Sivaji: super hit but the message is troubling

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A scene from the flim Sivaji
A scene from the flim Sivaji

Ananth Krishnan

To his legions of fans, Rajnikanth is the perfect candidate to claim MGR’s legacy. While his runaway success, Sivaji, presents an effective diagnosis of entrenched corruption, the rather disturbing remedy it serves up is good old vigilantism – and placing our trust in a strong-armed paternalist leader who will carry the state.

Chennai: “Now that you have taken him away, what can we do for food?” desperately asks a poor protester, as his leader is taken away in chains by the State police. As the camera zooms in on the familiar face of the hero, the crowd bursts into applause.

So unfolds the opening scene of the 1958 M.G. Ramachandran film Nadodi Mannan, one of MGR’s first explicitly political films: it dealt with the issue of corruption in the state. It is no coincidence that Rajnikanth’s latest hit, the hugely popular Sivaji, has an identical opening scene, echoing the sentiment MGR developed in Nadodi Mannan and made so familiar in a series of hugely successful political films through the 1960s.

While the success of Sivaji has been founded on the repertoire of expressions, gimmicks, action scenes, and ‘punch dialogues’ that make Mr. Rajnikanth’s films so popular, these features are couched within a politicised narrative. Sivaji invokes, explicitly and subtly, the much-contested legacy of MGR. In doing so, it presents a popular political message that has further facilitated the success of the film – and cannot be ignored.

Despite the overwhelming box office success of the film, critics have panned it, and in particular its director S. Sankar, for its lack of depth in developing storyline and characters. “It’s a colossal waste of money,” pronounces Film News Anandan. “There is no storyline and it’s full of silly pranks and comedy. And all this is made by such a well-respected director.” Mr. Anandan suggests that only the publicity and hype surrounding the release of the film has sustained its success. “Publicity helped this picture, it has become a craze. Television and journalists boost the film up. All this makes it a craze for fans. That is why I think it is so successful.” It is certainly an arguable analysis.

While the huge publicity the film has received in the media no doubt helped early box-office sales, this cannot fully account for Sivaji’s sustained success. Since its June 12 opening, it has run ‘house-full’ shows for 27 consecutive days across 16 theatres in Chennai, according to Abirami Ramanathan, the managing director of Abirami Theatres, the distributors of the film in Chennai. By Mr. Ramanathan’s estimate, more than 1.6 million people have seen the film in Chennai and he expects 4.4 million more to see it, making it 100 house-full days. “We paid [rupees] six and a half crores for the contract to distribute the film,” observes Mr. Ramanathan. “We will be making ends meet if it does 50 days the way it is doing now. For the price we have paid, had we not made this kind of money, we would have failed monetarily.”

Thotta Tharani, the art director for Sivaji, rejects the idea that the hype surrounding the film and how much it cost to make – Sivaji is the most expensive film ever made in India – explains its success. “Yes, it is probably the most expensive social film ever done, but whatever we spend it on should show out on the screen,” responds Mr. Tharani. “Any new product you want to do is expensive, that most people do not understand. There are a lot of copy-masters here who take ideas from Tamil Nadu and use them in Hindi films. For them it’s cheaper. But the concept and ideas were all created here and any first creation is expensive.”

The art director suggests that the press has focused too much on the cost and also exaggerated figures. “I did a set here for [Rs.] 30 lakh, but in one of the Tamil papers they put it as [Rs.] three and a half crores. We concentrate on our work, and suddenly it appears in a paper that [Rs.] three crores are being spent on something and that’s also how they spoil my name.” He believes that while Sivaji does have a “good message,” it should not be regarded as a political one. “If you see all Sankar’s movies he tells you a message. But I don’t think there’s anything political to it.” Mr. Tharani adds: “A film should be taken as a film. I don’t intend to get into whether Sankar is doing this film in a political way or not. But every film of Sankar’s has definitely had a good message, that is what is important.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to get past the politics of Sivaji’s message. The film is woven around a portrayal of a failed state, where there are infinite levels of meaningless, ineffective bureaucracy, and corruption at every level. “Rich get richer, poor get poorer,” says Sivaji in the movie, generating wild cheers and whistles at Sathyam and Albert. This is an image of a state that resonates with many and has made the reception of the film all the more effective.

Besides the overwhelming popularity of Mr. Rajnikanth’s characteristic style, gimmicks, and ‘punch lines’, the political narrative of the film appeals to his fans. “I like that Rajni did a film about black money, corruption, and its problems,” explains E. Shanmugha Sundaram, a Rajnikanth fan from Saidapet. “I think he will and should definitely go into politics. If he does, I will definitely vote for him, and my entire family will vote for him as well. He will do real good for this country.” This is a sentiment shared by many fans. Sivaji is presented as the sole possible saviour against the evils of the state. “Pigs come in herds, but the lion comes alone,” goes one of the movie’s most successful punch lines. This applies to political leaders as well, Sivaji suggests.

In constructing the image of Sivaji as the paternalist hero, the film heavily draws upon the image and legacy of MGR. In the film, Sivaji returns in the end as “M.G. Ravichandran” – the ultimate superhero who manages to defeat corrupt politicians and save the poor.

“I am Sivaji, but I am MGR also,” Mr. Rajnikanth declares in the film. While this superstar has matched MGR’s popularity onscreen – according to some reports, there are about 15,000 Rajnikanth fan clubs in Tamil Nadu – it is far from certain that he can make the transition to politics, a discussion that the success of Sivaji has restarted, at least among his fans.

“Only if he comes into government will he be able to do real good for the people,” says Benjamin, a student in a Chennai college who was attending an 11 a.m. screening of Sivaji on a Tuesday.

“He will get the entire youth vote for sure,” agrees Abdul Wahab, his classmate. “We will definitely support him because he will do good for the people. People say Sivaji has no story. Maybe for any other actor this story might not work, but for Rajni it does.” This confidence in Mr. Rajnikanth’s political potential was echoed by female fans. His “style and charisma” were popular answers when I asked them why they would support him. “If he comes into politics, I will definitely vote for him,” says one young woman who asked to remain anonymous. “After MGR, he’s the only person who will do good for the people.”

The resonance among Rajnikanth’s sizeable fan-base of Sivaji’s political message suggests that the politics of the film cannot be underscored enough. The inextricable connection between the films of MGR and his later political career has a message that cannot be ignored. MGR’s political successes were built on the successful appropriation of a cinematic image, revealing how film can so effectively serve as a political medium. But there was demonstrably more to his politics – notably, his alliance politics and the free mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren he introduced so far-sightedly in Tamil Nadu – than his film image, style, and charisma.

Unsurprisingly, it has become common practice for today’s film stars (and aspiring politicians) to repeatedly invoke MGR’s legacy. “Bhagyaraj tried to use MGR’s name but didn’t succeed,” observes film historian Randor Guy.

“Rajnikanth however does. People from the lower rungs of society are able to relate to him very easily. MGR’s movies were different because they were actually message-bearing movies. He did not drink, he did not smoke. Right from the titles of his movies, he had a message. He took a lot of care, choosing every word to convey the message. The kind of image and impact that MGR so carefully built, Rajnikanth has quickly acquired with his charisma, gimmicks and ability for comedy.”

The message Sivaji bears is strikingly different: it is a complete rejection of the political system. It presents an effective diagnosis of entrenched corruption but the rather disturbing remedy it offers is good old vigilantism. The film suggests that rather than reforming the system, we are better off rejecting it and placing our trust in a paternalist, strong-arm leader who will carry the state.

To his legions of fans, Mr. Rajnikanth is the perfect candidate to claim MGR’s unrivalled legacy. But whether that will come to pass is an altogether different story. Towards the end of the film, Sivaji is asked: “Are you the CM?” He replies with the expected ambiguity: “No, I’m the PM – the postman. I just give the poor their money back.”

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