Actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth has made multiple U-turns on previously expressed opinions since police firing at Thoothukudi last week killed 13 people protesting against Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelter in the area.
On May 22, when the Tamil Nadu police opened fire on the protestors, Rajinikanth released a short video accusing the police of high-handedness. But on Wednesday, after he visited the injured protestors at the government hospital in Thoothukudi, where the superstar faced the ignominy of an injured person asking him, “Who are you?”, Rajinikanth played a different character entirely.
When he emerged from the hospital, the actor-politician said evil forces and anti-social elements had taken over the protest. He added that the protest turned violent only when its participants attacked the police. “I will not tolerate attacks on the police,” he declared.
He then went on to hail former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for keeping these anti-social elements at bay when she ruled the state before her death in 2016. “The AIADMK government should follow Jayalalithaa in this matter and clamp down on these anti-social elements with an iron fist,” he said.
But this was the same Rajinikanth, who, in 1996, appealed to the people of Tamil Nadu to not vote for Jayalalithaa. Even God will not be able to save Tamil Nadu if she came back to power, he had famously declared.
Rajinikanth’s latest U-turn elicited a scathing reaction from people on social media. #நான்தான்பாரஜினிகாந்த் or “I am Rajinikanth”, the reply he gave the injured boy who asked him who he was, began trending on Twitter, with people hailing the boy for his courage.
Many called the actor-politician a puppet of the Bharatiya Janata Party, as his statements reflected the position BJP leaders in the state took in the aftermath of the Thoothukudi deaths.
More than anything else, Rajnikanth’s statements have provided a glimpse into his idea of governance. In a way, they also mimic that of the late MG Ramachandran, the other superstar in Tamil politics, who ruled the southern state in the 1980s.
Reel vs real
It became clear on Wednesday that the Rajinikanth seen on the big screen and Rajinikanth the politician are different in several ways. In the trailer of his latest film, Kaala, which is scheduled for release on June 7, Rajinikanth is seen exhorting people to protest, claiming that the poor had only their bodies as weapons.
Cut to real life, Rajinikanth said frequent protests would turn Tamil Nadu into a graveyard. This statement evoked a strong reaction from political parties in the state. The first shot came from Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan, who pointed out that Tamil Nadu will become a graveyard if there weren’t any protests. “When air, water and land get polluted, that is graveyard,” he said.
Rajinikanth’s statements also confirmed what many Dalit intellectuals have been saying for some time: that the politics in Rajinikanth’s films Kabali and Kaala are those of its director Pa Ranjith, and not the actor’s, who is, at most, a vehicle for the director’s vision. The director clarified this point in an interview to Scroll.in on Thursday.
While Ranjith has taken advantage of Rajinikanth’s stardom to communicate his message, it remains to be seen what impact Rajinikanth’s off-screen statements will have on Kaala. When Kabali was released in 2016, Rajinikanth was yet to join electoral politics. Today, he is much closer to it, having declared his intention to contest elections in December. Since then, he has said things off-screen that are antagonistic to his character in Kaala. His entry into politics has given a different dimension to such contradictions.
The MGR way
The contrast between reel and real characters is not new to Tamil Nadu. At the height of his film career, MG Ramachandran portrayed himself as the saviour of the poor and the oppressed. This was a big contributor to his political success.
But when MGR, as he was popularly known, became chief minister in 1977, not everything about him was pro-poor. The taxation policies he introduced burdened the poor more than the rich and he was instrumental in the privatisation of higher education in Tamil Nadu. He had an obsession with putting down dissent and enacted the Goondas Act, a preventive detention law that was often used by his government to clamp down on the Opposition. He even wanted a law that would enable the censorship of newspapers. The academic MSS Pandian has dealt with these aspects of MGR exhaustively in his book, The Image Trap.
But most criticism of MGR emerged after he died. When he was alive, MGR kept himself above public scrutiny thanks to his pro-poor image and unprecedented electoral success.
Rajinikanth is similar to MGR in the sense that his film characters are marked by empathy for the poor and the weak. But unlike MGR, Rajinikanth is unable to place himself above criticism for his anti-protest statements due to the very nature of his political positioning, which has earned him distrust even before he faces his first election. While MGR deftly remained the face of the native Dravidian movement despite diluting many of its fundamental features, Rajinikanth is slowly turning into the face of the alien Hindutva.
BJP, Rajinikanth and Gurumurthy
The question being repeatedly asked on social media on Wednesday was this: What made Rajinikanth make a U-turn on his reading of the Thoothukudi protests?
When he announced his entry into politics last year, Rajinikanth said his politics would be “spiritual”. This was widely seen in Tamil Nadu as a euphemism for Hindutva, the ideology that drives the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On May 22, instead of condemning the police atrocities at Thoothukudi outright, BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu said that the violence was the result of the infiltration of terrorists and Naxalites into Tamil Nadu.
The editor of Tughlaq magazine, S Gurumurthy, who is close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and who is also a friend of Rajinikanth’s, issued a series of tweets on May 23, alleging that “anarchists, extremists and anti-nationals” had hijacked the Thoothukudi protests. They turned the Collector’s office into a war zone, he claimed.
It is interesting that Rajinikanth’s take on the protests against the copper smelter, and his allegation that anti-social elements were involved, echoes that of Gurumurthy’s. Additionally, Rajinikanth also invoked a point that tried to appeal to the fears of the urban middle class: that frequent protests will drive away investments and jobs, and lead to distress for the youth.
On Wednesday, Gurumurthy hailed Rajinikanth on Twitter.
The praise for the actor did not end at that. The AIADMK, which till last week was belittling Rajinikanth and his statements, and even threatened to take action against songs deemed to be provocative in Kaala, hailed the superstar for his honesty. The party’s mouthpiece Namadhu Amma claimed that the superstar had seconded the view expressed by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami that the protests in the coastal town were hijacked by outsiders. Since Jayalalithaa’s death, the ruling AIADMK has faced severe criticism of being a puppet of the Union government. The support from the AIADMK is unlikely to aid Rajinikanth’s case, given the party’s dipping credibility in the state.
Rajinikanth lost his cool on Wednesday when reporters repeatedly asked him to reveal who the “anti-social elements” he referred to were. Asked how he knows that such people infiltrated the protest, Rajinikanth simply said that he knows.
In a state where the BJP is viewed with strong suspicion, it will be difficult even for a superstar of the stature of Rajinikanth to get away with statements that endorse the party’s claims without providing any factual basis for it. His Thoothukudi visit is clearly a self-inflicted blow that will require a lot to set right.