Tag Archives: superstar

Rajnikanth and Politics – A Few Words

Everyone has an opinion about whether Rajnikanth should enter politics, and as a self-proclaimed fan of the actor, I have one too. SPOILER: I think he should enter politics, but not in the way everyone thinks. Before I explain my point of view, let me explain the context in which this debate takes place.

A (Very) Simplified Recap of Tamil Nadu’s Politics

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu’s politics effectively rejected national parties in favor of regional parties that emerged from the Dravidian movement. CN Annadurai’s call for strengthening the state around linguistic lines as opposed to a disconnected central government swept through generations of people who would identify themselves as either of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which means the party for advancement of the Dravidians, or its alternate, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was a breakaway formed in 1972 and named for former Chief Minister CN Annadurai. The two parties have produced seven Chief Ministers over half a century and their tug-o-war moves between phases of development and welfare schemes. The passage of time has bred discontent cynicism in the people as allegations of corruption, nepotism and neglect of long-term state-development took root.

Former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu

Rajnikanth and the 1996 Elections

At the peak of anti-Dravida party sentiment, Indian National Congress leader GK Moopanar broke away from the national party to form a Tamil Manila Congress (TMC), a state-centric party. His clean image and popularity received a boost from support by Tamil cinema’s leading man, Superstar Rajnikanth. An alliance between the TMC and the DMK came to power in 1996 and many credited the actor for turning the tide decisively against the incumbent government. This may not have been an overstatement considering the longstanding ties between the cinema industry and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both chief ministers from DMK, CN Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were successful writers who had written many socially motivated plays and cinema that shaped the discourse of the Dravidian movement. AIADMK’s founder MGR, arguably the most influential politician in the state, was an actor who cultivated his image through the resounding message of hope and revolution, written for the most part by his former colleagues, the aforementioned chief-ministers. His successor J. Jayalalitha was the leading lady in many of his films. Many of the minor parties that have developed in the state are often led by actors. So, Rajnikanth’s value to a political party or his potential impact is not insignificant.

Pros and Cons – Perceptions of Political Life

Which brings us to the question of his entry into the political fray. First of all, there are those who claim that the actor’s background as a Marathi native born and raised in Karnataka disqualifies him from entering Tamil politics – to them, I have nothing to say except point out that as an Indian national, he has every right to run for public office anywhere in the country. Cynical critics look at his recent comments about politics as an attempt to capitalize the political vacuum created by the passing of then incumbent chief minister J. Jayalalitha. A few critique his perceived ideological proximity to the right-leaning national party BJP and the national premier Narendra Modi. However, it is important to note that Rajnikanth has maintained cordial relationships with all political leaders from either side of the aisle. Quite a few cite the 67-year old actor’s age as being past the prime to enter politics. Former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha was actively involved in politics until her last year and she was of the same age as Rajnikanth. Opposition leader M. Karunanidhi is 92 years old, and he is still projected as the party’s incumbent leader. Outside of the state, current US President Donald Trump entered his office at the ripe old age of 70. Age cannot be the only consideration to exclude someone from public office. Others look at the years as well; not exactly his age, but his years of relevance. The Superstar has not shone as brightly in 2017 as he did in 1996. Although his films are still received with an enthusiasm reserved for a festival, they have become few and far between. People are far more critical of the extravagant flourishes of the Superstar, than they were in the 90s. In his years of absence, he has ironically been overexposed by the many younger actors imitating him in tribute and inevitable parody. This may not be a bad thing, because it shows that the people discern between the actor’s on-screen persona and his potential political life. His laconic and enigmatic mode of speaking, which enthralled his fans in an earlier time is not welcome by a people clamoring for clarity and actionable ideas. His gentlemanly image simply feels outmoded in this contemporary period of unrest.

The Actor’s Image as Myth

Should He Enter Politics?

I am firmly of the belief that anyone who holds considerable sway among the public should actively engage in political work contributing to progress. As long as we keep claiming that only career politicians can enter politics, we are skewing the conversation about national growth in the direction of nepotism and protectionism. Public figures from all walks of life should engage in a political life, doing their best to advance the cause of the common folk. However, I also believe that entry into politics is simplified into a false choice of either joining an existing party with its corrupt machinery or launching his own party, haphazardly converting fan-clubs into political offices. Established parties are already making overtures to the actor asking him to join them. Instead, I would like Rajnikanth’s entry to politics to take a third way – for him to effect actual change at the grassroots, he must run for a clearly defined political office for as an independent candidate. By this, I mean, he could contest to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly and set an example of what good leadership could bring to a single constituency. If his ambitions are grander than that, then he could contest as a mayoral candidate for a city and work for its welfare. The problem with the reaction to his entry to politics seems to be located with the notion that if he enters politics, he must be a Chief Ministerial candidate. Only when we recognize the importance of leadership at all levels will we see the exodus of the crony culture. Socially minded public figures are not new in Tamil Nadu, just as anywhere else in the world. The usually reclusive actor Kamal Hassan has recently expressed his thoughts on political and social problems openly. Radio Jockey Balaji became a cult figure due to his public works during the Chennai floods two years ago. Only when public figures of non-political background volunteer in their own spheres of influence, do we have a chance of challenging or at least destabilizing the status quo of dominant parties and encouraging a legitimate democracy. Rajnikanth’s entry to politics would be a success if he can add to that critical force that listens to the people and works for their progress. However, we can only wonder if the larger than life image of the actor would allow him to enter politics at the humble, day-to-day level of community service.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Reconstructing an Imagined Movie – Kabali (Tamil, 2016)

The superstar shines bright in an understated role as an ageing gangster. The line sounds so simple, that it makes you wonder why this movie wasn’t made any earlier. One can only wonder what kind of films he would have been able to make if this were the script of Baba, way back in 2002. Late as it may have come, Kabali (directed by Pa. Ranjith) is a powerful drama that tones down many of the excesses that have come to be associated with a Rajini film, and smartly weaves into the narrative itself, some of the stylish antic that have been out of place in his other films.

SPOILER WARNING: While the impressions recorded are quite general, some of the comments could serve as SPOILERS. So, let the reader continue at their own peril!

In, one of the first few scenes in the film, Kabali has dinner with his friend Amir’s family. As he is eating, Amir’s son throws a tantrum refusing to eat. In another Rajini film, this scene would have ended with his character either sermonizing to the mother about raising a child, or at least playfully convincing the child to eat his dinner. In Kabali, neither happens. Instead, Kabali is drawn into his own internal world, where he thinks about the family he has lost and the life that could never be the same again. From this scene on, you know that the film is going to be different. Yes, there are moments of epic build-up for the superstar, but there is also going to be a character that will replace the image of the star over the course of the film.

122a kabali_poster

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film was its distance from usual mainland-centric formula of using the return to India as a turning point of redemption. Yes, the characters come to India briefly, but that is just a part of the narrative about Malaysian Tamil people, whose lives and journeys are more intricately woven in KL. It is a film about a community that is made of people who were immigrants – and their identity as Tamil is linguistic, and cultural, but not necessarily national. And this is a very important step in expanding the Tamil cinema experience to include more pluralistic stories from different communities across the world. That such a story features the superstar Rajinikanth in the lead asserts that such a change is not a fringe event, but something that is quite central to the movie culture itself. Of course, such a usage if a different context also raises questions of whether the background is being exoticized and exploited in the film. No viewer can watch the film without that discomforting notion (as pointed out by one of my friends). But this very notion of discomfort allows us to reflect and separate the social questions in the film from its narrative necessities. In contrast, a movie like Billa (2007), which was also a gangster drama set in Malaysia, simply used the backdrop of KL city to tell a story that is more generic. While the engagement with the problems of gang culture is not very thorough or sustained in Kabali, it spends some time in exploring some of the problems in that world.

Of course, one of the problems that are only hinted at and not fully explored is the question of caste in the film. There was a strong undercurrent of caste-based tensions within the Tamil community, but such a question is always just outside the gaze of the viewer. A careful look at the film may offer us glimpses of the grotesque world where caste is one of the few things that are transported overseas, but nothing that suggests a politically significant or a socially responsible pressure that the film had the opportunity to apply. We can easily see the compromises enacted due to a desire for mass-appeal, with more difficult questions brushed under the carpet. Rajini’s characterization, tone and point of questioning puts pressure on the problem, if only inconsistently.

The lead pair ground the film as a realist drama with real consequences for the responsibilities that one accepts in life. Rajini’s Kabali is vulnerable to mistakes and gaps in judgment; his life is one of regret and toil – he is not the character you have seen him play over the past 25 years. He seeks the life that has slipped past him due to the violent world he belonged to. Any attempts at recovering that world always comes with a threat and fragile uncertainty; yes, he may find his wife, but how long will that relationship last in a world where he is targeted by his rivals every day? Rajini handles this tension with a calm and reassured presence, while exploding into rage at just the appropriate moments. He plays a convincing father and a comforting family man, whose threat of violence looms heavily as a tragedy – both past and impending. As good as the superstar is in his role, Radhika Apte’s Kumudhavalli offers a calming counterpoint in his stormy life. In her brief appearance in both the flashbacks and the imagined presence, Valli has little patience for Kabali’s hesitations. She corrects him, commands him and supports him – but also guides him and protects him. When all is lost, it is her memory that offers a lifeline in a confusing world. One only wishes that more was done with this beautiful relationship in the film.

122c Kabali

Santosh Narayan’s album of five songs are remarkable. They change the pace and expectations for the movie, strongly asserting that this is not a typical Rajini film. The narrative the songs promise often seem to surpass the one that actually make it to the screen. Maya Nadhi and Vanam Parthen are some of the most evocative Tamil songs you have heard in a long time. My wife, whose taste in music I trust more than my own, affirms these songs to be her favorite from the album. The songs convey a sorrow in parting and a longing for a reunion that feels ancient and familiar, and at the same time, painfully fresh and heartbreaking at the same time.

I could not, however, escape the feeling that the movie could have benefited from a more professional approach to screen-writing. Of course, the one-line version of the film convinced the superstar, the producers and the team; but there seems to be a rushed development in the script with unnecessary plot jumps and unsure writing. The pace of the film suffers from a tentative approach to the focus of the film – at times, it is the story of a man trying to reclaim his life after prison, and at others, it is a story of vengeance and corruption. The problem in the scripting is most evident when these stories do not easily cohabit the same universe – the characters have to awkwardly change their temperament and behavior to enter the other world, while a few well-thought out links could have bridged these worlds in a satisfying manner. Very interesting characters are introduced – like Meena, the junkie who struggles to find her sobriety – but very little is done with them. Some characters have a powerful screen presence – such as Kabali’s daughter, Yogi (played by a fiery Dhansika) – who is suddenly robbed her badassery just when the film needs it the most. This is not a film that makes you cringe, like Lingaa or Kochadaiyaan, but it makes you wish that it followed through just a little more to fulfill its promise.

122b kabali fight

Besides Yogi, the film is full of brilliant supporting roles, from Jeeva (Dinesh Ravi), who speaks only a few lines before being featured in one of the best ambush scenes in Tamil cinema, to the ever-dependable Kishore’s turn as Veerasekaran, a cliched and dated movie villain figure, who is still able to escape that tag. Nasser’s ten minute cameo as a politician who comes to terms with the reality of having to engage with the underworld leaves a strong impression. While one wishes that the film could have cut down on the number of minor characters in favor of developing key relationships between a few of them, you can sense a real fire in each of these actors trying to steal the scene with the superstar. On the flip side is Winston Chao’s Tony Lee, who moves between menacing and comical due to the tacked on lines in Tamil and exaggerated acting. South East Asia has a plethora of talented Chinese actors, and it seems like the film found the most ill-fitting one for the role and his wig.

This post is not so much a review of the Tamil Superstar Rajinikanth’s Kabali, but a reflection of its encounter from a fan. I remember a critic writing a while ago, that it is baffling to think that Rajini does not have more ‘good films’ than he does. His name and star power attracts some of the top names in the industry, and even if he is coming off a slump, he can command any budget he wants for his next venture; and yet, even the most enjoyable Rajini movies fall short of being objectively great movies – even if we disregard the lack of critical or international reception outside his fan-base, many of his films fail to aspire to the heights of contemporary technical standards. Every time a non-fan asks for a movie where Rajini shines as an actor, we are forced to look into the 70s and the 80s where the star had not overpowered the actor. We have come to accept this as the standard fare of a ‘Rajini movie’, where the most rabid fan will have to make an exception of quality to enjoy the film.  The term has become a pejorative that stands for lazy writing, poor scripting and endless fan-service.

Kabali, for all its flaws redeems the terms. I could imagine chopping the excesses in Kabali – but with the joy and understanding that it has a good movie just beneath those excesses. Having said all this, Kabali is a step in the right direction for the superstar, who has shown that he can be at ease  in his own skin, regardless of the age of the role he plays. There is greater kindness in this vulnerable hero. A more authentic charm that invites his fans to look into the wrinkling skin and sunken eyes, and love him for it nevertheless. The most redeeming thing about Kabali is that it does not feature Rajini as a novelty act that baffles other audiences, but showcases him as a capable actor. He is no longer the ‘dancing maharaja’, and he does not have to be.

This post was written while listening to Santosh Narayan’s brilliant album, Kabali.

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profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.