First, meet Rajinikanth the movie star. The superhero with lush hair and Elvis Presley sideburns, sporting a Batman-like costume in his latest release 2.0. He is a one-man army out to save the world with a robot clone of him equipped with multiple guns that can fire bullets in a 360-degree arc. He is invincible.
Then meet Rajinikanth the person. Unlike most film stars, he unabashedly exposes his balding pate with frazzled shrubs of hair on the sides. He doesn’t hide the wrinkles and freckles on his face with make-up. He wears a spartan white kurta and pyjama and prefers to travel the streets of Chennai in an innocuous Innova. Unlike his I-dare-you on-screen characters, he is self-effacing and remains circumspect about his political plans even a year after proclaiming his intent to join the fray.
The day of reckoning, though, is nigh for Rajinikanth, and he should, as one of the memes puts it, Mind It! Costing Rs 540 crore, Shanmugam Shankar’s 2.0, the sci-fi sequel to his 2010 film Enthiran (Robot), is the costliest film ever made in the history of Indian cinema. As 2.0 hit 10,000-odd screens in 14 languages around the world on November 29, there was a lot more riding on the film than just recovering the loads of money invested in it. For Rajinikanth, it will either magnify his superstar status and boost his electoral appeal or puncture his stardom and, with it, his ambitions of becoming a stellar actor on the Tamil Nadu political stage.
Fans cheer as Rajinikanth arrives at a Chennai college in April 2018
It is truly boom or bust time for the ageing film star. But Rajinikanth remains unworried and, in a rare interview with india today at his Poes Garden residence in the heart of Chennai, insists he would never bank on films to promote his political agenda unlike Tamil Nadu leaders, such as M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi. Reason: “My films are different and my life is entirely different. Why should I merge the two? I am paid as an actor for films, whether I like the role or not. If I enter politics, I will be myself. I want to introduce a new and different kind of politics. I am 67 years of age, my health too is in a check-up stage. It is not easy to enter politics at this age, it is not a path of flowers. But still you have to change things, change that will make a difference in politics.” (See accompanying interview.)
Yet those who interpret Rajinikanth’s prudence in politics as timidity or a lack of clarity may rue such hasty conclusions. Rajinikanth has seen hard times-he began his working life as a bus conductor-and has slogged to attain the pinnacle he currently occupies. As one of the highest-paid film stars in Asia, with over 150 films, many of them blockbusters, in his bag, Rajinikanth has demonstrated that he has the talent, the temperament and the toughness to endure any test. Asked why, unlike his films where he moves at superfast speed, his political thrust has been at a snail’s pace, he said, “Politics is a very big game and very dangerous too. So I have to play it cautiously. And timing is very important.”
Timing has always been key to Rajinikanth’s success, whether knowing when to flip a cigarette to his lips with panache or when to announce his intentions to join politics. In his superhit film Muthu, his best-known dialogue is “Naan eppo varuven, epdi varuvennu yarkum theriyathu. Aana vara vendiya nerathile vandidven (Nobody knows when or how I will come, but I will come when the time is right).” Rajinikanth had nurtured political ambitions for a long time, but it was only after the death of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in December 2016 that he sensed an opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum. M. Karunanidhi, the DMK stalwart and Jayalalithaa’s rival, was also seriously ill then. (He passed away in August this year.) Rajinikanth created a wave of excitement by announcing his intention to join politics.