The very timing of the Phalke Award on Rajini now, days ahead of Tamil Nadu voting in the assembly election, may have taken away the seriousness and credibility attaching to the Centre's decision, making it sound every bit political, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
If the wag is to be believed, any political advantage flowing from the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled Centre conferring the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award on Tamil cinema's superstar Rajinikanth, may go to his compatriot-cum-competitor, Kamal Hassan, in his Coimbatore South constituency, in the Tamil Nadu assembly polls due on April 6.
By the same token, any 'sympathy votes' that Kamal may get for being denied the honour that he too deserved equally well, if not more, could be at the cost of his BJP competitor Vanathi Srinivasan -- though such sympathy is unlikely to travel beyond Kamal's constituency, to help his Makkal Needhi Maiam's candidates elsewhere too.
The Phalke award is only the latest to come Rajini's way. He is already a recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2000) and Padma Vibhushan (2016), both of them incidentally under BJP regimes, and both ahead of elections that were due within months.
In his tweet, addressing Rajini as 'Thalaiva', in place of 'Thalaivan' or 'Thalaivar', meaning leader in Tamil, Prime Minister Modi said, 'Popular across generations, a body of work few can boast of, diverse roles and an endearing personality...that's Shri @rajinikanth Ji for you. It is a matter of immense joy that Thalaiva has been conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Congratulations to him.'
That Rajini was the uncrowned king of Tamil filmdom for decades, and its unparalleled superstar even when he had not released a movie in two or three years is worthy of admiration and adulation -- which is what fan clubs across the world are all about.
That he has an 'endearing personality', both onscreen and offscreen, also goes without saying. But for Modi to describe his films as a 'body of work few can boast of, diverse roles', is something that even the most committed of Rajini fans cannot appreciate without a chuckle.
In comparison, Kamal Hassan, a compatriot who began as a child artiste from his first film Kalathur Kannamma (1960) and was also the hero of Apoorva Raagangal (1975) in which Rajini had a bit role, his first film appearance, has a repertoire that is unmatched.
Starting with Rajini, anyone who knows a wee bit about contemporary Tamil cinema describes Kamal as a 'complete film-maker and actor'.
It is not as if Kamal has not been honoured and his talent, not recognised enough. For Kalathur Kannamma, he was adjudged the best child artiste in 1960. He won the silver lotus for the National Best Actor thrice, for Moondram Pirai (1982), Nayakan (1987) and Indian (1996). Of civilian awards, he was conferred the Padma Shri (1990) and Padma Bhushan (2014). Thankfully, no one from inside the industry or outside linked any of these awards to political expectations from the ruling party at the time.
It is yet inevitable that any contemporary comparison between Rajini and Kamal, in terms of their film performance, should recall memories of real competition between M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan in their times -- from the fifties through the seventies. It was then that MGR quit filmdom to take to full-time politics, float the breakaway AIADMK (1972) and become chief minister (1977).
It was also the time a little-known Rajini appeared on the horizon and took Tamil cinema by storm as only Sivaji Ganesan had done with his maiden movie Parasakthi (1952), its powerful courtroom dialogues penned by M Karunanidhi, later-day DMK supremo and five-term chief minister, appealing to multiple generations, from 1969 to 2006.
Tamil film historians thus draw a parallel between Rajini-Kamal on the one hand and MGR-Sivaji on the other. According to most of them, MGR and Rajini were 'box-office phenomenon' in their time, while Sivaji and Kamal were appreciated for their exemplary acting prowess.
Yet, between the two, MGR and Kamal were film-makers extraordinary. The two also were the ones to enter the politico-electoral fray seriously than the other two in their respective times.
These film historians could not but recall how the then Indira Gandhi government conferred the National Best Actor award, then going by the title 'Bharat', on MGR for his nondescript acting in a moderately successful commercial film Rickshakkaaran (1971), overlooking legitimate claims, even from within the Tamil industry's Vietnam Veedu, a family melodrama in which Sivaji Ganesan's histrionic talents stood out once again.
For all this, however, the National Best Actor award eluded Sivaji Ganesan till the very end. However, he was chosen for the Special Jury Award for Thevar Magan (1992) and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, belatedly though not posthumously, in 1996.
Among the civilian awards, he was chosen for the Padma Shri in 1966, and the Padma Bhushan nearly two decades later, in 1984.
Clearly, there was political buzz in the early seventies that the choice of MGR, that too for Rickshakkaaran in 1971, owed to the ruling Indira Congress faction at the Centre requiring the post-Annadurai DMK's backing both inside Parliament and outside in the aftermath of the 1969 vertical split in the Congress party.
If, however, the Tamil Nadu voter opted for the DMK-Congress combine in the polls to the Lok Sabha and the state assembly, it owed to the relative strength of the alliance, and the multiple welfare measures that the two governments had launched in earlier months. It also owed to MGR's popularity and campaign, and not to the Bharat award conferred on him.
That way, the very timing of the conferment of Phalke Award on Rajini now may have taken away the seriousness and credibility attaching to the Centre's decision, making it sound every bit political -- which it is not, and should not have been allowed to be seen as one.
Whatever it be, honour for Rajini just now may take some of the heat off the poll, where the BJP's chief campaigners, including Modi, Union ministers Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani, among others, and the party's UP Chief Minister Adityanath, have all been left with only the 'woman's honour issue' targeting the DMK's controversial former Union minister A Raja, as their main and possibly only campaign theme, that too in the last week before polling.
It flowed from Raja reportedly making derogatory references to AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami's mother, who died a few months ago, for which he also tendered a qualified, though belated, apology -- and followed it up with an explanation to the Election Commission that he had been 'misquoted' after all.
By holding him guilty of violation of the model code of conduct, the EC may have, however, had the last laugh on that one!
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Initiative.