By doing unprecedented roles in Kabali and Kaala, helmed by Dalit activist and director Pa Ranjith, is the superstar wooing the Dalit votebank in Tamil Nadu
Rajinikanth’s punch dialogue in Kabali (2016)
“In Tamil films, you see those goons with a mole, wearing lungis and twisting their moustache… and when Nambiar (a popular villain of the 1950s and 1960s) calls – ‘Eh Kabali’… they bend down and say ‘Please tell me master’… did you think I was that kind of Kabali? Kabali daaaaa!!!!!”
When the Superstar said this in Pa Ranjith’s 2016 film, the theatres erupted. Rajinikanth, who announced his entry into electoral politics on December 31, 2017, is well known for his ‘punch dialogues’.
But Kabali appeared to be more of a political message than the regular Rajini fare.
For one, the director was Pa Ranjith, who until then was mostly critically acclaimed and made films like Attakathi (2012) and Madras (2014) – revolving around the lives and trials of urban Dalits. Ranjith has been vocal about his activism, seeking to politicise the young Dalit community through his films. He has also been organising plays and music concerts through his non-profit, Neelam Cultural Centre.
As far as Rajinikanth films go, Kabali was different. It did not primarily celebrate and amplify the superstar’s larger-than-life on-screen persona. Reviews registered that the film had a confused identity – on the one hand, it attempted to give Rajinikanth fans the quintessential gimmicks they’ve come to expect from his films, and on the other, it had Pa Ranjith’s signature in terms of plot, characters and Dalit symbolism.
Set in Malaysia, the film had Rajini playing an aged don who comes out of jail to avenge the murder of his pregnant wife. He finds that his wife is alive in India and the plot then leads to his search for her. The wife’s role was played by Marathi actor Radhika Apte. There are flashbacks to tenant farmers fighting for their rights and vivid scenes of drug abuse and violence which currently afflict the Tamil urban Dalit community as well. Rajinikanth, in the opening scene is shown reading a book – “My Father Baliah” – a searing account by YB Satyanarayana of casteism and discrimination over generations. Throughout the film Rajini is also seen wearing a three piece suit a la Dalit icon BR Ambedkar. The allegations against Dalits by dominant castes – of wooing their women, forcing them into marriage and then discarding them – is also tackled with panache by Ranjith who makes the old and creaking, obviously Dalit don travel all the way to India from Malaysia on a wild goose chase to find his beloved “upper caste” wife.
Rajini and Ranjith collaborate again for Kaala, another gangster film set in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, which has a large Dalit Tamil population. This film is slated for release this year.
In a caste-aware Tamil film industry, where Dalits have found little space, industry watchers were astounded at a hero, no less than the superstar, having decided to play a Dalit character. It was a box office gamble – but with the announcement of his arrival into politics, the question now arises as to whether the gamble was more political in nature.
“We cannot say whether it is Rajini’s political strategy,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, political analyst. “We cannot say for sure. But he maybe he will use this when elections come. He has a large number of Dalit fans,” he said.
Renowned film critic Bharadwaj Rangan asked – “I can’t say for sure it was a political move, for in that case, it might have been more useful to set the film here rather than Malaysia.”
Rajinikanth’s image and stardom has been built carefully, almost akin to that of late Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, who ruled the state for 10 years since 1977 and was a darling of the masses on the silver screen.
“MGR too had a large fan following amongst the Dalit community,” said Senthilnathan. “Like MGR, Rajini too might find some support. But people who think like Pa Ranjith are not likely to support Rajinikanth,” he said.
Baradwaj Rangan feels it’s difficult to compare MGR and Rajinikanth, for MGR carefully constructed a political identity on screen. His scriptwriters and lyricists worked with MGR to propagate his ideology. Which meant that MGR had political ambitions from quite early in his career – while Rajini’s were under wraps for decades and made clear only last month.
“MGR’s time was more innocent,” said Rangan. “The audience bought the persona on the screen as the person in real life. Now people may have wisened up because of all the exposure, thanks to social media.”
In Tamil Nadu, the Dalit population is 21% of the total. The electorate though is fragmented, with no single political party managing to gain the confidence of the community or trying to consolidate them. Dalit parties like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) largely represent the Paraiyar sub-caste amongst Dalits, while Puthiya Tamilagam represents the Pallar sub-caste. A recent entrant, Adhiyaman, is attempting to be a voice for the oppressed Arunthathiyar sub-caste.
It is in this context that Rajinikanth playing Dalit characters in two films is making political watchers sit up and take note. Some, like Aazhi Senthilnathan, are sceptical over whether Rajini would be able to bring the Dalit community together politically.
“I see Rajini as the B-team of the BJP,” he said. “The Dalit community will remain fragmented in Tamil Nadu. Many people from the community are not even willing to identify themselves with the caste. So I do not see Rajini managing to consolidate the Dalit votebank,” he said.
“It will be interesting to see how the voters treat Rajini’s persona on screen versus Rajini the person and politician,” said Rangan.