Vaasanthi, Rajinikanth’s latest biographer, is of the opinion that he is “in tune with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology” — supporting both their Kashmir communication blockade and initially, their widely criticized Citizenship Amendment Act. But she also notes that also he is “secular and inclusive in spirit”. One of Rajinikanth’s closest friends, the Kannada actor Ashok, is a left-leaning activist. But his close advisors have closer links to the RSS, the fountainhead of the BJP. When asked, Rajinikanth describes his ideology as “anmiga arasiyal” or spiritual politics. This was certainly a rhetorical change from the 60 odd years of Dravidian atheism in Tamil Nadu, rooted in the Self-Respect Movement. But what does “spiritual politics” even mean? What does Rajinikanth believe?
This is an amorphous and tricky question, because Rajinikanth’s own public statements betray an agonizing, see-saw-ing quality. Besides, to write this biography Vaasanthi had to interview around Rajinikanth, unable to score an interview with the subject of the book. So, she is unable to put a finger on exactly what it is that is going on inside his head. Instead, she goes for what is most certain about his inconsistent story — his fanbase.
Rajini’s Fan Clubs
According to The News Minute, in 2017 the official number of registered Rajinikanth fan clubs is around 50,000. That year, in May, he had announced he might enter into politics, “Be ready for war. The system is corrupt, we all need to work together to change it.” On 31st December that same year, he began his announcement by citing a Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavad Gita, noting, “It is certain that I am entering politics.” He claimed that in the 2021 Assembly elections his party would contest all 234 seats.
Since 1996 when he made his first big political statement against then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Rajinikanth has vacillated on joining politics. Vaasanthi makes full use of this inconsistency, almost turning him into an unreliable narrator. The prologue of the book intertwines the huge crowds that swell before the film’s premiere, with his promised foray into politics. This sets the tone for the book, which despite being about a film-star, has its primary focus on the politics of the state that is ballooned by his fan-clubs. Rajinikanth’s filmography is a mere backdrop.
Tamil Nadu has a history of film personalities segueing into politics — Chief Ministers Karunanidhi, MGR, and Jayalalithaa were all closely tied to the film industry. While MGR’s fan clubs were “deliberate and planned … with the specific intention of promoting his name and image and later to mobilize election campaigning and fundraising,” Rajini’s fan clubs were more diffuse, decentralized, and organic.
Vaasanthi uses both the fan-clubs and the ongoing political landscape to profile Rajinikanth — from the Cauvery River water-sharing controversy between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, LTTE, the anti-Sterlite protests, bomb blasts, his friendship with both Modi and Karunanidhi, and the icy flip-flop with his neighbour Jayalalithaa.
When he made his announcement in 2017, his fan clubs mobilized, launching a website ‘Rajinimandram’, where over 3 lakh people registered within the first few hours. He called out to them in his speeches, wanting “watch dogs, not mere party workers”. He empowered his fans with his vague promise of progress, even as no one knew exactly what he stood for. He made irresponsible statements in a heat of feeling, and then apologized. It became a pattern. But throughout this, his fanbase which cuts across caste and class (yet organized within fan-clubs delineated by caste and class) remained unwavering in their support should he throw in his lot.
The only logical explanation of his longevity in the public and film sphere— his first film, Katha Sangama, released in 1975 — is this fanbase. Baradwaj Rangan noted, “There is such a hardcore fan following that he commands. That people love him. Generationally speaking we connect with our actors and stars much more than people outside. In India, it is almost like they become part of the family, the mindset. There is a personal investment in every film that is made.”
So, even when on 1st December 2020, he met members of his party and noted that he cannot possibly run for politics — his health fraying by the day, and with the COVID-19 anxieties in the air, the political possibilities feel even more fragile — more than disappointment, there was understanding.
Rajini’s Fame In Japan
It is easy to wonder, given how closely aligned his fan clubs and his political posse were, whether Rajini can have a fanbase that cleaves off any political expectation? For this Vaasanthi goes across shores to Japan.
The success of Muthu (1995), titled Muthu: The Dancing Maharaja (1998) in Japan was the beginning, becoming one of the most successful Indian films in Japan. Baradwaj Rangan noted the baffling choice, “I can understand if Enthiran or 2.0 became big there. But this particular film… I don’t know.”
Vaasanthi believes it was perhaps the director Balachander’s son-in-law Kandaswamy, who also produced the film, who is responsible for this cross-over. After a chance encounter with a Japanese businessman, he marketed the film there to great success. In 2005, Tohato, a Japanese packaged food company, put a still from the Muthu on the wrapper of their recently launched garam masala chips. In fact, when in 2002, Baba — which starred Japanese Bharatanatyam students in it — flopped in India, it became quite successful in Japan. In 2012, Nikkatsu Corporation released Enthiran all across Japan finding it “unique, funny, interesting, and marketable.”
In 2018, to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the film’s release in Japan, a digitally-enhanced version of it, with 4k and 5.1 surround sound, was re-released. This was startling to see, because it showed that even without the political context — that here is a star, a dark-skinned, smoking-drinking, Marathi speaking Kannadiga who made it big in Tamil cinema where fairness and teetotalling virtue were both considered indistinguishable from hero-hood — his films charmed.