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 second Koboi Performance went well today (8th July) in Belem, Lisbon. Among the highlights is meeting Amir Kabani and his family at the site of the Discoveries Monument. Amir gracefully and effficiently facillated the paperwork involved in enabling me to participate as Faculty at the International Art Gallery of the Diamond Jubliee celebration of the global Ismaili community. Thank you Amir and the team at the International Art Gallery.
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!
Mass is Kollywood jargon for massive or hit or popular or something like that! Whatever it actually means, the one thing that is clear is that Indian cinema is all about a sense of scale! This is also the mechanism or mechanics of democracy … the majority of the people … mass!!! Tamil Nadu has been governed by Mass since the days of Annadurai … MGR, Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha ……
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 …..
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!