In the sixteenth State legislative assembly elections of Tamil Nadu held on the 6th April 2021, the DMK won the majority of seats and its president M K Stalin, son of previous Chief Minister and DMK patriarch M. Karunanithi, will reportedly be sworn-in as the Chief Minister on May 7.
When Superstar Rajinikanth dropped out of of Tamil Nadu politics in December 2020 on the basis of ill health, he was in effect, acknowledging the impossibility of religious politics in Tamil Nadu. It seems that neither his spiritual politics nor the BJP’s Hindutva, for which he was allegedly a proxy, had a chance of victory in the political milieu of the South.
In the meme pictured above, Rajinikanth’s visage in a still form the Mani Ratnam film Thalapathy has been replaced by that of MK Stalin. This meme also presents Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in the place of Mammooty, who plays Rajinikanth’s friend in the 1991 film.
Both the Dravidian MK Stalin and the Communist Pinarayi Vijayan are avowed atheists.
Superstar Rajinikanth is one of the highest paid actors in Asia. He is a renowned philanthropist and an influential figure in Tamil Nadu public life who is respectfully referred to as Thalaiva or ‘leader’. The SUPERSTAR, who recently spoke up in the context of the Karuppar Koottam affair, was himself the first dark-skinned (Karuppu) leading man in the context of Tamil cinema.
Upon meeting Rajinikanth in the early 1970s, director K Balachander is supposed to have been struck by “the fellow’s fragile health and powerful eyes and his chiselled face… [a]nd of course, his skin colour, you know. The dark skin I thought was an advantage because again it is different from others. All the people who are very fair and all that, they have an easy entry into films. Why shouldn’t I take this boy, give him a good role, and see what can be drawn out of him?” While he seems today to be veering away from his promised Tamil Nadu political entry, this dark Dravidian cinema icon has thus far been showing signs of a decidedly ‘saffron’ or Hindutva leaning.
In my 2016 exhibit for the Singapore biennale I performed a ritual offering to both lord Murugan and to Rajinikanth, thereby attempting to articulate the relationship of Traditional Hindu iconolatry and contemporary Kollywood idolatry.
One scene from the Pa Ranjith/ Rajinikanth film Kaala (2018) that resonates deeply is that in which the villainous Hari Dada’s (Nana Patekar) granddaughter asks him “Who is Kaala dada?” and he answers pensively, “Ravan … Ravan.”(second 0.37 in trailer) In this moment the films palpable Dravidian ethos is emblazoned upon the screen narrative, eliminating all possibility of a misreading. For those who are unfamiliar with the political history of Tamil Nadu, the central tenet of the Dravidian self-respect movement that informs the political parties that have governed the state since 1967 is that of the a North/ South (or Aryan/ Dravidian or Brahmin/Non-brahmin) divide. In symbolic terms, this dichotomy has been articulated in a deconstruction of the Hindu religion, particularly in the desecration one of its sacred narratives, that of the Ramayana. Those who subscribe to the Dravidian ethos, identify with Rama’s nemesis Ravana or as Nana Patekar refers to him, ‘Ravan’.
This identification of Ravana with the hero Kaala, and with the SUPERSTAR, clearly advances director Pa Ranjith’s well known brand of Dalit activistivism. This film is a vehicle for his message about the ancient dispossession of Dravidian peoples in an Aryan conquest and the consequent oppression of casteism in contemporary India. If the film can be said to echo its director’s politics what can be said of its resonance with that of his star, his SUPERSTAR, Rajinikanth, who is in the runup to an entry into Tamil Nadu politics? Rajinikanth is himself a signifier of the Dravidian ethos in that he was the first dark skinned (the North/ South dichotomy presents as the light skin/ dark skin complex of the Tamil people) leading man in Tamil cinema. It has long been known that Rajinikanth is not a stalwart of Dravidianism as the movement is atheistic whereas he is invested in Hindu spirituality. Further he has explicitly announced a platform of spiritual politics and has regularly aligned himself with the policies of the federal BJP, while at the same time working hard to eschew over-identification with the Hindutva branding of the BJP.
Indeed, Rajinikanth seems to have tried to keep his potential alignments open for the coming assembly polls in Tamil Nadu in 2021. In a recent statement however he seems to have burned all bridges with the hard-core Dravidian parties by raising the spectre of an anti-superstition rally from 1971 in which the founder and light of the Dravidian social reform movement, E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, is said to have desecrated icons of Rama and Sita. In the ensuing decades, the Dravidian movement has regressed to an accomodation with Hindu theism, and paradoxically Periyar has himself come to be venerated as an icon of sorts. In this light, Rajinikanth’s indexing of this controversial event, compounded by his refusal to apologise in the aftermath, has resulted in what, I suggest, is an unbridgeable chasm between his spiritual politics and secular Dravidianism. Most significantly, it might have soured the potential alignment with his friend and staunchly secular political co-aspirant Kamal Haasan who seems to have reached out to him recently.
It has even been suggested that Rajinikanth’s speech was ‘scripted’ by the BJP. Frontline magazine has reported that former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras , V. Arasu, has said: “Why should Rajinikanth broach an incident that was half a century old and long forgotten? The D.K., too, over a period of time has toned down its anti-god rhetoric significantly. Hence, the actor’s casual remark on a revered social reformer needs strong convincing. Periyar stands for rationalism and social justice. The anti-god doctrine was just one among many themes of his social reform campaign. Besides, recalling an event that was mired in legal and political controversies at that time has no relevance now. By raking up this issue, Rajini has willingly fallen into the hands of those who are out to exploit the name and fame he has earned as an actor.” This brings us back to the question of what can be said of Kaala’s resonance with the politics Rajinikanth. It is with regret that I must note that if the question to be answered here is, “Who is Rajinikanth dada?”, given the accumulation of the SUPERSTAR’s statements to date, I find myself having to say, no less pensively than Hari Dada, “Hanuman Ji … Hanuman Ji”
The magnificent Rajini Sir seems unable to avoid being the embodiment of mythology. Recently, he has been equated to the Trojan Horse from the Odyssey, suggesting that his appealing Dravidian cinematic persona may be packed with a BJP / Arya Samaj political intent, waiting to be let in past the Dravidian gates of Tamil Nadu governance. Now, with his own Mahabaratha reference in the context of the Modi government’s move to revoke Article 370, he has been equated to Abhimanyu the warrior son of Arjuna. In an open letter to Rajinikanth Arun Ram, Resident Editor, of the The Times of India, Tamil Nadu, writes, ” I am happy that you have found your Krishna and Arjuna in Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, though you are not sure who is who. That’s fine, as long you realise that you are the Abhimanyu the BJP badly needs in Tamil Nadu.”
Abhimanyu is the son of Pandava champion Arjuna and nephew of the Lord Krishna himself. At the tender age of 16 he was the most powerful, and perhaps vainglorious, of warriors. But despite wreaking havoc on the Kauravas in the battlefield he is killed and his role in the plot of the Mahabaratha seems to be much more as a catalyst of victory than as a victor. You see, his father Arjuna is ambivalent about using his powers to destroy the enemy. The Kauravas are after all the cousins of the Pandavas! With the killing of his beloved son, however, Arjuna is personally afflicted and is open to the martial wiles of the masterful Lord Krshna.
Abhimanyu was a dispensable element in the plot of the Mahabharata. I hope Rajini Sir will avoid the pitfalls of personifying such figures from Indo Aryan mythology as the dissembling Trojan Horse and the tragic Abhimanyu, on the political battlefield of Dravida Nadu.
In the 3rd and concluding performance for the Pavilion Without Pavilion, Bangkok Biennale 2018, I made an impromptu photographic action on the 3rd of September at Wat Arun. This action was premised on the conflation of two gargantuan Dravidian icons that have attained global currency, Demon King Thotsakan (Dasakantha or Ravana) and contemporary SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth. They are both unquestionably giants of global Indic culture, one from the historiographical past of Farther India and Suwannaphum, and the other from the more immediate realm of Kollywood.
The SUPERSTAR hoardings are back. Kaala, the ‘man in black’ is walking tall on cinema walls all over Chennai. It seems that PA Ranjith’s second collaboration with Thalaivar is doing fine at the box office regardless of controversies in Thoothukodi and in Karnataka. There were relatively poor advance bookings and even now there are mixed reports about the first days takings but at least one heralds an all-time record take across Chennai cinemas and cineplexes of 17,000,000 rupees which is over 250, 000 USD. Reviews suggest that Director has struck a better balance between the SUPERSTAR persona and the serious social and dramatic ambit of his work. Ranjith is an outspoken champion of the left in Tamil Nadu. By left I mean Periyar’s Dravidian movement, whose colour is the black of Kaala, and Ambedkar’s Dalit movement, whose blue is equally prominent in the film. While the pairing of actor and director pairing holds up well in the fictions of Kabali and Kaala, there are signs however that this unity of actor and auteur is unraveling. How Rajinikanth will square this new politicized SUPERSTAR persona with his, apparently not so slightly saffron tinged (saffron being the colour of the Hindu right) real life ‘spiritual politics’ remains to be seen ….