Some are born leaders. Some achieve leadership. And some hope leadership will be thrust upon them. That's the thrust of Rajnikanth's comeback film, Baba, which is as much cinema as it is politics. The superstar tries to make us believe he's going to be Tamil Nadu's helmsman one day. He tries to make us believe he's tried hard to leave worldly life behind and retire to the mountains, but reality bites and draws him back. The superstar also tries to convince us that he is god's gift to the state.
The morning of the premiere of one of the most awaited Tamil films last weekend, the rags reported that Rajnikanth had left for the Himalayas with a "yellow cloth bag" and some worldly belongings. No such luck. Togged out in black, he showed up that evening and proved that he belonged to our material world. Even Rajni's politics seemed to be draped in spiritual mumbo-jumbo: he was accompanied by an unknown 'yogi', who claimed to be based in the US. The only politician to attend the premiere was former Union finance minister P. Chidambaram, who sent a message by keeping away from the tmc-Congress merger in Madurai, overseen by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
As the 52-year-old superstar's film No. 151 hit some 150 theatres across Tamil Nadu on August 15, his fans played out the familiar manic frenzy over a new Rajnikanth flick: bathing his cut-outs in milk, burning camphor on their palms, erecting replicas of a temple in the film at the theatres. After all, their hero was making a screen appearance after a hiatus of three years.
In a state where the dividing line between cinema and politics has blurred beyond recognition, Baba matters not just to Rajnikanth's 30-lakh-strong fan base, but the entire political class. Jayalalitha reportedly watched the film exclusively at her Poes Garden personal theatre. Karunanidhi was also sent a print. Only Pattali Makkal Katchi chief S. Ramadoss hit a discordant note: he ordered his cadre to not watch Baba: "He's a bad role model. He encourages you to smoke and drink." The 25,000 branches-strong Rajni Fans Association has already demanded an unconditional apology from Ramadoss.
A month before the film was announced, Rajya Sabha MP Cho Ramaswamy had beseeched Rajnikanth to join politics and offer "an alternative to the Dravidian parties". The superstar responded with Baba. So the moot question is: When will Rajni enter politics? Truth be told, Rajnikanth has always been a political figure of sorts. As Suresh Krissna, director of Baba and three other Rajni blockbusters, says: "Rajni's influence is phenomenal even without his entering politics. When he exhorted audiences to visit temples in a film, people responded. When he used sacred ash on his forehead, the Tamils followed suit. When his fans knew he was into meditation, they too got interested." In reel life, Baba flows with this drift. He begins as someone who smokes, drinks, enjoys meat, and fantasises about women. But after attaining enlightenment, he turns a teetotaller and vegetarian, and gains control over sex and politics.
Film studies expert Venkatesh Chakravarthy traces Rajnikanth's political "turning point" to a speech during the 1995 inauguration of the MGR Film City: the star had lashed out at Jayalalitha's regime in her presence. "It was the equivalent of the filmic hero entering the house of the zamindar and directly challenging him." The same year, during the silver jubilee of his film Badhsah, Rajni attacked the state's 'bomb culture'. MGR associate and Badhsah producer R.M. Veerappan, who attended the function, was dropped from the cabinet by an incensed Jayalalitha.
Ahead of the 1996 assembly elections, Rajnikanth roared: "If Jayalalitha were voted back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu." The TMC-DMK alliance won comfortably. During the 1999 parliamentary election, he asked people to "vote against corruption". He also intervened in the contentious Cauvery water issue and when Kannada actor Rajkumar was abducted by Veerappan in July 2000.
Rajnikanth has, however, proved that there is nothing like permanent enemies in politics. He thought it wise to make peace with Jayalalitha, his Poes Garden neighbour, by sending her flowers after she became the chief minister of the state last year. Amma responded kindly when Rajnikanth announced the Baba project: her government lifted the ceiling on the film's ticket prices for two weeks. Result: a Baba ticket ranged from Rs 70 to Rs 200 in a state where the dearest cinema ticket comes at Rs 70. But the Rajni-Jaya truce might only be limited to business. In electoral politics, they cannot sail in the same boat since there's a lot of overlap in their political ideology.
In the film, Rajnikanth's transformation from an atheist to a politico-spiritual person is as much a cinematic journey as it is a metaphor for the larger shift that has taken place in Tamil society and politics. The DMK has been reduced to a rump and is clinging to the BJP—an antithesis of all that Periyarite Dravidianism stood for. Karunanidhi, the scriptwriter of the landmark 1952 Parasakthi, the Sivaji Ganesan-starrer which spawned a decade of cinema that upheld atheism, rationalism and social justice, is now reduced to applauding Padayappa (Rajnikanth's 1997 hit) and Baba and praying that the DMK would benefit from Rajnikanth's spiritual politics. So much that Karunanidhi's support for the Kanchi Sankaracharya's Babri-Ayodhya talks came after Rajni asked him to take such a stance. The BJP, of course, looks to Rajni as an ambassador of Hinduism.
For political analyst Ravikumar, the present state of things is a logical culmination of Dravidian politics. Says he: "A Parasakthi has led to a Padayappa, and now Baba. Irrespective of whether a film is progressive or regressive, the viewers remain passive recipients in this Dravidian culture of politics-as-spectacle." Karunanidhi, MGR, Jayalalitha—this progressive regression might mean that Rajnikanth will follow inevitably.
How will Rajni impact politics in the state? Ravikumar feels that he "can emerge as an autocratic right-winger given his Hindutva-friendliness." But the superstar can still sell himself to be a secular politician being an 'outsider,' a Karnataka-born Marathi (a Gaekwad). According to Chakravarthy, "MGR turned a similar (he was a Malayali) handicap into advantage by addressing the Tamil public as 'blood of my blood'. Rajni says 'the Tamil country that has given me life'." The superstar can turn a super-politician and on the face of it appear to be someone above castes and communities. Hence the discomfort of Ramadoss and other small parties.
As Tamil cinema finds permanence in politics, a delirious Rajni fan said: "Baba might run in theatres for a year at best. But once thalaivar (the leader) enters politics, the show will go on forever." A song in the film goes like this: Baba is cinema, and the three-hour cinema is life.
In the film, Baba crowns an ageing Gandhian khadi-wearing politician as chief minister and is about to retire to the Himalayas. The assassination of the chief minister forces Baba's return. At that point, the words 'To be Continued' scroll up. Will Baba-II be reality or in cinema? The answer lies in Rajnispeak: "Known is a drop...unknown is an ocean".
Anything can happen in Tamil Nadu where cinema is politics by other means. And politics cinema.