“Our bodies are our only weapons. Gather everyone, we will agitate.”
—Rajnikanth as Kaala in the movie’s trailer
“Protests after protests will only reduce Tamil Nadu to a graveyard. Industries and trade will hesitate to invest here. Our youth will not have any jobs.”
—Rajnikanth after visiting those injured in the Thoothukudi police firing.
A state awaits its hero’s utterances with bated breath—and receives only conflicting signals. Rajnikanth the film hero wants his people to agitate, but his political avatar warns them not to protest too much. “Which Rajni do I follow?” is a real doubt that has racked the minds of his millions of fans.
Though his larger-than-life personality and heroism on screen have been shaped by the ‘punch’ lines he delivers in his films, Rajnikanth had always advised his fans to stay grounded. “What I do in movies is all make-believe. I only follow what the director tells me. I speak his lines. But real life is different—do not confuse it with cinema. Your family comes first, being a fan or public activist comes next,” he would frequently counsel.
So Kaala, the first film to release (June 7) after Rajnikanth announced his political ambitions, will be a test for his fans, a test to separate the star from the politician. Inside the theatre, they can celebrate their ‘thalaivar’ with lit camphor and flowers thrown at the screen. But outside, they will have to accept a leader shaped by the events of the day, surviving political pulls and the pressures of the public gaze—as when Santoshraj, an injured victim of the Thoothukudi police firing, nonchalantly asked Rajnikanth at the hospital, “So who are you,” and went on to query why the star had taken so long to visit them.
Here was the superstar, shorn of his heroism, confronted by a commoner and later questioned incessantly by an unsparing media. Accustomed until now to convenient questions, Rajnikanth, the political leader, will be subjected to greater and more intense scrutiny, especially by an unfriendly Tamil press that views him as the BJP’s proxy. “Rajni would not mind the grilling as he prefers to speak his mind openly. He only needs to become adjusted to the media giving its own twist to what he says. He will learn as he goes,” says senior Dalit leader S.K. Thamilarasan, who Rajnikanth consults.
But Rajnikanth has more riding on Kaala than as a film that dovetails with his politics. “It would be more apt to state that Kaala coincided with his political entry. Not only does it need a strong opening, it must also sustain itself at the box office for at least two months. His Kabali (2016) grabbed attention but was not a huge commercial success. Kaala needs to achieve both for Rajnikanth—for he cannot bid goodbye to cinema as a failed star,” says industry analyst Sreedhar Pillai.
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Pa. Ranjith, the director of Kaala, admits that although the film is focused on the travails of the slum dwellers of Dharavi in Mumbai and their fight to defend their land, it is also a political film. “It is not about electoral politics but about a leader who fights for the right of a people to own a piece of land. Yes, there are some politically loaded dialogues, but they have nothing to do with Rajni’s latest role as a political leader,” he tells Outlook.
Ranjith also emphasises that Kaala was not made as a vehicle to launch Rajni into politics. “More than 80 per cent of the film was complete when Rajnikanth announced his decision to enter politics in December 2017. Even then, not once did he ask for any line to be included as dialogue to suit his politics. That way, he is a totally non-interfering hero. His only condition was that the film should appeal to his fans and make them happy, and that the producer and distributors should get their returns. Otherwise, this is entirely a Ranjith film starring Rajnikanth,” the director explains.
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Industry circles are confident that Kaala will have a strong opening and that the stakeholders will have made all the money they need. It fits into Rajnikanth’s general scheme of releasing one film a year, though his next two films might follow each other closely ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when his electoral plunge is expected.
Though younger fans have gravitated towards heroes like Vijay and Ajith, Rajni’s fans are banking on the aging superstar’s box office draw to make Kaala click. “Even without his political entry, a Rajni film evokes hysteria among film goers. His coming political launch adds another dimension to his star appeal. The happiness on the faces of Thoothukudi victims and their relatives when he visited the hospital only proves the immense pull of his charisma,” says Surya, an office-bearer of a Rajni fans’ association. Women make up a big chunk of his fan base, just as they did for star-turned-CM M.G. Ramachandran.
Speaking of MGR, it’s true that he could balance both pictures and politics, and that even after he started the AIADMK in 1972, he continued to act until he became chief minister in 1977. But in those days, an MGR film had a lifespan of at least four months in the theatres, and even when a new film arrived, the old ones would move to smaller towns and villages, maintaining the star’s magical hold over the Tamil psyche. On the other hand, in this age of multi-screen theatres and a shelf life of a month or less, films are not enough to sustain the political momentum of a hero-turned-politician.
And whatever momentum is still possible may be strangled. Film producer G. Dhananjayan expects political parties to work overtime to ensure that Kaala bombs at the box office—as such an outcome could prove disastrous for Rajnikanth’s politics. “If they can plant doubts in the minds of the public about Rajni’s capacity to pull fans to the theatres, that would help to stall the launch of his party. So Kaala would be a serious reality check for Rajni, the film superstar and the budding politician,” he says.
Even ahead of the film’s release, the black dhoti that Rajni wears in it has already become a style statement and the phrase “Kya Re, Settingaa?” that he utters in the film’s teaser has become a part of the Tamil lexicon. But the transition from film hero to political leader has been a slippery slope for all except MGR and Jayalalitha. Rajni has himself admitted there can never be another MGR, and that he would never be able to emulate the AIADMK founder. Still, if he manages to convert just a portion of his star appeal into votes, Rajnikanth will have arrived in Tamil Nadu politics. And Kaala is expected to play a significant part in that transition
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai