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For mil­lions of fans, Ra­jinikanth is sim­ply Tha­laiva (leader), a man who in­spires fren­zied adu­la­tion un­like that seen any­where else in In­dia, an in­her­i­tor of the man­tle held by a long line of icons, from Si­vaji Gane­san to MGR. The Dra­vid­ian move­ment was athe­is­tic, so what ex­plains Ra­jinikanth’s demigod like sta­tus? ‘When Dra­vid­ian athe­ism said “No God”, it never said “no hero”’, ac­cord­ing to For the Love of a Man, an award-win­ning 2015 doc­u­men­tary that tries to ex­plain his unique fan­dom.

The Ra­jinikanth story is well-known. The bus con­duc­tor from Bengaluru who stormed Tamil cin­ema with a string of megahits, trade­mark di­a­logues, man­ner­isms and grav­ity-de­fy­ing feats to be­come one of Asia’s high­est-paid movie stars with a fan fol­low­ing even in dis­tant Ja­pan. A rags-to-riches tale that is the stuff of cine­matic leg­end and even a chap­ter in school text-books.

Ra­jinikanth, 67, now stands at an in­ter­est­ing cross­roads in his ca­reer. His Rs 540 crore film 2.0, out on 10,000 screens this week, is the costli­est In­dian film ever made. The re­lease comes at a time when the star is con­tem­plat­ing an en­try into pol­i­tics. Both of the state’s Dra­vid­ian par­ties have lost their iconic lead­ers, Jay­alalithaa and Karunanidhi, in the past two years. Can Ra­jinikanth 2.0 fill this vac­uum in a state ad­dicted to mes­sianic po­lit­i­cal cults?

The su­per­star an­nounced his in­tent to join pol­i­tics on De­cem­ber 31 last year, but is yet to launch a po­lit­i­cal party. Iron­i­cally, for a man of the masses, he can of­ten be in­scrutable—a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma. His in­ter­views are of­ten film pro­mo­tions. He rarely speaks about his early life and of the world out­side cin­ema.

That’s what makes his in­dia to­day in­ter­view so unique. Over the course of an hour at Brin­da­van, his three-storeyed home in Poes Gar­den, Chennai, Ra­jinikanth spoke can­didly to Group Ed­i­to­rial Di­rec­tor Raj Chen­gappa and Deputy Ed­i­tor Amar­nath K. Menon not only about his life and films but on a range of is­sues like sec­u­lar­ism, cor­rup­tion and his po­lit­i­cal vi­sion for the state. Ra­jinikanth’s off-screen per­sona, shorn of star ac­cou­trements, is a stark and con­stant re­minder of the il­lu­sions of cin­ema. Chen­gappa, who in­ter­viewed the late star-turned-politi­cian M.G. Ra­machan­dran, notes the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two icons. “MGR would never be pho­tographed with­out his trade­mark wool cap and dark glasses. Ra­jinikanth, on the other hand, has no such hang-ups.”

The star’s po­lit­i­cal for­tunes now ride on the suc­cess of 2.0—if it breaks the box of­fice, it will fast-track his en­try into pol­i­tics. His le­gion of fans are go­ing to be the key movers. His fan clubs, the Ra­jini Makkal Man­drams, were re­launched in Jan­uary this year and will likely form the bul­wark of the star’s plan to con­test all the state’s 234 con­stituen­cies in the as­sem­bly elec­tion in 2021. His goal will be to stage a thun­der­ous MGR-like po­lit­i­cal en­try while avoid­ing the mis­takes made by re­cent star-turned-politi­cians like Vi­jayakanth. The star is con­scious the road ahead is not a ‘path of flow­ers’, as he says, but seems to be work­ing to a plan to cul­ti­vate a voter base and con­vert his star power into po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal be­fore the for­mal launch of his own party. Ra­jinikanth 2.0, the su­per­star-turned-politi­cian, clearly prom­ises to be the role of his life. In the al­pha­bet soup of the pol­i­tics of the state, his en­trance is bound to in­crease the tur­bu­lence.

Su­per­star Ra­jinikanth with Group Ed­i­to­rial Di­rec­tor Raj Chen­gappa, Group Photo Ed­i­tor Bandeep Singh and Deputy Ed­i­tor Amar­nath K. Menon

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