The rest of the world can celebrate the millennium, Tamil cine star Rajnikanth will celebrate himself. Or, more precisely, his 25 years on the silver screen. Come December 12, his birthday and the month-long mega event, Rajni 25, kicks off with a view to reaffirm his cult status among Tamil cine-goers. The carnival assumes significance because there is an enigma surrounding the public persona of the actor, whose entry into politics was once considered a realistic possibility.
Rajni 25 is a carefully constructed event to give a new image to the actor. Rajnikanth handpicks the core team which is involved in this event's management, with his wife Latha Rajnikanth being the convenor. It also has S.V. Ramanan, the television producer who was involved in producing a '95 Doordarshan programme in which Rajnikanth answered political questions from viewers all across India. But, "there's no politics in this. It's to commemorate his silver jubilee in the film world,"declares Latha.
Her efforts, however, betray her declarations. The publicity material authored by Latha says: "The reason for Rajni's success has not been mere histrionics but a desire to reach out to the masses, to make them aware that basic honesty and hardwork will fashion their triumph. All his movies have endorsed cultural values and tradition, respect for one's parents and the elderly and unconditional love for children."
The intentions are more than clear. The event showcases Rajnikanth as an exemplary man. Divided into three decades-the '70s, the '80s and the '90s-an elaborate exhibition is planned in which all the materials used by Rajnikanth, including photographs, stills, mannequins, costumes and artifacts, will be on display. Even the cafeteria at the venue will serve the actor's favourite dishes.
The idea does not stop here. It aims to build Rajnikanth as a brand. The event managers have tied up with Titan to bring out Rajni 25 watches; gold coins are being minted with Rajni's portrait on them; there are posters of Rajnikanth and the brand promoters are hawking home brochures that contain pictures of the star along with graphic details of the event. Says Latha: "We have conceived this mega event to raise funds. The proceeds of the show will go to the 'Education for All' programme which I conduct at my school ashram. We are combining philanthropy with creativity to lend meaning to the theme which is 'entertainment for a cause'."
But will brand promotion help the Tamil megastar? After the failure of the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd, brand-building of an actor is fraught with risk. This point is probably not lost on the event managers. "We are not into promoting Rajni as a brand. We are paying a tribute. It is a thanksgiving event. Do not read any more into it,"cautions Latha.
To press home the point that the month-long mega event is non-political, Latha says there would be no speeches or felicitations to mark Rajni's silver jubilee on the silver screen. "The entertainment nite on December 23 is primarily a tribute to the greatest showman's innermost desire to enable every Indian to pursue quality education. We might even succeed in getting Jackie Chan for the event and the show will be on the lines of a Hollywood musical,"informs Latha.
The cassettes which are going to be released during the function will include a message from the star. The numbers will include the theme of Rajni 25 and a medley of some of his popular songs. "The event is aimed at emphasising the age-old values as we enter the new millennium. It's going to be a cultural reaffirmation of our value system,"says Latha. But she refuses to explain how the popular films of Rajnikanth can be of any cultural value. The core of the event, according to her, is to bring out the actor's philosophy of life. But she has little to say about his philosophy and how it's different from other traditions. Nearly three decades ago, when M.G. Ramachandran launched his political party, he said his political philosophy was called "Annaism". But never did he bother to explain what Annaism stood for.
The actor's philosophical discourse may be devoid of any such political import in the end analysis, but events of the recent past leave enough room for speculation. In '95, there was an attempt by Rajnikanth's aides to launch him politically. A broad alliance involving the then undivided Congress, splinter groups of the aiadmk and the network of Rajni fan clubs was forged in the hope that the Congress high command would be in favour of the arrangement. But later, the Congress went in for a tie-up with the mainstream aiadmk and caused a vertical split in its Tamil Nadu unit. Rajnikanth then took to the streets, urging his fans to ensure the drubbing of the Congress-aiadmk combine in the '96 polls. But he failed to restage his magic in '98 when his clarion call to snub Jayalalitha fell on deaf ears. The aiadmk-led front fared exceptionally well, exposing the megastar's vote-catching ability to criticism. Since then, tinsel town has remained his bailiwick.
To sharpen the effect this time, Rajnikanth is yet to announce whether he will be present at the event or not. "It is for him to decide and we will not compel him,"says his wife. However, during the course of the dialogue, Latha says the event has Rajni's blessings. According to sources in the fan club, the brainwave to keep people guessing came from Sonia Gandhi's silence over the Subramanian Swamy tea party. "Till the last minute, Sonia did not reveal whether she was going to attend it. This gave the Congress enormous political mileage. That is what our star is also doing now,"observes a fan club office bearer.
Only that he'll do well to remember that the infamous tea party knocked the winds off Sonia's sail. Sure, the tinsel town icon will be in no mood to settle for that.