After decades of anticipation in the Tamil Nadu polity, SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics on December 31st 2017. Despite much toing and froing since then, he never did launch his party and then, on December 29th 2020, he announced with finality not to enter politics. For those of us who admire his charisma and spirituality but disdain the Hindutva politics he seemed set to bring into Tamil Nadu by virtue of his patent alignment with the BJP, this is a happy outcome! Thailava Valha! (Salutations to the Leader!)
The above image from the series was shot at the Singapore Art Museum. It was shot during a performance at the site of my photographic installation which was part of the Singapore Biennale 2016. It is one of 12 images that make up the upcoming Kiasu Cowboys Series of the Koboi Project.
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.
In the midst of the Political storm caused in Tamil Nadu by the Periyarist Karuppar Koottam facebook chanel’s recent denigration of Lord Murugan and his Kanda Sashti Kavasam, Superstar Rajinikanth came out form his political hibernation to acknowledge the sitting AIADMK state government, itself Periyarist in inception, for the swift crackdown on the alleged provocation. Two protagonists of the disturbance were arrested and charged with ‘giving provocation intent to cause riot’, ‘promoting enmity between different groups’ and ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings’ under the Indian Penal Code.
Writing on this matter based on my valid, if limited, locus standi, as a Jaffna born Tamil, I must note that while I am enamored of the ethos and charisma of Dravidian politics, I have never appreciated its central praxis of narrow communal scapegoating as a means to mass mobilization. While admiring their pioneering deconstruction of religion and myth as means to power and as forms of social control, I have always rejected their blank atheism as a window onto the truth of human existence. Without developing this sensitive, explosive even, subject further, I would like to take the opportunity of its topicality to index my own engagement with this nexus of Muruga and Thalaiva! In 2016/17, I presented an installation and performance at the Singapore Biennale which itself became the basis for 5th photographic series of the Koboi Project titled Kiasu Cowboys. Central to this work are the acknowledgement of Lord Murugan, via an antique terra cotta icon of the ‘mango myth’ and a large photographic print of a cinema hoarding of Superstar Rajinikanth.
While our Thalaiva launches his new political image in preparation for the next Tamil Nadu state elections, it is interesting to remember his earlier appearance on a spicy garam masala snack package marketed in Japan by the Tohato company. The film Muthu (1995), or Muthu: Odoru Maharaja (Muthu: Dancing Maharajah) as it was titled for its 1998 Japanese release, starred Rajinikanth and Meena, and was a surprise box-office success. The SUPERSTAR’s following in Japan has grown to become a large and uniquely Japanese fan base. While Rajinikanth’s oeuvre is deeply rooted in an uncompromisingly rustic Tamil idiom, Muthu, somehow, became a trans-cultural phenomena, crossing from a Tamil vernacular into the Japanese one.