The liberal Tamil intelligentsia is at it again – Pa Ranjith bashing – and this time for guilt by association. Following Rajinikanth’s visit to Thoothukudi after the massacre on 22nd May, he was publicly humiliated on camera by Santhosh, a young leader of the movement and also the coordinator of the All College Students Association, Thoothukudi who was injured in the firing. Santhosh asked Rajinikanth why he took 100 days to reach the protest site – in essence asking him why he was opportunistic to visit them after 13 people had died and when he had never bothered to provide solidarity or support earlier. This wasn’t the first time a leader was being subjected to such scrutiny by the people of Thoothukudi who were suspicious of all activity trying to gain mileage out of their misery, Rajinikanth, being just one in a long series of them including the other actor who has been doing political theatrics of late – Kamal Hasan.
A visibly irritated Rajinikanth, poured out his frustration on the media that very day and showed his true colours – when he characterized protests generally as undesirable and protestors as anti-social – rightly creating an uproar of protests across Tamil Nadu against Rajinikanth. All this is happening at a juncture where two Rajinikanth starrers are up for release. One a mega budget film called Robot 2.0 – considered to be the most expensive Indian film made to date directed by Shankar and the second Kaala, a film directed by the young Dalit director – Pa Ranjith.
The journey to superstardom for most Indian actors barring a few exceptions is almost always a kitschy onscreen image of the good guy fighting the bad guys for society. Rajinikanth is no exception to this theme and most of his films have revolved around it – aimed at reproducing the kitsch with visibly low or reactionary political content.
But a marked diversion in Rajinikanth’s acting portfolio happened with the first film that he did for Pa Ranjith – Kabali – where he plays a working class leader with the mise en scène clearly indicating the caste identity and politics of the film. Though this film got a cult following – it was beaten black and blue by the high brow reviewers and the caste media. The number of articles on the film in Round Table India and the disappointment of some of the authors at the kind of casteist review that it got is testimony to the same. The criticisms went all over the place including demanding a non commercial product from Pa Ranjith to questioning the aesthetic quality of the movie. But to the disappointment of the critics the film did well. It was quite clear at that point itself – the irritation of the critics was obviously because of the entry of a Dalit on his own terms into an industry that was dominated by certain dominant castes and on top of it he was making his own rules and cinematic idioms. All of this has been discussed in these pages and elsewhere ad nauseaum. It was not that Pa Ranjith was a newcomer when he made Kabali – he had a series of successful films behind him – the problem seemed to be that he had managed to rein in the Rajinikanth brand into his politics. And it was not as if Pa Ranjith wasn’t aware of the kind of animosity that he was facing in the industry either or the importance of the location he is coming from. In an interview to Kavitha Muralidharan for the Firstpost, Pa Ranjith says: “”They will probably wait for an opportunity for me to fail, and they will use it to the hilt to knock me off.”
Cut to the present time – when Rajinikanth expressed his reactionary opinions, Kaala and his role in the film was invoked and suddenly Pa Ranjith was made responsible for Rajinikanth’s politics. The media literally hounded him for a statement on Rajnikant’s politics and in a hurried television byte, he said reported that Rajinikanth had told him that his public statement was a mistake. Nowhere did he say that he endorsed Rajinikanth’s politics – on the contrary he stressed on the importance of the politics of protests. A call for boycotting Kaala went out – ostensibly to teach Rajinikanth a lesson for his politics. So much so that there were savarna activists arguing that Rajinikanth was a Dalit icon – because he had acted in Ranjith films. So, when some people objected to this boycott call saying that it was vicariously punishing Pa Ranjith, it was brushed aside on two counts. First that Pa Ranjith had associated with Rajinikanth and second that these boycotters would support Pa Ranjith if he makes a good movie with politically correct actors.
Both these arguments are factors that excluded communities have to face with regard to all work they do on an everyday basis. That their work will never be seen on its own, but in the shadow of the hegemonically more powerful. Perhaps, it was prophetic and correct when B. Prabhakaran warned of the dangers of the comparison that was being made between Rajinikanth and Ambedkar bby a few quarters in Kabali. The second argument that they would boycott this Ranjith movie because he made it with Rajinikanth, despite the fact that Pa Ranjith had signed Rajinikanth up for the movie much before Rajinikanth even made clear his intention to enter politics beats common sense and logic. But within a casteist framework it is definitely logical. Not just castiest framework, anyhegemonic framework – for the Dalit has to show an extreme level of purity and fidelity that others don’t have to. If s/he fails that she is a traitor. So, there is no human way for the Dalit – either a deferential non questioning good person or a rebel, either a god or a demon. This is exactly what the critics of Pa. Ranjith have set out to again.
While Pa Ranjith was being hounded for Rajinikanth’s politics, no one in team Robot 2.0 which happens to be the bigger release for Rajinikanth this year was even questioned on Rajinikanth’s politics. They didn’t have to hint about it – they could be as apolitical as they wanted and interestingly nobody who thought that Rajinikanth could be punished by boycotting Kaala could imagine that he would suffer much bigger losses if Robot 2.0 bombed at the box office. An incidental trivia – Shankar of Robot 2.0 has made three movies with Rajinikanth as against Ranjith’s two. So, by the logic of the director being the conscience keeper of the actor’s politics, I suppose Shankar has the bigger onus!
However the tragedy of this whole narrative is that this politics is being played out over the dead bodies and the bullet wounds of the Thoothukudi massacre. The tragedy is that a macabre dance of caste is being played on the embers of the protests. The tragedy is that someone who has lived politics and protests is being sacrificed to assuage caste egos. The tragedy is while all of this is happening the actual spectrum of players – which is almost everyone from national and regional political parties across the board, bureaucracy, the judiciary contributed to the events leading to the 22nd May massacre aren’t being held remotely responsible – a person far away is being pounced upon – only because of his caste. Anyone denying that is denying their own innate casteism!
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.