In, arguably, the most significant vignette of PA Ranjith’s Kaala (a film that is essentially a collection of rhetorical set pieces), a minor character named Shivaji Rao Gaikwad (Rajinikanth’s actual name), speaks up for the protesting slum-dwellers that he, as a policeman, is tasked with repressing. ‘Shivaji Rao’ who, one might reasonably assume, is a signifier for the ‘real’ Rajinikanth, concludes his revolutionary speech with the Ambedkarite cry – ‘Jai Bhim’. This conjunction of speech and speaker, of message and context, of the text and its tag, presents, in a nutshell, the conundrum of Rajinikanth’s political entry. Are we being given insight into Rajinikanth’s intended political direction and allegiance … or is this merely Ranjith’s cinematic fantasy – aligning the voice of an illusory SUPERSTAR with his own fervent Dalit cause, without any grounding in Rajinikanths’s actual politics … Indeed, as the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections unfold, it will be fun reading and re-reading this scene in the light of that moving political context! Indeed, the Gaikward vignette appears to be a most intricate double, perhaps triple, feint, made in the course of a momentous Kollywood engagement between rising director and risen SUPERSTAR – the highlight of an exchange between two powerful agendas in Tamil Cinema … Tamil politics even!
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’sDravidian 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 ….
Kaala has opened worldwide yesterday (June 7th) with, indeed, the familiar rituals in tow. There has however, reportedly been less fanfare than is usual for the SUPERSTAR. Some analysts speculate that this may be because of a conflict between his well established stardom with his emerging persona as a Tamil Nadu politician. His first significant intervention in the domestic milieu after announcing his political ambitions – his visit to Thootthukudi in the aftermath of the police killings and the statements he made in that excursion, resulted in a severe backlash from the left of the political spectrum. Rajinikanth had balked and practically barked at the notion of the people’s pooratum (campaign of political resistance). Indeed it was as if our Thalaivaa had had enough of PA Rajinth’s radical revolutionary ethos he had imbibed in playing the lead in Kaala. The resulting rupture of Rajinikanth’s cinematic persona from his real life person seems to have had negative marketing consequences for the film as reflected in the weaker than expected opening ticket sales.
But wait … is this separation of movie image from real life not exactly what the adoring Thailavaa fans appreciate about the balding and sometimes unkempt star. Rajinikanth has never traded on his cinematic capital in what one might call the real world. He has refused earnings from personal product and brand endorsements and, indeed, he maintains the appearance of an unassuming and ordinary man of his actual age in his off-screen appearances. If the Commission of Inquiry into the Thootkudi killings does indeed reveal, as Rajinikanth had angrily insisted, that organized ‘anti-social elements’ had infiltrated the people’s protests and instigated violence endangering the lives of the police and workers at the Sterlite plant … the Thalaivaraa may come through his first domestic political skirmish unscathed … and Kaala .. well it is just cinema after all – popular cinema at-that! … so lets allow the boxoffice to pass judgement …..
Hiroyoshi Takeda, Shinji Kashima and I about to go on stage to perform my Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition at Courtyard Hiroo Gallery, on 11th May 2018. (It was as if we had our own early Kaala opening!!) In this installation/ performance I developed my on-going theme of the mango in Indian mythology while engaging with Japanese myth and traditions via of the legend of Momotaro (the Peach Boy). During the performance, I presented an antique Momotaro doll and develop an association between Indian and Japanese symbolism centered on the substitution of the peach for the mango.
With PA Rajinth’s Kaala, staring Thalaivaa Rajinikanth due to open on the 7th June 2018, and with all the controversy around Rajinikanth’s encounter and intervention in Thoothukudi recently, I feel it is timely that I release this video of my own little intervention on the streets of Tokyo as a part of Cowboys and Indians: Tokyo Edition on May 11th 2018. Rajinikanth’s outburst brings into focus the liminality of art and life, and indeed the ultimate severality of these categories. Rajinikanth the politician came out quite harshly against the culture of protest and resistance in Tamil Nadu. While his character in Kaala is a rabble rousing revolutionary, real life Rajinikanth has come off looking rather reactionary. This self-inflected break between person and persona threatens to eviscerate not only the credibility of Rajinikanth’s politics but also that of his highly developed artistic identity. Still, I will be there at the Hollywood 3 Cinema in Surrey for the opening night in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada!
With days to go till the worldwide release of Kaala, SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth gets asked the metaphysical question of his life – While on a visit to the victims of what a UN working group has called a police atrocity in the context of the 100 day environmental protest in Thoothukudi, a young man among the injured asked him – Yaar Nee Ayah? or Who are you sir? In my reading, the perfectly pitched question interrogates the capacity in which the Rajinikanth visit was being made – that of the Kollywood hero, the renowned philanthropist or, indeed, the newly minted politician!
This question, which should have come as no surprise as it was foreshadowed in celluloid, as represented in the image above, seems to have sent out Thalaivar into a tailspin. In subsequent interactions with the media Rajinikanth revealed a highly conservative streak … contrary to the image that the meticilous marketing campaign has built-up for the release of Kaala, whose revolutionary protagonist leads a ghetto uprising of the downtrodden, Rajinikanth seems to have a highly reactionary core. He blamed ‘anti-social elements’ amongst the protestors for the state violence – police shootings that left 13 protesters dead. He even seems to have said that continous uprisings will turn Tamil Nadu into a graveyard … Yikes!
In this double whammy of self-infliction, Rajinikanth seems to have squandered his capital in mass perception – the a unity of person and persona, that he has painstakingly built up over decades of cinematic imagineering … and as a consequence, film Kaala and his character in it, which have been promising great heft, suddenly seem hollow and feather light … more significantly Rajinikanth has revealed his so-called ‘Spiritual Politics’ to be, on this matter at least, fully aligned with the State AIADMK goverment and the BJP Federal government. Sadly Rajni also lost his temper with reporters breaking yet another invaluable image asset – that of the unworldly and unperturbed sage. How will the upcoming film, the Kaala character, the aspiring politician and the man recover from this … I for one will be following closely!
The first single from Rajinikanth’s Kaala released on the 1st of May, Labour Day. What can I say, listen for yourself Santosh Narayanan Rocks and Rolls, and Rapps and Beats too! The Boss is looking great in the stills too!!! The timing is great for my Cowboys and Indians performance at Courtyard Hiroo on the 11th of May in Tokyo.