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Rajini At 70: Neither Here, Nor There

How many of us would have a career choice at 70 years of age? None, except Rajinikanth.

From a carefree actor to an expert hopscotch player in the highly challenging political grounds of Tamil Nadu, Rajinikanth, whose birthday on December 12 is celebrated by crores of people, continues to remain on top of the game.

The clamour for him to enter politics by way of floating his own party continues to be raised. Even as he continues to make movies, and sidesteps naming his party, his views on contentious political issues such as Section 370, Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is sought by journalists.

How did this transformation, from a box office badshah to a potential leader happen?

It was certainly not overnight. While many actors and politicians ventured into their respective fields with a firm game plan, Rajini, as Sivajirao Gaekwad was christened by director K Balachander (KB), had none.

Employed as a bus conductor, he merely wanted to become an actor. Which he did. He wanted to enjoy life, and he did that with a flourish. KB, who brought him into films with a minor role in Aboorva Ragangal, once recalled to me that Rajini was paid Rs 5000 for a movie in his early days.

“That boy never bargained much and went off happily with that amount. The film was a huge hit and he was given the proceeds from one of the city areas, Rajini was very happy and said, ‘Thanks, I spent the Rs 5000 on friends, this will be useful.’ That is how simple his approach to life was in those days,” recalled the renowned director to me in one of our interactions.

In the late 1970s when anywhere between 17 to 20 of his films were releasing in a year, Rajini proved that he could pull off not only negative roles but positive ones as well, as he did in Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri.

After the success of Billa, the early 1980s put him on the road to superstardom.

By 1995, when he mouthed dialogues like “Naan eppo varuven, eppidi varuvennu theriyadhu. Varavendiya samayathula varuven” (No one knows when I will come or how I will come. But I will arrive at the right time) in Muthu, a film that went on to rock in Japan as well, his punch dialogues became a huge hit.

Many film and political observers began to track his punch dialogues as a careful construct aimed at a political foray. When he said, ‘En vazhi thani vazhi’ (My way is different) in Padayappa, fans began to ask, when he was entering politics.

The ‘pera kettale summa adhurudhu illa’ (There is a shiver when my name is heard) line from the film Sivaji was seen as a challenge to all politicians.

His fan base expanded to such an extent that Rajini reportedly froze new enrolments. In Tamil Nadu, historically, fan base has turned into party cadre.

Former chief minister MG Ramachandran pioneered that movement, and when he quit the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to float his own party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (now AIADMK), lakhs of his fans became his partymen.

By the time Kabali released, where he says, ‘Naan vandhuttennu sollu’ (tell them I have arrived), Rajini was constantly featuring in the political pages of state and national media.

But was he entering politics? That became the billion-dollar question.

It’s Complicated

Rajini played hopscotch on political entry, leaving fans disgruntled.

Then, like a twist in a Jeffrey Archer tale, he would do the unthinkable. As he did in 1996, when he said, throwing his weight behind the DMK-Moopanar’s TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress) combine: “If Jayalalithaa is voted back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu.”

She lost the Assembly election that year, the DMK won handsomely, and his fans were walking on air. They assumed thalaiva or thalaivar (meaning leader), as he is called affectionately, was all ready to take the political plunge.

But that was merely the teaser, and the political foray was still decades away. Political pundits later said that had he jumped into politics that year, he would have been a major force to reckon with.

Meanwhile, Rajini continued to be an actor, as well as a seeker of spiritual peace, whose retreat in the Himalayas became legendary. With every election, his fans would gear up, hoping for a signal from their thalaiva that he was going to be a direct player, only to be left in the lurch. Like a guest star in a movie, he would make a passing remark, cast his vote under full media glare and walk away.

However, he never lost his grip over his fan base. Despite their angst, they obeyed him, stayed loyal to him, turned grey, bald, became senior citizens and patiently waited for him to make a move into the political arena.

A combination of factors propelled him to take the first active step towards a political career in 2017, when he declared at a meet and greet event that he will enter politics ‘if that is God’s will.’

Both J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, the iconic leaders of the AIADMK and the DMK respectively, had passed away. Kamal Haasan, his senior in cinema had systematically built his political base through his Makkal Needhi Maiam and was meeting the public in all pockets of the state.

Kamal left no one in doubt about his course of action, whereas Rajini’s political status can best be described as – ‘It’s complicated.’

Even after the 2017 declaration, Rajini has been in no hurry to name his party, even as he is busy with films. Darbar is due to release soon; the working title of next film, Thalaiva 168 is very much in the news these days.

Nevertheless, he makes sure that no one forgets that he will enter politics actively.

Very recently, he roused political wrath when he said there was a political vacuum in the state. The ruling party was quick to pounce on his words. Seen as someone a shade closer to the saffron party, his detractors have challenged him to enter and navigate his way successfully through the political minefield.

In the politically charged atmosphere of the upcoming local body election, he has again marked his intent in his own way. Stating that he will not be backing any political party in the local body election, viewed as a litmus test to the next Assembly election, he has asked members of his Rajini Makkal Mandram as well as Rajini Rasigar Mandrams (fan clubs) to refrain from using his name, photograph or the flag of the Mandram in any manner.

With this move, Rajini pulls off yet another masterclass in political procrastination, where he gains everything and loses nothing.

He stays smart, stays relevant and keeps everyone on their toes, with regard to his political ambitions.

It all goes to merely whet the appetite of poll observers on his political entry. How long can he afford to grandstand, politically, without taking the full plunge is the zillion dollar question.

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