Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Explaining the Mega-Superstar Story --- Why Rajnikanth matters?

A possible tribute to a great man

I am an unabashed fan of most things Rajnikanth -- his generosity, the lack of a need to cover his bald pate with a wig, his acumen in picking battles that have to be fought (taking sides in the elections of 1996 vs. not doing an MGR encore thereafter, battle with Ramadoss on cigarette smoking on the screen, reluctant acceptance of his daughter's choice for a spouse and the possible coaxing of Chiranjeevi to follow his example), empathy for producers, financiers and cinema screen owners, his theist philosophy that is more personal rather than evangelical, and so on. On his movie persona, despite his under-used comedical and dancing skill-sets, it is a different matter of delight altogether for connoisseurs of 'punch dialogues.'

In the same vein, I am an equally unabashed hater of most things Kamalahassan -- his socialist philosophy and outlook going back to the 80s, the need to grind an axe with the theme of overtly casteist/socialist/inter-sectarian movies (Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, Thevar Magan, Anbe Sivam, Virumaandi, Dasavatharam, etc.,), his overdramatic acting, speech delivery (even in interviews) and grandiosity for the sake of grandeur (make-up artists in Dasavatharam and Avvai Shanmughi, tech gloss in Nayakan, the unfinished Maruthanaayakam aka Marmayogi), his supposed lack of empathy for peers (the recent Hindu episode on Nayakan's success, DTH delivery for Viswaroopam, follow-ups on bombing of movies), the need to do a Barry Bonds'-esque transformation at a ripe-old age of 46 single-handedly leading the Tamil cinema industry to a steroids culture from which it has still not recovered, and so on. With that caveat out of the way, it is necessary to explain why this post matters. Why, of all things in the world, should Rajnikanth matter for Tamil Nadu's vision of itself and for its position in India? Why should it matter to anyone else?

For that, one has to understand the context behind the arrival and rise of these mega-heroes in the Tamil cinema industry. But before that, one has to understand the role played by Tamil cinema industry in shaping what is Tamil Nadu today. But even before that, one has to understand the social setting of what was then the Madras Presidency, which then became Madras State with the linguistic division of the states, and which then renamed itself as Tamil Nadu in the 60s. But even before that, one has to understand how the social situation arrived at that fork point in history. As we know, the possibilities are endless as one understands history as it happened, and as it is understood and popularly explained/re-explained today, and as it is perceived by the two or many contestants to the legacies of such a battle, and as it is perceived to be perceived, and so on, but life is not.

So I will cut it short and just broadly say that, what is now Tamil Nadu was in a state of flux as to its identity in the 30s and 40s. A microscopic minority of the Brahmins (with all the South Indian languages as their mother-tongues -- not just Tamil) who had cornered a disproportionate percentage (relative to their population) of the available menial (relative to today's standards) British India government jobs and an even more microscopic minority amongst these who had entrenched themselves in the academic and literary communities were seen by a good fraction of the "left-behinds" as the living symbols of colonialization within colonial India, of exploitation not by the British -- but by the Brahmins, and so on. Needless to say, many of the entrenched Brahmins did not make their case better and some did not even show the empathy needed to understand the socio-emotive issues at hand. And as a battle for power -- economic and real -- unfolded in the state, one of the root-causes identified was the social strata of the "left-behinds" relative to the entrenched microscopic minority and the need to upend it.

Given the diversity of the "left-behinds" (socio-economic, linguistic, caste-based, sub-sect, regional, religio-denominational/strain of a-religiosity, philosophical, historical legacy-based), nothing else could have united the various claimants but the love for a language which was deemed to be time-immemorial. While I have serious doubts about the time-immemoriality of the language that I too love beyond any other and am unabashed about that, the fact that some of the entrenched Brahmins did not respond with an iota of sensibility or rationality on the language issue made this community even worser villains than the British in the eyes of the elites of that day. This and many other reasons led to a widely-accepted motif that 'the enemy of the enemy could be a friend even though the enemy of the enemy in himself was more Janus-faced than the enemy.' In any case, the uniting theme of a state with a common language was good enough to paper over the serious power differences between different communities.

This is the precise context in which the Tamil cinema industry rose up in the 40s. While the historical contiguity of the neighboring states of today's India meant a business-driven circulation of talents, ideas, technical developments, finances, story-lines, marketing and markets, the subconscious need (even if not recognized so explicitly) to forge a welcoming atmosphere lest it hurt the cause of Dravidian politics meant that the Tamil cinema industry ended up less-discriminatory (provided one learned not to turn on a few language-based buttons) than what is possible in Tamil Nadu today otherwise. Thus, the mega-heroes of the Tamil cinema industry have often been "outsiders" who have become more Tamil than the native Tamils in professing support for popular causes. For example, while the mega-heroes of the forties were natives: M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P. U. Chinnappa and T. R. Mahalingham, the mega-heroines were from outside: Bhanumathi, Anjali Devi, Kannamba, Lalitha-Padmini-Ragini, and so on. The fifties and sixties saw the rise of M. G. Ramachandran, M. N. Nambiar, Nageswara Rao and N. T. Rama Rao -- even though the latter two made a better killing in the Telugu cinema industry with the last being a popular CM of that state. Rajnikanth has only continued this journey from the late seventies through today. Not much needs to be said about MGR's support and role in building the LTTE to where it was in the 80s, and not much needs to be said about Rajnikanth's support to Tamil Nadu in the water wars with Karnataka.

Of these, the journeys taken by Rajnikanth and Kamalahassan are eerily similar on the surface to the journeys taken by the mega-heroes of the previous generation: Sivaji Ganesan and M. G. Ramachandran. Kamalahassan comes from a lettered family in the cinema field while Rajnikanth is a rags-to-riches story of a bus conductor from Bangalore. (Sivaji Ganesan was the stage-artist/drama troupist who climbed his way through the ranks through sheer might of his performance, while M.G.R. despite his initial success(es) in Tamil movies used his propaganda secretary-level association with DMK to become the mega social hero of the Dravidian/Tamil/"left-behinds" cause.) Both Rajnikanth and Kamalahassan started their mega-rise with the same movie under the same heavy-duty director (Bharathi Raja): one as villain and another as a reluctant/naive hero. Both were constant themes in another heavy-duty director's (K. Balachander) films through the eighties: one as a noisy/womanizing/patronizing villain and the other as a reluctant/naive hero.

The dramatic transformation of the villain Rajnikanth to Superstar Rajnikanth is one of those acts considered serendipitous in popular renditions today just like Sachin Tendulkar's debut as an opener against New Zealand. Nevertheless, the social transformation of the state of Tamil Nadu from the ambiguous, rebellious and confrontational sixties to a more 'chalta-hai'/'let's talk business' attitude of the eighties where the middle-class wanted to lap onto confrontations on the screen, but not much in real-life could provide an easier explanation for the rise of the Superstar. The more wittier and empathizable the hero, the better it fitted the mental image of the angry yet intelligent, rebellious yet rooted, all powerful yet emotionally susceptible hero who could pick the right fights that the audience would like to see in reality but do not want. His blue-collar roles brought him closer to the audience who were happy to lap up their hero being one of them. In short, Rajnikanth's choice of movies constructed and reinforced the continuing myth of a social super-hero that was not available in real-life, despite thirty years of Dravidian politics and twenty years of Dravidian party rule that should have ideally changed Tamil Nadu.

While Rajnikanth is just a distant symbol in terms of social transformation, he is a very powerful symbol of the possibility of levity in social structures today. In another flux-ridden age of identity politics, where the fight for power between the erstwhile "left-behinds" is unfolding as we speak in Tamil Nadu today (Dalits vs. Vanniyars, Thevars vs. Pallars, Tamil Christians vs. Hindus), a living example of what is possible is a more constructive solution than 1008 years of sloganeering, armchair politicking or think-tanking about social transformations. For the "outsiders," a bus-conductor from a Marathi background who rose from being a villain to the Superstar in a land of language fanaticists (such as me) is almost the perfect example of how to tap the Tamils and conduct business with them. It is also a powerful message that the supposed land of language fanaticists is not just the land of language fanaticists. It is also a land where respect is imagined to be shared on a mutual give-and-take basis, yet a land where unrequited love is not a problem! It is a land where Nakkeeran (probably the only hero I would emulate), Vaali and Raavanan are scorned heroes, yet a land with the largest number of standing grand temples in India today! It is a land where we love our Tamil more than our blood and life, yet we do not know whether to put a moonu suzhi na or a rendu suzhi na in a complicated word. It is a land where red and black are most likely the only acceptable colors, yet the doyen of that culture parades around in an yellow shawl. It is also a land where that rationalist, anti-Hindu doyen knows more about Kambha Raamayanam than the religulous could ever. It is a land where a good majority supposedly sips from the nectar of rationality while also consulting on the "nalla neram" from the Paarppaan (probably the only one left-behind in the village).

We are not God's own country nor are we servants of gods -- we are a country where we debate the gods and exasperate them. We are not the land of Tri Lingas, we are the land of 108 Divya Desams and 275 Siva Sthalams even if we do not know about all of them nor are we close to all of them. We are not the land of milk and honey, Cooum nadhi is our Thirupaarkadal, Marina beach is our Paramapadham where we rightfully hunt for chozhis to play paramapadham. Of course!

We are Tamils, and we love to defy you with your understanding of us. Why, we love to defy us in our understanding of what we are. Rajnikanth is not the Superstar -- the only one there could be; the mega-Superstar is Rajnikanth. Chuck Norris the excuse for that is Rajnikanth for you.

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6 Comments:

At December 13, 2012 at 9:24 AM , Blogger Sid Gau said...

While liking or dsilking Kamalahassan's traits or professionalism is personal preference. There is certainly a need for Kamal or others to explore their pet subjects or socially relevant matters.

The problem arises when one compares Rajini and Kamal; they are like two immiscible liquids, better left alone. It is like comparing MGR and Shivaji. While MGR & his DK friends exploited the cinema media to further their social and political agenda, Shivaji for the most part like Kamal explored cinematic themes - overboard acting, grandiose etc etc.

Oh yeah, I am a fan of both Rajini and Kamal (though I am irked that Kamal does not shower his attention towards Islam and Christianity - restricts his atheistic criticism to Hinduism alone).

Be it Hollywood or Kollywood, treatment of sensitive subjects should be welcomed, and while making such movies the movie makers are going to piss of somebody or the other.

Waiting for "Django Unchained" where Tarantino and Hudlin explore slavery in America.

In order to praise Rajini, one does not have to bring down Kamal :-))) For that means, in order for 'thaliva' to be great one has to put down Kamal :-))))

 
At December 13, 2012 at 9:27 AM , Blogger Sid Gau said...

One more thing, MGR's climb is far more greater than Rajni's climb. Rajini was already a bus conductor. MGR and his brother reeled in poverty, and their mothered locked them up in a room so that they do not go out begging.

 
At December 13, 2012 at 10:50 AM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

Of course, life is not a binary game. Melodrama or stylebhai games surely are personal tastes. But if you would want to have ONE hero in the Tamil cinema industry today, that pick surely go with Rajnikanth. The same argument extends to cricketing world: if you would want ONE hero, you know who that choice is :).

As the *MK parties peddle, paguthharivu is something that seems missing in action from Kamalahassan's discourse -- either in public life or in the movies. If you look at his life and times, it somehow appears that you cannot conduct business in Tamil Nadu without kowtowing to the Dravidian/rationalist culture peddled by the *MK parties. Far from it. Whatever one can accuse the Tamils of, deafness to contrarian viewpoints --- as long as they come without abusing the language or the fact that Tamils have a need to source water from elsewhere or their mega-fondness for mega-heroes, etc. --- is something that they cannot be accused of. One does nt have to conform to the socialist egalitarian atheistic Dravidianesque nature of the polity and Rajnikanth is a principal example of why defying conventional wisdom in an intelligent way is more appreciated than continuing to stick to one's guns for the sake of business may be.

Rajnikanth's example single-handedly exposes the myth that Tamil society is parochial. All societies are parochial to a certain extent and all societies open to a certain extent. Life is not binary. The common gripe of the nationalist parties that they are not in the electoral scene reflects more about the shoddiness, timidity and lack of intellectual acumen of these parties than of the Tamil society. In the same way, "opinions" on Tamil society -- whichever way they go -- only reflect more about the biases that drive such opinions rather than an understanding of what drives Tamils. What drives Tamils is a fantastic question btw. In the context of movies, what drove the popularity of Murattu Kaalai? Paayum Puli? What drove the popularity of Moondru Mugam that we have an upcoming movie by the name Alex Pandian? Why did Baasha rock the floor? Why did Sivaji kick mars out of its orbit? The adulation and aarthis in the US when I watched Sivaji would have given a goosebump to anyone, even someone who does not understand Tamil society. The point is: it is not the context or the social message (whatever that was) of these movies, it is/was the man. The man knows how to connect, the audience knows what to expect, and both are enmeshed in a circle of dependence and both are aware of this. Anyone who can influence more than one person is fighting a war of ideas, here is a man who has single-handedly defied the norms and myths of what makes Tamils tick.

Kamalahassan, I agree, is not in the picture. He is a mere mortal.

 
At December 13, 2012 at 11:01 AM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

It is not wise to compare MGR and Sivaji with Rajni and Kamal. That is a very slippery slope as these people lived in different eras. Sivaji was no doubt a drama queen, but a good one at that :). Sivaji will shame Kamal's overdramatic deliveries and crying skills in Nayakan or jumping skills in Guna. Sivaji spoke pristine clear Tamil, Kamal speaks arrant nonsense of a Tamil. Even Vadivelu has a better Tamil delivery than Kamal has, you just have to watch 23aam Pulikesi with a free mind and not for its comedic effect. If you want to compare Tamil language delivery in the Sivaji-era, the fight is between S. S. Rajendran and Sivaji -- not Sivaji and MGR.

Kamalahassan has thrived because of some of the screenplays that are excellent -- you have to credit Crazy Mohan and Singeetham Srinivasa Rao for that. Michael Madana Kaamarajan. Of course, Kamal can take great credit for the comedic effects of Mumbai Xpress and Manmadhan Ambu. But the larger point is simple: Kamal makes a better screenplay marginally better, Rajni makes the screenplay what it is. You can call it Chuck Norris whatever :).

 
At December 13, 2012 at 11:09 AM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

I am a big fan of P. S. Veerappa and O. A. K. Thevar. It is a sad commentary on Tamil cinema villainy that we have to see "outsiders" who do not even speak the language in the movie, not even Madras Tamil. Just happened to see A. R. Murugadoss' latest venture, Thuppakki: his last film (7aam arivu) was openly critical of China and how we are in a war of ideas with them amidst sob-stories of how Tamils are cheated everywhere. This one (Thuppakki) seems like a copycat of A Wednesday openly critical of Islamist jehadi sleeper-cells while at the same time presenting a positive opinion of the Indian Army and presenting an egalitarian face at the end.

Rajnikanth's early renditions as villains are comparable with P. S. Veerappa's standards -- if you modulate for the language and context of the movies. The only movie where Kamal can match Rajni in those roles is Sigappu Roja.

 
At December 13, 2012 at 11:22 AM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

Also, if you pick with a toothcomb, Kamal always goes for movies that are somehow eery and are primarily to showcase his crying/emotional/double roles/four roles/ten roles/whatever skills. Mahanadhi, Guna, Avvai Shanmughi, Dasavatharam, Michael Madana Kamarajan, Aboorva Sagotharargal, Indiran Chandiran, Nayakan, Kuruthhippunal, Sathya -- a constant hunt for showcasing the same skill-set is a point to be noted. The best movie he has acted in so far is Kuruthhippunal where Arjun tempers him by his presence (I still love the screwdriver scene), not Nayakan or Saagara Sangamam or Ek Duje Ke Liye as people make it out.

If doing ten roles is the standard for Kamal, Rajni did 108 million in Enthiran and still had many left in the can :).

 

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