rajinikanth seems content to decimate saffron in style, and it's anyone's guess what that may mean when he goes beyond merely wetting his feet and finally immerses himself in politics. 

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