Even Rajinikanth’s entry onto Tamil movie screens, in 1975, was larger than life. Confidently pushing open a gate and striding into the frame in Apoorva Raagangal, the swag that would define his career was unmistakable even beneath the ill-fitting suit and scruffy exterior (his character had returned to apologise to his estranged wife Bhairavi (Srividya) after being diagnosed with blood cancer). And the first person he speaks to? Kamal Haasan’s Prasanna, an ebullient young man hopelessly in love with Bhairavi.
By the time Rajnikanth made his debut, Kamal Haasan had already been working in films for more than a decade. But Rajini only got his first lead role in K Balachander’s cult classic, which brought together two powerful actors who would dominate the Tamil film industry for the next few decades. It was only fitting that many years later, both would formally announce their political ambitions at almost the same time.
While this may seem like a coincidence, it was the absence of the biggest Dravidian leaders in Tamil Nadu that had set the stage for uncertainty and political churn by then—AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa had died in 2016, and DMK chief M Karunanidhi, her bitter rival who had been suffering from various illnesses for a couple of years, succumbed in 2018.
While both Rajini and Kamal’s entry into politics sent fans into a frenzy, as the general elections drew nearer, the state settled back into the familiar pattern of alliances and partnerships. Adding to this, both stars announced that they wouldn’t be contesting the election themselves—while Rajinikanth, whose political party is still an amorphous entity that doesn’t even have a name yet, made this clear in February, Kamal Haasan, whose Makkal Needhi Maiam is contesting all 39 seats in the state, broke the suspense while releasing the party’s ambitious manifesto which promises 50 lakh jobs.
Tamil Nadu is no stranger to popular film stars making a successful shift to politics—AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran (MGR) and his protégé Jayalalithaa are the biggest examples. But political observers say there is little chance that Rajini and Kamal can hope to establish their political footprint on the state at this point. And their film journeys, which briefly converged and then branched out into radically different directions, can give us some clues into what their political performances may be like.
On and off screen
After their successful outing in Apoorva Raagangal, both Rajini and Kamal forged a unique friendship that was not affected by their professional rivalry. The two have acted in 16 movies together, including some cameos. While Rajini made his mark in the beginning by playing the villain, Kamal would experiment with a variety of roles. So in 16 Vayathinile (1977), while Kamal played the naive, disabled Chappani, Rajani was the ruthless Parattai, who lusts after Mayil, played by Sridevi. In Moondru Mudichu (1976), Rajini’s Prasath, consumed by jealousy towards Kamal’s Balaji, refuses to save his doting friend from drowning (in one of those delightful cinematic connections, in the original Malayalam movie, Kamal had played the role done by Rajini in the Tamil version). In Aval Appadithan (1978), Sripriya is a heroine who fights for the cause of women’s liberation, while Rajini is an opportunistic and chauvinistic boss and Kamal a sensitive filmmaker.
Rajini’s roles as a villain gave him the opportunity to actually display his acting skills, something that took a back seat once the star began overshadowing the performer. But even in big-budget films like Chandramukhi (2005) and Enthiran (2010), the actor seems to have more fun tackling the villainous alter egos— his ‘lakalakalakalakalaka’ from Chandramukhi would have spawned a thousand memes today.
It was in 1978 that Rajini finally managed to play a hero in Bairavi, a film that many producers had reportedly refused to take on, doubtful of how much draw a villain-turned-hero would have at the box office. After the film became a hit, Rajini got more ‘positive’ roles, and his performances in Mullum Malarum (1978) and Johnny (1980) are still fondly remembered by cinemagoers.
In 1979, after Ninaithale Inikkum, Rajini and Kamal decided to stop acting in movies together, but the camaraderie continued through guest appearances in each other’s movies.
Kamal continued to choose roles that let him push boundaries, while Rajini slowly shifted tracks to feature in movies where he was the hero and saviour. As writer and film observer Devi Bharathi puts it, the two were like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan.
“Like Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal focused on acting and chose roles that would give him scope to perform, to show his talent. Like MGR, Rajini chose roles that would show him as a saviour to commoners. It was perhaps not so conscious in the beginning but realising its impact, Rajinikanth made a deliberate choice of such roles. He used cinema to consolidate his image as a do-gooder,” said Bharathi.
If in 1989, Kamal played a dwarf in Apoorva Sagodharargal, Rajini in Mappillai played the role of the poor Aarumugam who ‘brings around’ his dominant and arrogant mother-in-law Rajarajeshwari. Rajini’s grand entry scene in the movie involved riding a bullet and crashing through a glass wall to enter a marriage hall and stop a wedding.
“Films did them a lot of good, and vice versa,” said veteran director SP Muthuraman, who has directed both the actors. “As you know, they have been immensely successful and created an unimaginable fan base. There are fans who would give up their lives for Rajinikanth. Kamal’s fan base is no less loyal.”
So would this massive fan base help their political careers? The director wouldn’t comment.
Bharathi perhaps rightly points out that Kamal’s traditional fan base might not have been prepared for his political plunge.
“Rajinikanth has been dropping hints since 1996 (when he criticised Jayalalithaa during the election campaign). He kept his fans waiting—often the talk about his political entry would be timed around a new release but he kept the fans in constant anticipation. Kamal’s might come as a surprise to his own loyal fan base. They were not expecting it.”
Besides delivering politically loaded dialogues that both enthused and confused fans, Rajinikanth was also the invincible macho onscreen hero who could nonchalantly take on any kind of villain. Examples abound, from Baashha (1995) to Baba (2002).
But even in politically loaded films like Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980) where he played an unemployed, rebellious young man or Anbe Sivam (2003) in which he was a Left activist, Kamal allowed his characters’ vulnerabilities to flow through.
Bharathi, who has doubts over whether Kamal will be a successful politician, thinks Rajini, too, has delayed his entry too long.
“The time, after 1996, was perhaps ripe right after the deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. The AIADMK has got its act together now. The DMK was anyway equipped to handle the vacuum created by Karunanidhi,” he said.
R Kannan, Dravidian commentator and author of MGR: A Life, has no hopes from either. Drawing parallels between MGR and Rajinikanth in politics, Kannan points out that MGR worked really hard and took years to taste political success.
“Not all superstars can be MGR, right? He put in 25 years of hard work into his success. Besides cultivating a do-gooder image on screen, he also built an organisational base and was willing to risk indignities of politics,” he said.
Unlike Rajini, MGR also cultivated a bond with his fans. Old-timers recall how fans who mobbed MGR’s house were rarely turned away without meeting him. There is a legendary story about how MGR almost impulsively bought raincoats for about 5,000 rickshaw pullers after he saw one of them riding the vehicle drenched by rain.
Rajini, on the other hand, has always kept his personal life behind a strict wall. He has not been very accessible to his fans—after a long gap, he began holding interactions with fans only in the last two years—and almost always spends his birthdays away from his residence.
Like MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa also put in a lot of hard work. Months before she died, Jayalalithaa campaigned for the 2016 state assembly elections, addressing 22 major rallies and covering all 234 constituencies. Karunanidhi was no less active, even when he was past 90 years of age, addressing 17 public meetings and 18 speeches from his van.
“Will Rajinikanth be able to or will he be willing enough for that kind of commitment?” asked Kannan.
Kamal’s advantage, says Kannan, is the energy driving his politics.
“He has been hands-on since he announced his party. He has been vocal and has registered his views on different events. He has also traveled the state widely, showing up at Sterlite in solidarity with the protesters for instance. However, his Tamil appears convoluted and it is not clear if this is not making it more difficult for him to communicate or connect with the masses. He does not appear to command a mass following like Rajini who is all announcements but (remains) coy. A grass-roots level organisation appears missing. I would be surprised if he makes an impression in these elections,” he said.
Kamal’s politics also comes across as confused sometimes. While he initially said the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation move should be lauded, he later apologised and said Modi should accept his “mistake”. He has also backtracked on comments about Kashmir.
Neither Rajini nor Kamal were able to generate the kind of initial excitement that actor Vijayakanth managed to do when he launched his party Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in 2005. Even the DMDK could not keep up its initial promise due to Vijayakanth’s deteriorating health and family politics.
While Vijayakanth’s meteoric rise and sharp fall may be a warning to both Kamal and Rajini, what is heartwarming is that both the stars have been nothing but gracious about their political rivalry. Recently, when Rajini wished Kamal on his decision to contest the polls, the latter responded by seeking his support.