Sometime in 1992, Rajinikanth was returning to his residence in Poes Garden in Chennai when he found the traffic stopped. The police officer told the actor that no traffic could move for the next half an hour till then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa drove past.
“Sir, I am waiting for her to pass. I don’t mind waiting,” replied Rajinikanth, tongue-in-cheek.
Four years later, Rajinikanth fed up with frequent traffic blockades in his neighbourhood and the splurge on Jayalalithaa’s adopted son’s wedding, openly supported the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) alliance. He went on air to say “Even God cannot save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa is voted back to power.” The one-liner sealed Jayalalithaa’s electoral fate in 1996.
But the DMK rule came with another set of problems for the Tamil film industry. The extended DMK family dabbled into film production and looked to control all of Kollywood — production, distribution, theatres and satellite rights. Several leading actors were fed up of the DMK ways when they would be brusquely asked to report at shooting locations of production houses owned by the Karunanidhi family. A leading actor told me in 2007 that the family was holding the industry to ransom.
The industry, like the rest of Tamil Nadu, ended up investing in Jayalalithaa again in 2011. They thought Jayalalithaa would be better given she had no family members dabbling in films. But despite hailing from the film industry, Jayalalithaa had an uneasy relationship with Kollywood.
Celebrated actor Kamal Haasan’s hopes were belied in 2013 with his film Vishwaroopam. Haasan suspected an All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) hand in the trouble that seemed to have been choreographed around the release of the film. Jayalalithaa had denied that. But DMK chief M Karunanidhi claimed that Haasan refused to sell the rights of the movie to a particular TV channel that allegedly angered the powers-that-be. Haasan’s comment that he would like to see a dhoti-clad Tamilian as the next Prime minister of India at a book release on then Finance minister P Chidambaram, was seen as another provocation. In response, an emotional Haasan even threatened to leave India for good.
Another top actor Vijay’s films always saw trouble just before the release date, making people wonder if there was a pattern. Thalaivaa in 2013, Kaththi in 2014 and Puli in 2015, all saw last-minute hiccups. Vijay, who is suspected of having political ambitions, had to appeal to Jayalalithaa to ensure the release of his films.
Jayalalithaa was not the only actor-turned-politician to matter in Tamil Nadu, though. Vijayakanth, who is fondly called “Captain” by his admirers waded into the murky cesspool of Tamil Nadu politics and in an alliance with the AIADMK, did well enough to win more seats than the DMK in 2011. But soon the relationship between Jaya and Vijayakanth soured and the CM ticked him off in a hard-hitting speech inside the Tamil Nadu assembly. AIADMK leaders started criticising the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader for calling himself “Karuppu MGR” (dark complexioned MGR). Several of his MLAs were wooed by the AIADMK, reducing his strength in the assembly.
By 2016, Vijaykanth had no staying power and he lost his own seat. Thanks to his ill-timed and off-the-cuff utterances, he was reduced to a joke on social media.
This week also, we saw two actors crossing swords over Jayalalithaa. Gautami wrote an open letter to Prime minister Narendra Modi raising questions over the secrecy that surrounded Jayalalithaa’s treatment. Sarath Kumar, who has acted in movies with Gautami in the 90s, took her on without naming her in an open letter to Modi as well. Kumar, who is now also a politician and is aligned with the AIADMK, pointed out that no constitutional heads raised any questions about the lack of access when they went to Apollo Hospitals.
Given the symbiotic relationship between Kollywood and Tamil politics, a rumour fanned by Whatsapp forwards and other forms of social media also gained traction in the Jayalalithaa story. It spoke about how another very popular Tamil actor, Ajith would be the preferred choice of Jaya to succeed him.
On the day Jayalalithaa was cremated, political analysts sitting in distant Delhi spoke of the possibility of Rajinikanth testing his luck in politics. Little do they realise that the Superstar had his best chance in 1996 and given his health now, he is unlikely to embark on a new innings.
In the run-up to the 2016 assembly elections, Pattali Makkal Katchi’s (PMK) Anbumani Ramadoss while pitching himself as a CM candidate, called for purging Tamil Nadu politics of filmy politicians. Now, with O Panneerselvam getting the top job, Tamil Nadu has moved one step closer to what he said.