Kamal Haasan versus Rajinikanth brings back forgotten rivalries of Indian cinema
History seems to be repeating in Tamil Nadu.
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Rivalries between movie stars are legendary. Well, as old as the hills, in a manner of speaking, and kept alive with fresh inputs every day.
Many, many years ago in 1965, Bengal's iconic Satyajit Ray chose The Statesman in Kolkata to lambast a fellow auteur, another great luminary, Mrinal Sen. Ray tore apart Sen's newly released Aakash Kusum, and the newspaper's letters to the editor column was used to convey this criticism. One of the points raised by Ray was the topicality of the storyline. The debate between the two stalwarts in The Statesman became so heated that the editor had to intervene. Incidentally, my father was editor in charge of letters then!
As time went by, one saw many more such squabbles – some openly so, some not so openly. Many have spoken about the rivalry between the late G Aravindan, a master moviemaker known for classics such as Uttarayanam, Thampu, Esthappan and Chidambaram (with Smita Patil), and Adoor Gopalakrishnan (gems like Elippathayam, Nizhalkkuthu, Pinneyum). But if such a conflict did exist between them, it was kept under wraps – and not displayed through the media as one saw in the Kolkata of 1965.
A rivalry reborn. Photo: India Today
Tamil Nadu's former chief minister and leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), MK Karunanidhi, fell out with his onetime friend and compatriot, MG Ramachandran (who also became the chief minister later, but heading a party he formed after the breakup, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). While Karunanidhi was an exceptionally brilliant writer, who penned some of the most riveting films (which cleverly spread the Dravidian ideology), Ramachandran or MGR was an actor who mesmerised the masses (especially women) with his message-driven movies, playing the Samaritan to the hilt!
History seems to be repeating in Tamil Nadu with two present-day superstars, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, throwing darts at each other. Unfortunately, they chose an October 1 function, organised on the banks of the Adyar river to unveil a statue of the late Tamil actor, Sivaji Ganesan. It had to be removed from the Marina – where it had stood facing the Gandhi statue for many years – after a court directive, much to the sorrow of the actor's innumerable fans.
In a what seemed like a barbed dig at Haasan – who is reportedly choreographing his entry into the political arena – Rajinikanth said that “one needs something beyond celebrity status to succeed in politics”. And Rajinikanth cited the example of Ganesan, who despite being recognised as an actor par excellence failed to make a mark in politics.
Feud of Ganesans: Gemini versus Sivaji
(Ganesan did launch his own political party, but just did not make any headway, much like Amitabh Bachchan, who got out of politics after a brief stint and perhaps with some bitterness. I must add here that Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan – who lived in Sivaji's times and who vowed women with his killer good looks and romantic roles – wisely never bit the political bullet. Probably, he died a happier man!)
So, Rajinikanth averred: “A legend of our times, Sivaji Ganesan has left us a lesson not just in cinema, but also in politics. He launched his own political party and lost the elections, including from his own constituency. This was not an insult to him, but the people of that constituency. So, the message is that fame and clout (earned in cinema) are not enough to succeed in politics. There should be something beyond these.
“I don’t know what it is. But I think Kamal Haasan would know and even if he knows the secret, he would not tell me. Maybe he would have told me if I had asked him two months ago”, Rajinikanth added.
Rajinikanth, who rose from being a bus conductor in Bengaluru to one of the most successful box-office clinchers, was referring to Haasan's heavily loaded political statement in July urging the people of Tamil Nadu to send their grievances about political corruption and ineptitude to the governor.
Rajinikanth's October 1 missile aimed at Haasan is seen as a tit-for-tat move against Kamal's indirect dig at the superstar during the recent 75th anniversary celebrations of Murasoli, the mouthpiece of DMK, headed by Karunanidhi. Haasan had quipped then: “Self-respect is more important than self-protection”. This appeared to be a reference to Rajinikanth's refusal to share the dais with DMK leaders. Instead, the star sat with the audience.
All this takes me back to an article in The Guardian: “I’m sure most activist-actors mean well, but the droning self-importance makes my face itch. It’s great that they want to put their celebrity to good use; but someone should tell them – fame alone is not enough.”
Rajinikanth was obviously emphasising this when he said that one needed something over and above fame and stardom to become a good politician. Perhaps, it is this realisation that has been stopping him from jumping into the political pit. For a long, long time, in fact.