Will Rajinikanth, the Superstar Clash with Rajinikanth, the Neta?

Pop Culture

Will Rajinikanth, the Superstar Clash with Rajinikanth, the Neta?

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

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n his profile in The New Yorker, Donald Glover spoke about “Trojan-horsing” his show Atlanta to FX network executives. It’s a term that’s gained popularity among writers and creators where a niche, seemingly unpopular non-viable idea is wrapped in a creamy outer layer made of popular, marketable flavours. Jenji Kohan, the creator of Orange is The New Black, used the same tactic and pitched her show around Piper, a privileged, attractive white woman who finds herself in prison: the Trojan horse to tell the stories of a diverse group of black and Latina women.

Likewise, Rajinikanth is director Pa Ranjith’s Trojan horse. A superstar that the director uses to tell stories of significance.

In the Kaala trailer, black is the colour of labour, Raavana is the saviour, and streets are spaces that must be occupied. Rajini the actor talks to a crowd of disenfranchised slum dwellers about their bodies being their only weapons and reiterating the need to occupy the streets to fight the establishment. This is a man whose words onscreen and offscreen weigh the same.

Take a look at the soundtrack of the upcoming Kaala, for instance. Nearly half of the tracks are dedicated to the lower-class; their lives, spaces and their calls for revolution. “Theruvilakku” (Streetlight), is a rousing anthem celebrating the ghetto, its unity, and aiding its citizens’ progress. It begins with an extended rap section with lyrics like “Welcome to my hood” and “Hip-hop kalaacharam inge” (Hip-hop culture here).

Rajinikanth

In Kaala, Rajini the actor talks to a crowd of disenfranchised slum dwellers about their bodies being their only weapons and reiterating the need to occupy the streets to fight the establishment.

Image credit: Getty Images

It is indicative of the leaps Ranjith has taken from films like Attakathi and Madras — where his own ideology wasn’t overtly implied. You had to know where to look. In Kabali and now, in Kaala, this ideology is more brazen, open, and demonstrative.

The Rajini-Ranjith pairing is an alliance forged in Tamil cinema heaven, seemingly unassailable to any force – except, perhaps, Rajinikanth’s entry into electoral politics. A day after the trailer release, Rajini, now playing the politician, visits the hospital in Thoothukudi and sides with the establishment, vending quotes that border on fascism.

For Ranjith, it’s a tenuous collaboration fraught with fault lines. Rajini’s undefined brand of “spiritual politics” is at odds with the former’s open call for revolution, his anti-establishment leanings, and his reputation as one of the few politically aware Dalit filmmakers around.

His beliefs are omnipresent in the lyric video of “Theruvilakku”. At the 20-second-mark, S Anitha’s poster makes a blink-and-miss appearance, proclaiming “We Tamilians against NEET (National Eligibility and Entrance Test).” Shanmugam Anitha, who had scored handsomely in her 12th board examinations committed suicide last September because her NEET score was not upto the mark. At that time, when politicians and actors like Rajini shared generic condolence messages, Ranjith was clear in his stance that NEET was an oppressive device against students like Anitha, from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Rajinikanth’s influence, on the other hand, clouds the film’s promotions. Kaala’s teaser was postponed by a day due to the demise of Jayendra Saraswathi, Kanchipuram’s 69th seer, even though Ranjith identifies as an atheist. At that time, the decision did not cause any immediate uproar. But it was remembered in anger when the film’s promotions continued uninterrupted during the Sterlite protests in Thoothukudi, that resulted in civilian deaths at the hands of state police.

Kaala comes at a time when Tamil Nadu is in a bit of a tumult – a post-Jayalalitha era sullied by Jallikattu protests, a volatile government, and the state-sanctioned killings in Thoothukudi. When Rajinikanth visited Thoothukudi last week, it was not as an actor but as a political aspirant. Sticking to the book, he bemoaned how “anti-social” elements were actually to be blamed for the protests going out of hand. Naturally, he shied away from attacking the state government by saying that the investigation will take care of – what he deemed – intelligence failure.

In stark contrast, Ranjith batted for the people, never doubting their intentions or form of protest, and condemning the killings in no uncertain terms.

Rajinikanth is director Pa Ranjith’s Trojan horse. A superstar that the director uses to tell stories of significance.

When the Rajinikanth-Ranjith collaboration was announced three years ago, it felt like a course correction for the star – a chance to move away from decades of roles that celebrated sexism, misogyny, and the messiah complex. The desire to maintain Rajinikanth’s aura meant that he was reduced to the dialogues his characters uttered in films. But getting together with a progressive director like Ranjith enabled the star to use his voice to further progressive ideals.

Naturally, such a figure’s political aspirations blurs the lines – between Ranjith’s Kaala and Rajinikanth, the spiritual politician. Yes, it might be cinema and yes, the character he plays onscreen is allowed to be different from the actor, the man, and the politician. But unfortunately, the timing of the film’s release has ensured a cognitive dissonance in Tamil Nadu.  

It’s a dichotomy that will be harder to miss with each passing day. It makes one wonder about the role that Rajinikanth is actually playing offscreen. If he is the Trojan horse for Ranjith in films, is he the Trojan horse for right-wing nationalists in the real world? The idea – a mere speculation in the recent past – has moved beyond something innocuous in recent weeks.

On June 7, we’ll know the extent of one Rajini experiment – with Pa Ranjith. And, hopefully soon, we’ll unmask Rajini’s other experiment in politics. Will that end his run as Ranjith’s Trojan horse?

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