God whose simplicity contained electricity
While the Dadasaheb Phalke award conferred to Rajinikanth ahead of the assembly election in Tamil Nadu could well be politically motivated, his political appeal has always been there
Somewhere towards the end of Rinku Kalsy’s 2015 documentary, For the Love of a Man, on the fans of superstar Rajinikanth, we see the Thalaivar (our leader, as he is popularly called), making his one and only appearance in the film, calming the crowds gathered outside his Poes Garden home in Chennai to wish him on his birthday. It is a security zone, very close to the CM’s residence, he says, requesting them not to be noisy and chaotic.
In this one moment, I could sense his proximity to political power and the unparalleled sway on the masses, albeit in a casual, throwaway manner.
Kalsy’s film follows four of his fans—G. Mani, a gangster-turned-peanut seller, Kamal Anand, a mimicry artiste and two sweetshop owners, brothers N. Ravi and Murugan. In their individual stories lies the bigger picture.
I decided to revisit it recently, when Rajinikanth was bestowed the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest honour in cinema, five days before the start of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections, amidst speculation of it being politically motivated with accompanying assertions of how he is thoroughly deserving of it.
Kalsy’s documentary starts off by putting the fandom surrounding Rajini in a cultural and social context. How the Dravidian movement rejected the caste system and embraced atheism and how it used cinema as a way of reaching out to the masses. In the process of demolishing gods, it created heroes/stars/leaders of another kind. Rajini—the one whose “simplicity” contained “electricity”—being one of them.
He marked a departure from the fair, made up heroes of the past. The scruffy, dark-skinned man who would wear sunglasses and flip the cigarettes in a quirky way to connect with the masses also ended up giving them a sense of identity. By being like one of them. Something rich in political potential, in being able to carry the people along.
On the face of it, the film might look at the celebrations surrounding the release of his blockbuster Lingaa—the drums and dances and catcalls, the brotherhood and camaraderie. It may also dwell a while on the havoc his long bout of ill health wreaked on one of his fans.
But most of all what it looks at in great detail is the transformative and informative impact he has had on the lives of some of these fans. And it is in these stories that one can also see the germs of politics, positive politics at that. His on-screen persona that promises to change the system segues in with the altruism that he inspires in his fans, the several charities they are supporting despite some being in a financially precarious spot themselves.
There are seeds in this of a productive, constructive mass movement. His fan Ravi even talks of the urgent need for Rajini to enter politics. He is certain that decision of his would help alleviate the miseries of the poor and help the country progress and prosper. This is much before December 2017 when Rajini announced his decision to contest in the 2021 assembly elections in all the 234 constituencies but had to withdraw later because of the ill health.
There is also the larger context of the film industry’s traditional alliance with politics and how MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha were successfully able to carry their star power on to the political and ideological platform.
But does this larger promise of positive politics hold true on ground? Aren’t there many slips between the cup and the lip? He has “control and right” over people, says one of his admirers in the film, pointing out that one sign from him and his millions of fans will vote accordingly. A possibility that BJP, contesting in 20 seats under National Democratic Alliance with AIADMK, is trying to exploit.
But the model politician that Tamil Nadu and India at large would need is also encapsulated by Rajini himself in a song called Devuda Devuda from the film Chandramukhi (2005) whose lyrics go as follows:
We have food to eat because the farmer smears his leg in mud.
Our towns would stink if the ones who clean our drains decided to go on a holiday.
How will we look good without the hairdressers and the ones who wash our clothes?
A clarion call for dignity of labour that also hits at the class divides. An idea worth voting for.