Writing about Rajnikanth is always a bit tricky. While there is the risk of the Padayappa star's army of fans getting cross with you for not getting the full measure of their thalaivar’s GQ — Greatness Quotient — there is the possibility that your own IQ may be called into question by the highly “educated” and the elite, a majority of whom, for some strange reasons, not only seem to think that anything mass not only lacks class but is also mostly crass. And writer-columnist Manu Joseph calling Rajini “the hero of semi-literates” and “a beloved clown” a few years ago only reinforced something that they always knew.

I am not going to wade into the controversy whether popular psyche is essentially psychotic. Not on the day when the Superstar turns 69. And, to make a confession even before committing a crime, I should admit that I am also a fanboy of the man in more ways than one. No, I am not your typical first-day-first-show maniac who is willing to spend even a few thousand rupees to catch a glimpse of the star on the silverscreen before most people do. In fact, every time a movie that I would love to watch releases, I check Amazon and Flipkart first for deeply-discounted tickets. Even if they offer one, I may still give it a miss because they don't offer that extra 10 per cent cashback on the Citibank card. So my admiration of the man stems more from personal reasons than cinematic; now, if I may add, the man's politics has cemented the personal bonding.

Without doubt, fame sits very lightly on Rajinikanth. Critics may still argue that the bald-headed, bearded, crumpled dhoti/kurta look is all part of a PR package and the down-to-earth public persona is an essential contrast and counterpoint to the stylish and suave screen image. But damn! Who even wants to look humble and poor these days? And, even if it is all just an act, at least give the man the credit for staging the longest and most convincing show in Indian cinema’s history. It's a different matter that recently Rajinikanth himself laughed at the suggestion that he is “simple”, saying he does not understand all the fawning because he still drives around in expensive cars and sometimes stays in 5-star hotels. Okay, add candour to simplicity in the list of things that make Rajini click.

Kollywood also never gets tired of talking about how he makes sure that all those who have ever worked with him do not suffer financially. From his first touch-up boy to his first producer, the list of people who have benefitted from his munificence is endless. This is no small feat in an industry that works on the understanding that “when you are playing in a casino, it does not matter whether the money that you are throwing away came from the pawned mangal sutra of your wife or that coffee estate in Coorg”. In other words, the message is clear: the risk goes with the territory and do not expect your ‘hero’ to bail you out.

A political Baba

But I am getting more and more fascinated and intrigued by Rajini, the politician, a reluctant one at that. Rajini’s approach to public life in general, and politics in particular, looks steadfastly pacifist. Some may say it is just a ruse to make up for his reluctance to engage with real issues and an indication of his shallow understanding of the intricacies of a complex system. A system that he has promised to set right. Even if one were to assume that the criticism against Rajini is true, partially or fully, how does calling people names, resorting to rhetoric and engaging in slanging matches help? Rajini has so far desisted from doing any of these. In fact, he has made it clear that he is not going to criticise anyone or wade into an issue just for the heck of it. Critics say it is the fear of backlash. But fear also goes by the name of caution. A caution that flows from the responsibility that your words or action should not make matters more complex and controversial than what they are already.

But one cannot always remain immune to extreme provocation or when his or her silence is being misrepresented as acquiescence or ‘disloyalty’ to the community that he swears by and the one he aspires to lead. We saw this in his outburst against Kannada activists during Kollywood’s agitation on the Mekedatu issue. But once he realised that his remarks did not help in de-escalating the tension in any way, he immediately apologised. Of course, Tamil nationalists took him to the cleaners for what they saw as the capitulation at the feet of Vatal Nagaraj.

But what Rajini stands for as a politician was evident during the 2018 IPL crisis. When politicians of all hues were exhorting the mobs to make sure that the matches do not happen in Chennai (as a mark of TN’s protest in the Cauvery Management Board issue), he took a balanced stand. He said it would be good if the organisers stopped the games as the conduct of such a mega event would be embarrassing when the entire State was agitating. Not just that. He had an alternative suggestion, too. He said the BCCI and IPL authorities and the CSK management should also consider allowing the players to play with a black band as a mark of protest. Of course, this nuanced approach was lost on both sides. While the Tamil nationalists faulted him for just “appealing” to the powers-that-be, the “don’t-mix-politics-with-sports” utopians accused him of abject surrender to the chauvinists. In essence, since politics does not have a third umpire, Rajini lost out to an under-arm, illegitimate delivery. Or, so it seemed.

Thus, maintaining equanimity and calm comes at a huge price. Rajini himself knows that and this is evident from his open admiration of Seeman, whose chest-thumping theatrics, if tried without medical supervision, is sure to trigger a heart attack.

And, then there is the media contingent, particularly those reporters with a camera and a mike who haunt the airports and camp out outside the houses of celebrities and politicians. Unlike most, it is a fact that Rajini does have to dial up the media to recharge or top-up his popularity, and this irks them no end. Media guys take “access” very seriously. No. It is “not the people have a right to know, and therefore, you should tell us” kind of moral hyperventilation. It is the “my editor is sitting on my head because channel X said that you took your dog thrice out for a walk in the morning, and therefore, we should tell our viewers whether everything is fine with the pooch” kind of practical frustration.

So far, Rajini has managed to feed the media just about enough to keep them from starving. But once in politics full time, he may not only have to increase the feeding frequency but also the quantity.

In short, Rajini’s politics is the antithesis of his movies: he is trying to cleanse the politics of the masala, which obviously is bad for the system. But since people cannot convert to a sattvik diet in a day, he may serve up the old fare once in a while, with an overdose of the namak and mirchi .

Whatever it is, Rajini has proved that he is style personified. Detractors should probably just wait for some more time for convincing proof of his substance.