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December 14, 1999
A phenomenon called Rajni
Why do film-stars exert such an influence over the course of Tamil Nadu politics? As someone hailing from the state, I think the reason for it is rooted in history. Throughout their reign, Tamil kings are said to be great patrons of iyal, isai and nadagam (poetry, music and drama), the three wings of the performing arts. The vidwans of the three arts may not have had Goddess Lakshmi living in their house, but surely they had Goddess Saraswati playing on their lip... and of course, they enjoyed mass adulation.
Cut to the present, and the situation is not the same. Dravida politicians, who claim a sharper link to regional feelings, utilised the printed word, and other creative mediums to push their case. Muthuvel Karunanidhi and M G Ramachandran were a celluloid hit team before the two fell out over staking a claim to the joint glory. With movies being the dominant medium, it was little wonder that MGR became the state's first actor-star -- and continued to act in movies espousing his good samaritan image.
MGR never played a villain in films. He never died on screen, barring once or twice -- and that with disastrous law and order consequences. That should explain the importance, and the power, of films among the members Tamil population brought up to revere exponents of the arts.
MGR escalatoring to power through films was understandable: he was a local, was fair-skinned (in a land of the dark-skinned, this is a major qualification; ask the Tamil Brahmins if you don't believe me), appealed directly to women and defended the downtrodden.
But Rajnikanth, who has segued into MGR's political legacy, was none of the things that the former chief minister was. For one, he is not of Tamil origin; he is dark-skinned, no challenge to Adonis, and what's more, started off his film career in villainous roles before graduating to playing the hero. Even then, it was late, very, very late in his career that he started turned to playing the good samaritan.
All of which make Rajnikant nee Shivaji Gaekwad a most unlikely candidate for superstardom, let alone super-politician-dom.
And yet, in the battle between the widow and the other woman for MGR's political legacy, it is this man who walked away with the dead CM's manrams (fan clubs), which formed the backbone of MGR's political support. With the fans in Rajni's pocket, and with him in Karunanidhi-Moopanar's pocket, no wonder Jayalalitha did not know what hit her in the previous Tamil Nadu assembly elections.
Obviously, so long as MGR was alive, the thought of replicating his success could not have crossed his mind but the possibility must surely have struck him, in MGR's dwindling years, when Rajnikant was well ensconced as the superstar. 'Rajni for the masses, Kamalahaasan for the classes', was the popular catch phrase then.
But scratch below the surface, and it is not at all surprising that Rajni is what he is in Tamil Nadu. For one, being a Maharashtrian in the putative xenophobic state is not at all a negative. Not when one considers the Marathi Sarfoji kings of Thanjavur. As for being dark-skinned in a land aspiring for fair skin, if the absence of melanin was the sole criterion, then Kamalahaasan or any number of other actors should have been the chosen one, not this ex-bus conductor from Bangalore. And the image part... well, Rajni may have started out as a villain, graduated to negative roles, but it is too late for him to go back doing those roles anymore. The straitjacket he has got into -- of the eternal do-gooder, the ideal son, brother, lover, husband, father, whatever -- does not allow for free movement.
The loss here is not so much for Rajnikant as for the cineaste. For here is a genuinely talented actor who has been imprisoned by his off-screen persona, and who goes through the rigours of acting with as much relish as a daily cab-driver between Nariman Point and Churchgate. Yeah, the chuckles are audible.
Stylebhai Rajni and acting? I must be joking... Sure, laugh all you want. But the truth is that earlier on in his career, under the directorship of stalwarts like K Balachander and S P Muthuraman, Rajni showed that he was an actor first, star later. It is different that the exigencies of becoming a star, and the subsequent allure of playing king-maker, have made him choose populist cinema.
MGR too played king-maker to arch-rival Karunanidhi once, before realising that being king is more fun than being the joker in the pack. So far Rajnikant has shied away from putting his face where his vote is. But it is a matter of time before he is forced by his manrams to chase a larger destiny. The next round of elections in the state is still some time away.
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