2020 may have been a tough year for people across the world. But, it has been a year of milestones for Superstar Rajinikanth, who turns 70 today. Earlier in August, he completed 45 years in the film industry. And he finally took his highly publicised and long-awaited political plunge. With Rajinikanth throwing his hat in the ring for the next state elections, it seems people of Tamil Nadu will once again face a tough question that so far remained within the confines of cinema: Rajinikanth pudikuma? illa Kamal Haasan pudikuma? (Do you like Rajini or Kamal?)
For decades Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have held contrasting positions as top stars of Tamil cinema. While Rajinikanth preferred style to substance, Kamal chose substance over style. And they both took Tamil cinema beyond state borders and opened up new markets for Indian movies worldwide. While Rajinikanth made Japanese fall in love with Tamil melodrama, Kamal delivered movies that were deemed Oscar-worthy (seven Kamal films have been submitted to Oscars from India).
But they had one thing in common: both used the platform of cinema to propagate their political views. However, there was a massive difference in how they addressed political issues in their movies.
Kamal has been very vocal about politics from the very beginning of his career. However, until the 1990s, Rajinikanth did not get political in his movies.
The beginning of Rajinikanth expressing his political ambitions could be traced back to director P Vasu’s Panakkaran (1990). It started with a simple dialogue, “Naan nenacha thalaivan edathuku romba sulabama vara mudiyum.” (I could be a leader very easily if I wish so).
And Rajinikanth only grew bolder in expressing his strong political views. For example, Valli, which he wrote and produced in 1993. In the movie, he played an alcoholic with seemingly unending words of wisdom. Sample this: An inebriated Veeraiya (Rajinikanth) crashes the campaign of a political party, where the distribution of free goodies is happening. And Veeraiya snaps: “naama enna pichaikaarangala? selai vetti vaangurathukku… modhelle velai vetti kelungayya. velai vetti kedacha, selai vetti nambale vankalam” (Who are we beggars to take sarees and dhotis? Ask for employment opportunities, so that you can buy your own dresses.)
Probably, this is the only movie in which Rajinikanth talked about real political issues. In the following films, it became all about himself. It was the early days of “Will he? Won’t he?” question, and Rajinikanth let his favourite filmmakers exploit that eagerness and curiosity of the public to the hilt. Film after film, he hinted that it was only a matter of time before he took state politics by storm. He used his films to address his detractors with lines like Nethikku enna kooliyaa vechurndhaan, inikku nadigan aakirkaan, naalaikku… (He made me a coolie yesterday. He has made me an actor today. Tomorrow…) in Uzhaippali (1993).
And he followed that teaser with more lines like: “Eppo varuven, epdi varuvennu yaarukkum theriyathu. Aana vara vendiya nerathula correct-a varuven.” (No one can tell when or how I’ll arrive, but when the time is right, I will be there.)
And the Superstar upped his political rhetoric with his spiritual film Baba (2002). In the film, touted as a launch pad for his political career, Rajinikanth played an atheist who enjoys the blessings of all the gods. And the film traces his transformation to a religious person. Even in this film, Rajinikanth maintained his image as a reluctant leader, who was waiting for some sort of divine signal to take the plunge. Again, the main political issue here was, “Will he or won’t he?”
In contrast, Kamal Haasan played an idealistic and well-read youth going hungry for days due to lack of employment in Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980). He spoke about how politicians misguide and exploit youngsters for their personal gains in Sathya (1988). He addressed violent caste conflicts in Thevar Magan (1992). He tackled the moral decay of society in Mahanadhi (1994), ills of corruption in Indian (1996) and the cost of hate-politics in Hey Ram (2000).
And now that brings us to the million-dollar question: Rajini pudikuma? illa Kamal pudikuma?
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