Of late, the SUPERSTAR’s sign (semiotically speaking) was being reconstituted as a unity of two distinct signifiers – one being that of the established screen ‘hero’ and the other, the emerging ‘politician’. Both these signifies had, in the run-up to the release of PA Ranjith’s Dalit-Bahujan (the proletariat majority in the context of Indian caste society) gangster flick Kaala, seemed to be coalescing to signify something like … ‘Common (Tamil) People’s Leader’. In the wake of the Thoothukudi police massacre, however, Rajinikanth’s response, seem to have created a sudden and impactful aporia or space of internal contradiction within this singular signification.
Who is the Superstar Rajinikanth?! ….
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’s Dravidian 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!
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!