The Rajini trajectory

The Rajini trajectory

Will the instinct that has worked for him on screen be equally valuable inside politics?

Looking at Rajinikanth is an experience much like that of a reader who wakes up in the middle of a book to realise that he is reading.

For somebody like me, who first heard the name from schoolboy friends, I heard it uttered with an intensity that feminised him. Those who were then his fans tended to compress it to Rajini, sometimes to Rejjini, and in that compression lurked the intimacy they could have reserved for a woman, for a lover. At various points, in adolescence, and later in adulthood, I have stumbled over the strange recognition that I mentioned earlier — a remembering of Rajinikanth, as dandy of sorts, as under-caste hero, as a kind of bursting out of extravagance and over-the-top-ness that duly merited an undying swarm of Internet jokes. Each such moment of attention was marked by a sense that the story he was living out had changed in some new and unpredictable way. That, verily, he was a character in a novel which had simultaneously managed to continue writing itself while surrendering entirely to him.

That sense of strangeness has come back over the last couple of years. In following the trajectory he took from ‘Baaba’ to ‘Sivaji’, I had reached the conclusion that he was played out, that he had turned into a kind of painful caricature of himself. After films like ‘Kabali’ and ‘Kaala’, I have had to admit that the small and sundry irritations that make up what I pretend is my perspective on things are perhaps not a reliable guide to anything.

He now seems possessed by the ability to retake lost ground by a kind of wily anticipation. In allying with directors like Pa. Ranjith, we watch him veering expertly away from his own average. In letting the director make his films about Dalit dreams, Rajinikanth seems to have arrived at the art of deploying a scaled down version of his own persona. Contrast this with a Mohanlal wriggling ineffectually inside his own superstar persona, or at a Kamal Haasan blustering and repeating himself, and look again at the man who was once Shivaji Rao Gaikwad, and you will see an actor with a sense of how the conversation that defines cinema audiences in South India is beginning to change.

The sense that lurks behind the word star is that of remoteness and separation, but the contrary template that MGR worked out for himself was one that worked by remoteness as much as it did by connection. He was the original faraway object but spoke in endlessly intimate terms to his fans, calling them ‘en rattathin ratthame’ (the blood of my blood).

In Rajinikanth, we have the idea of the star in return to its truth as metaphor. Rajinikanth today occupies the template of the superstar that his audience recognises and responds to, while also chipping away at it industriously and discarding things he doesn’t need. Unlike MGR, Rajini has not disappeared into his persona, and seizes every opportunity to play his other role as a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood person, as somebody who is not proof against ageing, or baldness, or worse. Like MGR, Rajini is a non-Tamizh speaker, who must communicate to his fans, not merely through the words and syntax of an adopted language and culture, but through a handy awareness of gesture.

This canniness that allows him to pull away and run his own race professionally will now receive the most exacting test it has ever weathered if he enters politics. It is true that he is the last great rightwing hope in Tamil Nadu. The local right wing party has no experience in winning matches, but is powered by a restive Savarna imagination that yearns for the Dravidian years to be wiped out. It is also true that there is the political machinery that the one and only Jayalalitha left behind now whines and whimpers for a figurehead. The fatmen in Delhi are hoping to materialise a dream team built around him that will whoosh them to power.

The simple question is does he want to be these things, and there lies the rub. Will the instinct that has worked for him on screen in the last few years be equally valuable inside politics?

There is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, but will his stepping into it matter at all? The superstar politics that drove MGR and Jayalalitha to power was also an uneasy alliance between the dispossessed and those uncomfortable with Dravidian politics. There is no guarantee that this electorate will come together so easily again. There is also the fact that the Dravidian party left standing has an instinct for survival shaped by having had to spend decades out of power, and an unmatched capacity for consensus building.

We have thus entered the last few pages of the novel that Rajinikanth began writing when he gave his job as bus conductor. Will he win, and what will that victory be like if he inherits with it the job of modulating Tamil exceptionalism back to Delhi? Will the machinery cynically dump its figurehead after accomplishing its mission? Will the electorate that comes together in the heat and dust of the 2021 campaign produce the ultimate irony of Rajinikanth repeating the farcical political arc once traversed by his knockoff version Vijayakanth? 

I can’t wait.