After a meeting of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution ending the special status and relative autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir and the division of the territory into two. While his friend and fellow traveller in movie stardom and in politics, Kamal Haasan has criticized this BJP policy as an assault on democracy, Rajnikanth has, sadly, approved. Taking the spiritual allegory of the Mahabharata, quite literal, to the contemporary battlefield, the fledgling politician is reported to have said that Modi and Amit Shah were like Krishna and Arjuna.
In my own view, this is an epic political fail for Thalaiva. I was, from some of his earlier pronouncements on religious and cast politics, envisioning a more humanistic and inclusive application of the traditional Hindu ethos in contemporary Indian Politics. Indeed Rajinikanth should be wary that he does not become a ‘wooden’ politician, particularly in the sense of becoming the Trojan horse that secrets BJP’s RSS/Arya Samaj saffron remix into the black atheist heart of the Dravida polity. Such an autocratic gesture from this second term Hindutva government bodes ill for the diversity that has characterized Indian politics since independence in 1947.
As far as Thalaiva’s entry into Tamil Nadu politics is concerned, I had hopes that Thalaiva would usher in a fresh spiritually motivated universalism to the tired atheist and ethnocentric Dravidianism that has shaped the modern state. I regret to note that, as his star glows with an increasingly saffron hue, my hope of Thalaiva becoming an exemplary post-traditional politician is fast reducing to just another fan-boy’s fantasy! Come on La … Thalaiva!!!
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!
As we eagerly await Kaala, Rajinikanth SUPERSTAR’s first movie after his entry into Tamil Nadu politics, it is pertinent to reflect on the messages embedded in this and his last release, Kabali. Both films are the directorial works of PA Rajinth, the rising Kollywood auteur of Dalit origins who has successfully presented critical social messages with mass commercial appeal. Rajinth is vocal on Dalit issues off the screen and here is an important document evidencing his rage and articulating his core message – TAMILS ARE DIVIDED BY CASTE … ADMIT IT! – It is a message that is steeped deep in Ambedker Blue and, incredulously, one that SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth seems to be taking upon his crisp new political mantle whose own native hue is allegedly a Hindutva Saffron.
On December 31st 2017 SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth confirmed his entry into Tamil Nadu Politics by announcing that he would launch a new political party before the next assembly election in the state. Growing up as a Tamil in Malaysia in the 1970’s, although I was not a film fan, I was aware of Rajnikanth’s significance as an identity pioneer. Up till his arrival on the scene, the dark skinned audiences of Tamil cinema had perversely preferred their leading men pale-faced and all powdered up. Rajnikanth had changed all that and gone on to become the biggest box office draw in Indian cinema. Later in my life, as my children were growing up in Kuching, Sarawak far from my parents and any significant Tamil influences, I went looking for Tamil media to fill the lack. I found a copy of Rajnikanth’s 1995 release, Muthu at the local night-market and to my delight, my girls loved it. What’s more, I found that I loved Muthu too.
On a visit to Tokyo at around this time, I was greeted by a billboard image of Rajinikanth. ‘Muthu’ or ‘Dancing Maharaja’ as the film was titled for its Japanese release, had become a box-office sensation in Japan. This was a rare example of an idiomatic local cultural product becoming a cross-over success without any mitigation of its sharp flavors. To the contrary, Japanese fans now learn Tamil to follow their SUPERSTAR in his own idiom. Against the grain of an era of global marketing and dochakuka in which the global products are varied, adapted and ‘localized’ for specific markets, Rajinikanth appears to have successfully projected an untempered idiomatic expression into a culturally distinct market and milieu. I recognized in this phenomena a signifier for the antithesis of the homogenization that was taking hold in the all global arenas, including that of contemporary art.