Released last week, the trailer of Petta – Rajinikanth’s next film in the offing – offers the quintessential Rajini fan a sense of deja vu. This was the Rajinikanth that many grew up slavering over. Forty-three years ago, in 1975, Rajinikanth threw open iron gates in a small scene in Apoorva Raagangal – which had Kamal Haasan as the hero – to walk into the Tamil socio-cultural space. Petta, in the trailer of which he opens a similar iron gate with the same swagger, is a reminder of how the phenomenon called Rajinikanth has grown over four decades to cast a lasting influence on Tamil cinema.
It was also a reminder of how Rajinikanth was a natural actor, though still a reluctant politician.
On December 31, 2017, Rajinikanth announced his intention to form a political party. That put to an end over two-decade-long ‘will-he, won’t-he’ suspense.
In 1996, Rajinikanth made his political aspirations apparent when he threw his weight behind the DMK-TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress – a breakaway group of Congress led by G.K. Moopanar) alliance and gave what later came to be famously known as the ‘Rajini voice’ against J. Jayalalithaa. Riding fresh on the phenomenal success of his 1995 film Baasha – where he reluctantly turns a don to avenge the murder of his friend and to save innocent people from ‘villainous’ dons – Rajinikanth raised hopes among his fans of doing a real-life Baasha.
Since then, for over two decades, Rajinikanth has evaded that existential question, often telling his fans and media how he hadn’t yet got the ‘signal from God’ to take the plunge.
The ‘signal’ finally came months after Jayalalithaa had died and when Karunanidhi was inactive.
A year later, the announcement remains just that. “I don’t think he ever will,” opines Aazhi Senthil Nathan, writer and political observer in Chennai. “He has been dropping hints for two decades now about his political plunge. Despite his announcement last year, I maintain that it will not translate into reality,” says Senthil Nathan, adding that Rajinikanth’s vacillation is ‘grossly unfair’ to his own fans.
Since his announcement last year, Rajinikanth had two films released – Kaala and 2.0 – and has been working on two more.
In March 2018, Rajinikanth took part in a meeting to unveil the statue of MGR and made his first political speech where he declared that he will deliver an ‘MGR rule’ once in power. In May 2018, after 13 people were shot dead by police when hundreds took out a protest against Vedanta’s Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi, Rajinikanth said ‘continuous protests would turn Tamil Nadu into a graveyard.’
His interactions with the media have always remained limited, yet they have never failed to churn controversies. His remark – ‘which seven’ – to a journalist’s question on granting pardon to seven convicts in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination case went viral, forcing him to issue a clarification in which he stated that he had had a long conversation with Perarivalan when he was out on parole. Rajinikanth also had to clarify his comment calling the BJP ‘dangerous’ for its opponents – saying he made the remarks only in the context of the opposition parties.
At least on two occasions after announcing his intention to form a political party, Rajinikanth had said that he was not a full-time politician yet and cannot be expected to comment on day-to-day political developments.
Soon after his announcement, there was palpable excitement among his fans and the general public who were ‘looking for an alternative.’ Experts say Rajinikanth had considerable support in the Dalit pockets of Tamil Nadu immediately he made his political intention clear. “But in the last six months, the excitement has come down. Rajinikanth has been signing films and while his fans are still confident that he will take the plunge, a section of the general public which had pinned its hopes on him is now no longer so hopeful,” a political analyst said on the condition of anonymity. “The fact that he has been signing film after film, and has remained largely non-committal on many issues concerning Tamil Nadu, has not gone down well with those who thought that he will be a viable alternative.”
But Vanni Arasu, deputy general secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu, refuses to buy the argument that Rajinikanth has made a dent in Dalit pockets. “I would agree that the populist politics emerging out of cinematic charisma has had an influence in slums of Tamil Nadu, but not any longer. VCK is present in almost every slum and I would confidently say more and more youth are turning towards Ambedkar and Periyar, guided by our leader Thol Thirumavalavan.”
Arasu says politics driven by cinema ‘will not work in Tamil Nadu.’ “I have been touring across Tamil Nadu and meeting people. Today, they see cinema differently. It can no longer be a vehicle to politics.”
But Rajinikanth’s supporters claim the actor has been saving his energies for the 2021 state assembly elections. “He has already said he had no intention of fighting the Lok Sabha elections. Rajinikanth is focused on strengthening Rajini Makkal Mandrams (a political variant of his fan clubs). They have been working on the structure and even have branch-level organisations. Also, you need a lot of money to run a party, once announced. It is not a good idea to run a political party and spend so much money when you are actually not going to contest the next immediate election,” says S. Kosal Ram, a journalist and author of Rajini Aagiya Naan (I, Rajinikanth), a book on his political entry.
Kosal Ram points out that actor Vijayakanth launched his Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam only a year before the general elections in 2006.
But Senthil Nathan continues to be confident about Rajinikanth being a non-starter. “Even if he eventually does, his party will only be another wing of Sangh parivar and I have serious doubts on whether something like that will work in a state like Tamil Nadu. BJP could have nursed hopes of bringing Rajinikanth to AIADMK. After all, here was a party without a leader and a leader without a party. But AIADMK is turning out to be tougher to handle that they could have imagined. For Rajinikanth, politics continues to be a project – something he employs as a tactic to generate positive talk around his films when they are bound for a release.”
The same question remains even after a year – will he or won’t he?
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.