Rajnikanth tries to lift his politics above the tangled skein of caste politics (Photos: R. Senthil Kumar)
A little extra spice has been added to India’s sprawling general election in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where an aggrieved film star is seeking revenge on a politician who criticised his work.
The mixture of politics, film stars and a real life soap opera has livened things up, for sure.
In fact the ageing film star’s spat with a prominent politician has become the talking point in this movie-mad state.
Actor Rajnikanth has asked his fans to take on Dr SS Ramadoss’ PMK party simply because the politician trashed the star’s last film.
The PMK party represents the state’s Vanniyar caste population, which comprises some 20% of Tamil Nadu’s 70 million people.
Their votes are crucial in a state sharply divided along caste lines.
Rajnikanth, who is called Thalaivar (The Leader) by his army of fans, has starred in over 100 films and even commands a tidy following in far-away Japan where some of films have been popular hits.
The 54-year-old swashbuckling actor has been Tamil cinema’s classic anti-hero superstar who walked with a swagger and drank, smoked, swore and seduced women on screen.
Dr Ramadoss has been shocked by the actor’s antics
His role as the hero of his last film Baba was no different. And that’s what got the goat of Mr Ramadoss, who prides himself as a respectable doctor-turned politician.
He accused Rajnikanth of being a flawed role model for the young, and his party workers allegedly attacked movie halls showing the film.
Two years on, Rajnikanth is seeking political retribution against the unkind critic.
But there is a catch, because by attacking one rival he could end up helping another.
In rallying his fans against Mr Ramadoss’s party, Rajnikanth has ended up indirectly supporting his arch enemy, the controversial chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha.
This is because Dr Ramadoss’s party belongs to a coalition headed by the DMK, which is pitted against a rival coalition led by Jayalalitha’s AIADMK at the 10 May elections in the state.
Analysts say that Rajnikanth has been toying with the idea of launching a political party for years now, and famously denounced Jayalalitha ahead of a state election in 1996.
“If Jaya comes back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu,” Rajnikanth had said.
It shows that there are no short term enemies in today’s notoriously fickle Indian politics.
In the busy acronym crammed world of Tamil political parties, the DMK and AIADMK, reflecting the regional and linguistic aspirations of local people, remain the main political parties.
But experts like AR Venkatachalapathy say that people’s disenchantment with these two parties has spurred movie stars like Rajnikanth to harbour political ambitions.
The star is also seen by some as an alternative political hope in the deeply divided state.
For years, Rajnikanth has been dropping hints of a forthcoming political career, with pointed dialogues in his film.
“When I will make an entrance, where and how… nobody will know. But when I do make one, it will be at the right time,” his character declared in the film Muthu.
This time, in rebuking Dr Ramadoss, Rajnikanth has tried to project himself as a person who lifts his politics above the tangled skein of caste politics.
He instead prefers to talk about issues of governance.
When I will make an entrance, where and how.. nobody will know. But when I do make one, it will be at the right time
Rajnikanth said he would cast his vote for the party standing against the DMK in his constituency, which in his case is a candidate of Jayalalitha.
But can Rajnikanth pull in the votes? Will his fans pay attention to his appeal for them to vote against the party of his chief critic?
AR Venkatachalapathy is doubtful.
“How many of his fans are registered as voters? His fans are seen as wastrels. Their families are not going to vote for him,” he says.
But other analysts such as Cho Ramaswamy, who knows Rajnikanth well, are not so sure.
“Rajni is a great entertainer. His acting is uninhibited. He has a huge fan base,” he says.
Tamil Nadu has a long history of elected rulers from its thriving film industry.
Three of its five chief ministers were star actors, while the remaining two wrote film scripts.
The popular movie stars have traditionally run fiercely loyal fan clubs.
Film historian Venkatesh Chakravarthy says these fan clubs serve as ready made cadre bases when the stars take the plunge into politics.
Political parties want to appropriate a film star because they get a ready made fan following through the fan clubs
The fan clubs also run blood donation camps, help the poor and needy with medical treatment, and give out free tickets for new films.
The relationship between film and politics dies not end there: Tamil Nadu’s political parties often use film stars for propaganda purposes.
So will Rajnikanth take the plunge into politics or not?
Cho Ramaswamy says that, for the moment, Rajnikanth is planning a new film – his first in the 18 months since his last movie Baba sunk at the box office.
“But you cannot rule out a Rajnikanth party in the next two and a half years when Tamil Nadu is due for its state elections,” he said.
When it comes to his political ambitions, Rajnikanth remains the master of drama, preferring to keep his fans on tenterhooks.