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Rajini's Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign

In his latest film Sivaji, Rajinikanth is a vigilante extraordinaire who runs a parallel government. In real life, the actor's legions of fans tirelessly forecast him as a future chief minister. But they may have to reconcile with the fact that their sovereign's exploits are restricted to the screen.

Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign

In his latest film Sivaji, Rajinikanth is a vigilante extraordinaire who runs a parallel government. In real life, the actor’s legions of fans tirelessly forecast him as a future chief minister. But they may have to reconcile with the fact that their sovereign’s exploits are

restricted to the screen.


or about a decade now, the release of a Rajini film has become a cultural and media event as it happens only once every two or three years. Since Baadshaa and Muthu in 1995 and his enigmatic tryst with politics in 1996, only five films have been produced with him in the lead: Arunachalam (1997), Padaiyappa (1999), Baba (2002), Chandramukhi (2005) and Sivaji the Boss this year. The unprecedented failure of Baba only added colour to the actor’s return with the huge success of Chandramukhi. Sivaji is breaking records. In response to comparisons between them in the media, Rajini and Amitabh have described each other as emperors. In the case of Rajini such reference to sovereignty has other connotations.

Many Renditions of Sivaji

Shivaji Bhonsle, the maratha sovereign, led a military campaign into southern India in the final decades of the 17th century, establishing a few bases like Gingee. Thanjavur maratha rule, established independently in the heart of the south, lasted for nearly two centuries before finally getting dissolved into the British empire. A parochial Tamil nationalism might have named Shivaji an invader. Instead, he came to have other significations that have little to do with his direct contact with Tamil land.

In the early 1940s C N Annadurai, a prominent aspiring lieutenant in the Dravidian movement led by Periyar E V Ramasamy, decided to use the stage for propagation of Dravidian ideology. One of the plays he wrote was Chandramohan or the Hindu Empire Founded by Sivaji. He was inspired and based his work on Jadunath Sarkar’s book on the maratha ruler. In fact, Kudi Arasu, the official journal of the movement, in its review of the play praises Jadunath Sarkar for his honest rendering of history as against some brahmin historians. The issue in question is that Sivaji had to seek legitimacy from brahmins who prescribed a set of rituals. In the play, Sivaji eventually compromises by performing the rituals, as prescribed by Khaga Bhatta from Varanasi, while asking his deputy Chandramohan to propagate against brahmin hegemony. The play was widely performed for several years and often Annadurai himself acted as Khaga Bhatta, the villainous brahmin. The Dravidian movement reinvented Sivaji as a non-brahmin sovereign fighting against selfish brahmins.

In one such performance, Villupuram ‘chinniapillai’ Ganesan, a young actor trained in the boys company tradition happened to don the role of Sivaji. In fact, M G Ramachandran was first asked to play the role, who apparently not wanting to be identified with Dravidianists at that juncture, passed the chance to Ganesan. Periyar was among the audience during the performance. He was so impressed with Ganesan that he suggested the title Sivaji be added to the actor’s name. No one remembered this incident for a while, until Ganesan became a sensation with his debut in the most remarkable DMK film Parasakthi (1952) with dialogues by M Karunanidhi. Once popular, the appearance of Ganesan as Sivaji and the suggestion of Periyar was remembered and he came to be called Sivaji Ganesan. In the course of time, the real name Ganesan was nearly dropped, making the actor known just as Sivaji. The name has three letters in Tamil and sounds rhythmic with the three initials of his bete noire MGR. The MGR-Sivaji duopoly lasted in Tamil cinema for about 25 years. MGR was a popular hero with mass adulation and was a part of DMK politics. Sivaji was a popular actor known for his histrionics. He was estranged from the DMK in the mid-1950s, affiliated with Kamaraj/Congress, and represented the spirit of Indian nationalism in his films. His later day political adventures were miserable failures while MGR ruled the state for 10 years. MGR wassecular in his film appearances although later he came to be known as a believer in his personal life. Sivaji acted in mythologicals (even in a version of Ramayana in 1958, unpardonable in the eyes of contemporary Dravidianists) and in devotional films.

Sivaji Rao Gaekwad, of Marathi origin, who started off as a bus conductor in Bangalore, came to study acting in the Madras Film Institute in the early 1970s. When he made his debut in cinema, he assumed the name Rajinikant. He grew in popularity, filling the place left vacant by MGR, with Kamal Haasan providing the structural opposition in the place of Sivaji. Hence while the title of the film Sivaji is appropriate insofar as it is the real name of Rajini and in its reference to the maratha sovereign, the film persona of Sivaji Ganesan does not appear to fit with that of Rajini. Significantly, to accommodate this shift in valence, Rajini re-identifies himself as MGR in the film.

AVM, the producers of the film Sivaji, were the producers of Parasakthi that made a star of Sivaji Ganesan. They also produced several Rajini films including Murattukkalai (1980) which is considered to be the film that propelled Rajini towards super star status. For the production house, this landmark film’s title serves as a nostalgic celebration of their role in making these stars. It is the combination of AVM, Shankar and Rajini that set the expectations for the film so high.

1996: Brush with Politics

When MGR fell seriously ill in 1984, the question of succession was an obvious one. Jayalalithaa did not have the support of many sections of the party. R M Veerappan, a close aide and confidant of MGR for a long time, had never liked Jayalalithaa. Hence the question of adequate succession remained open. Since MGR was primarily considered in terms of his film image rather than his active participation in DMK for two decades, more than the leaders of his party, film stars hoped to succeed him. For example, actor and director Bhagyaraj even started a political outfit. However, in terms of mass support it was clear Rajini emerged as the most popular hero after MGR. This created a situation in which no one could avoid speculations about the possibility of Rajini entering politics, particularly as this was actively desired by his fans.

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

R M Veerappan bitterly resisted Jayalalithaa when she tried to take over the party after MGR’s demise in 1987. He made V N Janaki, MGR’s wife and a former actress, chief minister for a brief while. Hence even after the merger of both factions, Jayalalithaa’s electoral victory in 1991 and Veerappan assuming charge as a minister, all bones were not buried between the two. It is in this context that Rajini making the film Badshaa assumed some significance. When Rajini made some vague comments about the law and order situation in a function arranged to celebrate the success of the film, Jayalalithaa flew into a rage and removed Veerappan from the ministry. She had reasons to suspect that Veerappan was grooming Rajini for a role in politics. Following this, speculation about Rajini’s political aspirations intensified.

In 1995, Rajini met prime minister Narasimha Rao. It is alleged that he offered to support the Congress if they contested the elections on their own in Tamil Nadu, but Rao was not ready to take the gamble. Worse still, much against the wishes of the state party unit, Rao decided to align with Jayalalithaa in 1996. Sections of the state unit of the Congress erupted in revolt. Moopanar and P Chidambaram formed Tamil Manila Congress (TMC). Rajinikant resisted the persuasions of Moopanar and Chidambaram to join or campaign for their new party. However, the symbol allotted to the TMC was a “bicycle” and in the filmAnnamalai (1992) Rajinikant rode a bicycle as a milk vendor, singing a hit song of the prowess of Annamalai’s cycle. The TMC called their symbol the Annamalai cycle. Apart from such indirect contributions Rajini also issued a famous statement: “Not even God can save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa came back to power”. It is a matter of speculation what exactly was the effect of the statement issued by Rajinikant though his fans and media hyped about it. In any event, Jayalalithaa was swept out of power in Tamil Nadu and Congress in the centre. Chidambaram who became the finance minister in the third front Deve Gowda government acknowledged the role played by the Annamalai cycle in his victory.

Dilemmas of Phantom Sovereignty

It is important to realise that involvement in politics enhances the popularity of the hero. It can work like an ascending spiral with cinema and politics being two poles around which the hero winds his career. Being in DMK helped MGR become the hero of the masses. Speculations about Rajini’s possible entry into politics enhanced his star value. Many of his films contained songs or dialogue that allude to his possible political role. Nineteen ninety six was probably the right moment for him to realise any political aspirations. By issuing only a statement and not addressing even a single public meeting Rajini clearly distanced himself from active politics, much to the disappointment of his fans.

One of the explanations given for his disengagement from politics concerns his spiritual inclinations. Deeply interested in mystics and saints, Rajini is known for his sojourns in the Himalayas. Such spirituality came to be part of his public and film persona. He appeared as a sadhu, who quit all wealth and power in Muthu (1995). His film characters shun wealth and power even as they are endowed with them or acquire them easily. When he made a full length film expressing the dilemma between spiritual and political quests, which wasBaba (2002), the film was a resounding failure in the box office. He shored up his image by returning the money paid by distributors. In the film, Rajini’s birth and life are controlled by a great immortal saint called Babajiwho could be seen only in the Himalayas. Rajini plays a character, also called Baba, who is predestined to be born in the world to indulge in sensual pleasures, realise his true calling and re-unite with the great immortal soul. He has special spiritual powers and protection. Before self-realisation, he gets embroiled in a conflict with a powerful politician. He uses one of his special boons to defeat the bad politician in the election and install a good man as chief minister. However, as he is about to start climbing the Himalayas to return to Babaji, the good chief minister is killed. Rajini gestures a return to people. His fans hated his subservience to supernatural powers and this unknown saint in the Himalayas. His final gesture of return was insufficient to recover the hero from overpowering fatalism of the narrative.

In interviews, Rajini affirmed that he had seen this immortal soul Babaji. He even claimed that Babaji had met and advised Jesus Christ when the latter drifted towards Himalayas in his travels. Though there is no dearth of deities and godmen credited with supernatural powers in Tamil Nadu, this particular brand of faith espoused by Rajini is not in consonance with the common sense developed through the century-old non-brahmin politics. Rajini’s natural affiliation might be with BJP which has no political presence or foreseeable future in the state. With the drubbing Baba received in the box office, Rajini’s image suffered a severe blow. His half-hearted political stances against Pattali Makkal Katchi only exposed the weakness of his potential political base. In the 2006 elections he issued a diktat to his fans not to use the fan club banner to support political parties, but granted that they may do so in their personal capacity. Fans defied the instruction and different fan club formations claiming to represent the majority of his fans, aligned with various candidates


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Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

in many constituencies. A considerable number of fan clubs revolted against his non-committal attitude demanding that they should be given a clear direction.

In the meantime Vijaykant, a popular hero who was considered a low budget substitute to Rajini in the initial stages of former’s career, took the plunge and started a political party. Rajini fans were distraught at this development. In many places one could see their hoisting banners of Rajinikant near Vijaykant banners. In the assembly elections of 2006, Vijayakant secured 8.3 per cent of popular votes and made a definite mark in the political map of Tamil Nadu. This has further reduced the chances of Rajini’s entry into politics. Recently, his failure to support the position of Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis Karnataka in the Kaveri river water dispute has drawn flak from many quarters.

None of this can, of course, diminish his status as a popular hero. His appeal in Andhra Pradesh is as good as in Tamil Nadu and now extends beyond south India reaching distant shores like Japan. Even in Tamil Nadu, Rajini’s capacity to entertain is what is valued by the general public. In the minds of his Tamil fans however, his popularity is always translatable into political power. Countless banners since the announcement of the film two years back showed Rajini in the iconography of Chhatrapati Shivaji. A near life-size figurine of the maratha sovereign, mounted on horse, is placed in front of Abirami theatre complex in Chennai.

The film, of course, should give him a role that exceeds that of other regular vigilantes. Not only is his taking on the avaricious villain, corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and their government purely impersonal, he appears unsentimental about his kith and kin. He extorts hoarded black money, turns it into white money through a hawala network and goes about running a parallel government that would fulfil the developmental fantasies of a Thomas Friedman. It may also fulfil the yearnings for sovereignty of his fans.

In several theatres, banners plead that he should command the army that waits for him and use it to enter politics. They tirelessly forecast him as the future chief minister. A section of them know that this may not come to pass but still consider it a mode of celebrating their hero. They may have to reconcile with the fact that their sovereign’s exploits are restricted to the screen.


Email: kr2014@columbia.educ

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

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