“The borders are blurring through art!” – A. R. Rahman retweeted Will.i.am, who as appears Rajinikanth (Chitti) from Enthiran in a new music video titled ‘Action’ using what he calls ‘deep fake technology.’ Other films reprised in this music video are Singham, Maryada Ramanna, Aambala and Kopps.
I have, in my Koboi Project (2013 -present), been using the image of Rajinikanth as a signifier for just this kind of cross-boundary cultural communion. Please see –
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”
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 seems to have sent our Thalaivar into a tailspin. In subsequent interactions with the media Rajinikanth revealed a highly conservative streak … contrary to the image that the meticulous 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 continuous 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 government and the BJP Federal government. Sadly Rajni also lost his temper with reporters breaking yet another invaluable asset – the image 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.
The Koboi had been developing his look after the SUPERSTAR’s image in Kaala (to will be released worldwide on June 7th) for his performance at Courtyard Hiroo, Tokyo at 7 pm on 11th May 2018 I am a fan of Rajinikanth and, as such, I relish the simple pleasure of ‘being’ the Thalaiva. I am, however, also cognizant of the aesthetic and critical connotations of my play. What is the measure of similitude – how much ‘looking like’ does it take to ‘look like’ or signify another person or persona? What is the threshold of sufficiency? Is such similitude founded on ethnic, even ethnocentric, notions of identity? What is the inner dimension of such a representation? How does one actually form a meaningful image of another? When does homage become piracy? Is this a pastiche or a parody, and if it is a parody – what is it a parody of? What, is the difference between a popular and a fine art image in the contemporary taxonomy of the arts?
Most pertinently, Kaala may be the last of my easy and heartfelt appropriations of the SUPERSTAR’s image as, having launched into politics in Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth has now placed himself in a different context of signification. Unlike his long-time colleague in the Movie business, and now political co-aspirant, Kamal Haasan, who has clear secular leanings, Rajinikanth’s avowed ‘spiritual politics’ seems to be taking on the pungent saffron hues of Hindutva (the Hindu Right)!.