Thalaivar Factor: What Does Demi God Rajnikanth Mean To The South Indian Political Scenario

Common Man’s Superstar – Thalaivar Of Hearts

“Thalaivar Rajnikanth has become our God. He is not just giving us an ideal to look up to but is also making us think beyond us. The word of Rajni is a word for worldly good. All of us take pride in the fact that, we represent the ideas of our great Thalaivar, in spreading happiness and help to every corner of our state. In such chaotic conditions, our hope lies in our leader, Thalaivar, to lead us out of this mess. It is his job to lead us, and it is our right to follow him. Thalaivar speaks and lives for every one of us. He will do it, for us. It’s merely destiny…” – Balachandra, the social media manager of Rajnikanth Fans United speaks to me, just hours before booking almost half of the total number of seats at the premiere show screening of Rajnikanth’s latest offing Kaala at Rohini Silver Screens in Chennai.

Rajnikanth Fans United is just one of the 3500 Rajnikanth fan clubs spread across the world. The phenomenon of Thalaivar is so strong in the South Indian moviegoer population that the number of fan clubs adulating The Superstar has been growing exponentially year after year. At the age of 67, Rajnikanth is perhaps the biggest Superstar of the nation, with almost five thousand crores’ worth of business riding on him presently, courtesy his movie commitments, including the much anticipated Robo 2.

How do we explain the spectacular escalation of such admiration over time? How does a common man, defined by his stint as a bus conductor in Bangalore Transport Service, become a Demi-God for millions across South India? How does Shivaji Rao Ramoji Rao Gaekwad, born into a Marathi family, become the Thalaivar, perhaps for every household in Tamil Nadu? What drives millions of people across the world to flock the theatres, in an unexplainable emotional trance, to watch their Superstar play out the larger than life roles and yet connect them with at a grass root level? Thousands of movie critics have pondered as to what exactly defines the ‘Rajni Factor’.

And with Rajnikanth’s latest entry into Tamil Nadu Politics (the name of his Political Party is yet to be announced, but the Superstar has confirmed that the party shall contest for all 234 seats in Tamil Nadu in the upcoming general elections), even the political analysts today rack their minds in an attempt to gauge the potency of this so-called ‘Rajni Factor’. Perhaps the answers to the definition of Rajnikanth’s mass connect lies in his filmography, starting from his earliest blockbusters like Shankar Salim Simon (1978), Billa (1980), Thee (1981) to his stardom cementing outings like Thalapathi (1991), Veera (1994), to industry-defining affairs such as Baashha (1995), Muthu (1995), Padayappa (1999), Chandramukhi (2005), and Enthiran (2010).

Origin Of A Superstar – Decoding The Entry Point Of Rajnikanth

In the early 50’s and 60’s, Tamil Movie Industry was characterized or rather defined by iconic movie stars who represented heroic values and almost a superhuman charm. We are of course talking about stalwarts like MG Ramachandran, Gemini Ganesan, Sivaji Ganesan and more. These stars bedazzled the silver screen with irresistible stardom, unmatched ease of acting, and with roles which connected to the new capitalistic idealism. Although MGR represented the working class populace, rebelled against the established governing bodies, and went on to formulate his political party driving it to an astounding success eventually, there was a glaring gap to be seen between the standard movie-going population and the working elite.

The 70’s and 80’s ushered a new age of industrial disparity in the South Indian working class. A clear demarcation of ‘clerical desk jobs’ and ‘core hard labour’ was established. The gap in the working class, elite and labour, was hardly getting reflected in the movies which by then had become a truly important means of propaganda and belief system impartation.

It is important at this point for one to understand that the socio-political scenario progressing all over the nation had put a divisive gap between economic classes and their religious beliefs. The Neo-Dravidian Atheism movement professed a brand of religious equality, which to some extent worked, eventually, however, giving way to a void which was to be filled by new idols to looks up to. Atheism made people turn to movies to fulfil the craving for their larger than life fantasies. No, god movement did not specifically say No hero.

This is where Rajnikanth, a regular looking working class individual entered the cinema industry and changed the face of it in years to come. Before Thalaivar, before Superstar, he became the brand of the quintessential rebel, an underdog, who fought the system and emerged victoriously. No God thus became an All Hero. A hero who had the power to usurp establishments, challenge riches, and define lives. He became a demigod for those who had none. The working class’ dreams suddenly started coming true. Someone who represented them was actually winning. He wasn’t the chic, shaven and suave hero. Rajnikanth was this rugged, angry, and yet undeniably stylish mere human, who in being so, became the hero no one knew they needed.

Not Handsome, Not Fair, Not God Looking – But Rajnikanth

“…After Baasha’s success, it was a given rule for any filmmaker that Rajnikanth should not be given roles which did not show a success trajectory. A classic good vs evil, where the good, of course, should have to be Rajnikanth, but interestingly the evil should be his own vices, his circumstances, and his limitations. So there you have a fixed framework. Rajnikanth could not be beaten up by a hundred goons. Those days were gone. He had to be defeated by his choices. The villains would have to exploit such momentary weakness only. They could insult him, yes, but not raise a hand on him. That was the mantra of a successful Rajnikanth film script. By doing so, Rajnikanth was to be depicted as someone who overcame his own limitations and society’s atrocities, and emerged victorious. Not through fist fights mind you, but by hard labor and sincere being. It was getting both difficult and easy to write scripts for Rajnikanth’s mega-stardom. The template was there to be followed. And it worked. Look at Annamalai, Muthu, Padiyappa or Shankar’s Sivaji. The formula is the same. And the formula will work till the day Rajnikanth quits acting. As simple as that…” Tamil movie critic Venketswaran speaks about the ‘Rajni Factor’.

The above analysis throws a definite light on what Rajnikanth’s scripts achieved in the process of getting him worldwide commercial success. They in turned him into an idealistic messianic figure, who no one could stomp over. The scripts, in turn, movies, also ensured that the groundwork was laid, for an anticipated future. A future that millions of his fans started assuming to be an ambitious yet apparent reality. The future was based on a reasoning that if Thalaivar Rajnikanth could do so much good to all those who adored him, wouldn’t he be the perfect leader to lead them? He was already their Thalaivar, and wouldn’t a constitutional power betrothed to him be only a fair and just thing to happen.

However, this political dream, as so entertained by millions of his fans, was short-lived, when in 2008 Rajnikanth submitted an open letter to the media declaring his intentions about entering Tamil Nadu politics. The Superstar in hindsight as it would seem was not prepared to take the plunge. It would take a decade more and some extraordinary circumstances to force the Thalaivar to take the political leadership.

Rajnikanth – The Spiritual Politician?

Thalaivar over his career spanning almost four decades has always been a deeply spiritual individual. His movies, dialogues or even the songs have reflected the ethos of spiritual belief. One might say it is a contradicting stance when you compare it to the already existing and prevalent Dravidian Atheism philosophy. However, this is where Rajnikanth has managed to maintain a fine line between religious inclinations and spiritual belonging. Perhaps this is another factor which makes Thalaivar Rajnikanth all the more appealing and relatable. You see, in an age when religious beliefs are being questioned and challenged at every turn, here is a Superstar professing New Age Spiritualism. The Superstar has made it more than apparent in his movies like Annamalai, or Baba (which Rajnikanth himself wrote the screenplay for).

Whilst this becomes an established fact, one wonders whether this has also placed Thalaivar in an appropriate time and place, to take over the political reigns from erstwhile specifically Atheist parties, and perhaps even replace Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in its progressive political viewpoints. With the Centre led by Bharatiya Janata Party, it comes as a pondering whether Rajnikanth’s progressive spirituality would be misconstrued as aligning with Hindutva, which would be a gross mistake. However, BJP, as has been the case for the past decade, has found it all too convenient to colour anything mildly connected to spiritualism with a thick orange paintbrush. This is where Rajnikanth, the Thalaivar of not just his immeasurable fandom but a whole community striving for a fruitful and efficient governance, has to don the new role of a shrewd politician.

Role Of A Lifetime – Kaala For Real Life

As in his movies, Superstar might have an entirely uphill task to balance the memories of the political past within the state of Tamil Nadu, but also have a strong vision towards an uncertain future. The state has never found itself in a such a political turmoil in last five decades, but today it’s political existence is under a cloud of variability. His competition perhaps starts within his own fraternity, as another Superstar of the ages, Kamal Hassan takes his initial steps into Tamil Nadu politics. His political outfit, Makkal Needhi Maiam, has already confirmed that it too shall contest in the upcoming general elections. The fight for the political dominance, between the two superstars, is bound to be prolific to say the last. Regardless, Thalaivar Rajnikanth’s task is going to be to usher a spectacular change in governance.

One wonders if his new feature Kaala, directed by PA. Ranjith and produced by Rajni’s son-in-law & actor Dhanush, is being made to offer a strong social commentary. Once more, it seems Rajnikanth dons the role of Thalaivar for his people, residing in Dharavi slums, this time facing the atrocities of Maharashtrian governance. His fight would be to ensure peace and prosperity to his people in the movie, and trump over evil authorities like he has done umpteen number of times. This time, of course, it becomes a more relevant narrative to discourse, given the turbulent socio-political weather. Rajnikanth shall assure each one of us through Kaala, that he will emerge victorious over the evil. Like A Boss.