The hint came in Kabali that was released in 2016. In the movie, Rajinikanth playing Kabali, a veteran don, tells one of the villains after bashing him, to convey a message to his bosses:
“Naan Vanthutenu sollu. Thirumbi Vanthutenu. 25 varushathuku munnadi eppadi ponaro Kabali Appadiye thirumbi vanthutaannu solu (Tell them I have returned. And I am just the same like I went away 25 years back).”
Rewind to 1992. One day, Rajinikanth, who was then chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s neighbour at Poes Garden, was stopped by cops from driving into the locality. In the biography, The Name is Rajinikanth, Gayathri Sreekanth relates the incident when a senior police officer told Rajini that no traffic can move until the chief minister’s entourage has driven past and that the wait will take 30 minutes.
Rajinikanth stepped out of the car, walked towards a small shop, bought a cigarette pack, leaned against a lamppost and lit up his cigarette. Within no time, people all over Dr. Radhakrishnan Road had surrounded him, creating a bigger problem for the security apparatus.
“Sir, I am waiting for her to pass. I don’t mind waiting,” said Rajini coolly when the nervous cop requested him to move away.
On the last day of 2017, with the same style and swag, the Tamil superstar is back, albeit with a bald pate and grey beard. And just as he said in Kabali, he has indeed returned after 25 years.
What does Rajinikanth’s political entry mean for Tamil Nadu? Irrespective of whether he tastes success or failure, Rajinikanth’s plunge will create more than mere ripples. And that is because he steps into politics in the post-Jayalalithaa era where a political vacuum exists in Tamil Nadu. To that, add Karunanidhi’s ill-health and the inability of MK Stalin to inspire the voters (in the RK Nagar byelection conducted last week DMK lost its deposit). The joke doing the rounds in Chennai is how ‘Thalapathy’ Stalin will be upstaged by reel-life ‘Thalapathy’ Rajinikanth. (Thalapathy which means the commander is a 1991 film by Mani Ratnam starring Rajinikanth in the lead role).
The flux within the ruling AIADMK with rebel TTV Dhinakaran emerging as a counter magnet has meant that 2017 has been mostly spent on firefighting rather than governance. Rajinikanth’s transformation from abhineta to neta is being welcomed with such frenzy is because people see in him a glimmer of hope.
Though Tamil Nadu has been dominated by the two principal Dravidian parties, it does not mean that the state is allergic to a third front. A decade ago, actor Vijaykanth could have been that factor and he proved his mettle by polling 10 percent votes in the 2006 Assembly elections against both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. But his inability to sustain his core base meant he frittered away the advantage. Rajini any day is a bigger star, and a bigger draw than Vijaykanth.
It is almost a given if Rajini, treated almost like a demi-god in Tamil Nadu, hits the ground running in the form of a mass contact programme like a padyatra, he will get traction. What works in his favor is his brand equity, his tremendous goodwill, and aura which the masses perceive as his simplicity. If he is able to get a party apparatus going, he can emerge at least as a disruptor, if not the king.
But what one is seeing right now is over-the-top media hype. Much like it is on the Friday of a Rajinikanth movie release. Most of those who had assembled at the Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam in Chennai on Sunday were reacting to Rajini the superstar, almost mistaking the accessible reel for the elusive real. After the smog created by the firecrackers settles, Rajini will be expected to provide clarity on contentious issues. Right now, Tamil Nadu and India know nothing about his stand on problematic areas.
Then there is also the outsider tag that Rajini has to contend with. Already political voices have asked for him to explain his position on the Cauvery dispute, given his Karnataka origin. But these traditional politicians will have to bear in mind that the more they breathe down Rajinikanth’s neck, the more he will attain the tag of the underdog, helping him in the bargain.
The visuals of celebration by his fans can deceive you into thinking that Tamil Nadu now has a chief minister-in-waiting. Rajinikanth claimed on Sunday that if he wanted he could have got the throne in 1996, when he slammed Jayalalithaa for her rule, paving the way for a DMK government.
This is interesting because, in the biography, Gayatri Sreekanth recounts how Rajinikanth and his wife Latha had called on Jayalalithaa when she became the chief minister in 1991. An intelligence cop had then whispered to Jayalalithaa to “beware of this man” because he plans to become the chief minister one day.
Jayalalithaa is believed to have replied, “Is that so? Does not look the kind to me.” The intel cop must be feeling vindicated today.
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