Will he, won’t he? Southern superstar Rajinikanth has exhibited Hamletian indecision about pursuing a political career ever since he announced he was joining the fray in December 2017. So far, he has not even announced the name of his political party, choosing instead to deploy his massive fan following under the umbrella of his Rajini Makkal Mandrams and using them to build a cadre of party workers across Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, the ageing star (he is 67) continues to do what he knows best-make iconic films. His latest-2.0, releasing November 29-has a monster Rs 540 crore budget, possibly the costliest Indian film ever made. A sci-fi thriller, it is a sequel to the blockbuster Enthiran (Robot), where Rajini played a double role, one as a robot replica of himself. His political fortunes now ride on the success of 2.0. If it proves to be another superhit, it will put his entry into Tamil Nadu’s political arena on the fast track. The star has always been cagey about his political plans. But in an in-depth interview at his home in Poes Garden (close to former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s), Rajinikanth spoke candidly to India Today not only about his life and films but also his political vision for Tamil Nadu, and a range of burning public issues. Excerpts:
Q. Despite your age, you continue to exude tremendous energy and passion in your films. Where does it come from?
A. In the beginning, I took to acting for a livelihood. Thereafter, I met the needs of my life. Now, I am enjoying it. It is entertaining to me. It is not like a profession. If I treat it like a profession, then work becomes a burden. Now it is like a game, it is relaxing. That’s probably where I get my energy from, from that thought.
Q. What kind of movies do you enjoy doing the most these days?
A. Comedy. I am very comfortable doing comedy scenes. When I go to the set and they say they are doing comedy scenes today, I jump. It is very difficult to make someone laugh, it is a bigger task. Not the dialogue type of comedy. Situation comedy is more challenging.
Q. Your early life was a struggle, you even worked as a bus conductor. How did that mould your outlook on life?
A. I am grateful to god that I went through all that suffering, those difficulties, which is why I am enjoying this life. [Pointing to the surroundings of his house] Otherwise, I wouldn’t have tasted this. I have known suffering, so I am enjoying this so-called success.
Q. Tell us why and how you took to acting?
A. It is a long story but I will tell you in short-it began with a play I did in Bangalore. Every year, for its anniversary celebration, each depot of the Karnataka transport department [where he worked as a bus conductor] had to stage a play. I chose to play Duryodhana because I was an NTR fan. I was a good imitator and I imitated him on stage. Raj Bahadur [a fellow driver] told me you are fantastic, you are not fit to be here, go to the film institute in Chennai, one day you will become a big actor. He encouraged me, and my brother [Satyanarayana Rao] also supported me financially. I joined the film institute where I met [director] K. Balachander who chose me for a film of his. The rest, as they say, is history.
Q. Who was your role model in acting, especially the style you developed?
A. From the beginning, Sivaji Ganesan. I used to imitate Sivaji. Even in dialogue deliveries. But when I was working with Balachander, it changed. He told me why do you want to imitate Sivaji Ganesan when Sivaji Ganesan is already there? That completely changed me. He identified in me the speed, the fast way I did things or whatever it is I did while acting. He told me: Retain it, that is your originality, your style, this is your hallmark, your signature. And that is how my style came about.
Q. That famous cigarette flip, how did you pick that up?
A. Shatrughan Sinha first did it in a Hindi film. I took it from there and improvised on it. I had to practise it for over a thousand times to perfect it. It is a skill but, more than that, the timing is important. Just not throwing it up, but to deliver the dialogue, the kind of situation and then you flip it.
Q. Your swagger, did you pick that up too?
A. It is not style, it comes to me naturally. People say I am stylish, okay, right.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt after all these years in your long career?
A. Everything is drama (laughs out loud).
Q. How challenging was acting in 2.0 compared to your other films?
A. 2.0 is a technician’s movie. It is Shankar’s creation, it is completely his picture, he is all in one. Which means we don’t have to do any thinking, we just do what he says, that’s it. He takes full responsibility. In other films, I give my inputs, my thoughts, my imagination, I improvise. I also discuss things with Shankar. But it is 90 per cent his job and he does it well.
Q. 2.0 has climate change as its theme. Are you trying to convey a larger message?
A. It is science fiction. It is a thriller. It is a matter of pride for Indian cinema. It can easily be compared to any Hollywood movie, in its making, in its content and in everything else. It is really an excellent picture.
Q. How is it different from Enthiran?
A. 2.0 is an advanced Enthiran. It is on another level. Now we are dealing with universal issues, it has a larger message.
Q. Do you like to convey messages through your films?
A. Basically, I am an entertainer. A Rajinikanth film means that children, parents, the family come expecting some entertainment. So I have to cater to them. In that, if I get any space to convey a good message, I try to do it.
Q. The late MGR and Karunanidhi used their films to convey political messages. Have you tried to do that?
A. From the beginning, I decided not to mix the two. Entertainment is different and politics entirely different. We should not make use of the entertainment media for that. Of course, some dialogue here and there will happen. How people interpret it and how they take it, we cannot stop. But I won’t do that deliberately.
Q. If you were to assess MGR’s contribution in cinema as well as politics, what would it be?
A. One thing is enough. As a cinema hero-for the first time in the world-he proved that he was a good politician and ruled the state. He proved that an artist can rule a state. That in itself is a very big thing.
Q. Is he in some way a role model for you?
A. For anyone in cinema who wants to enter politics, he is a role model.
Q. What lessons did you learn from MGR?
A. Mainly, his giving, helping nature. He had empathy for the poor and weak…not only after becoming a politician, but even before when he was in the cinema industry. He was known for his humanity and that is what I liked the most about him.
Q. What are your views on Jayalalithaa; she too was in films and came into politics?
A. Whatever else you may say, she was a great lady. Her courage, her determination, I appreciated that.
Q. What about her governance?
A. Governance, I don’t want to talk about now. But her quality of how she ruled and lived, a single woman in a man’s world… that is historic.
Q. You had differences with her. In 1996, you made a statement against her that adversely affected her electoral fortunes. Did you make up with her after that?
A. Ya, ya. She attended my daughter’s marriage. We used to respect her a lot.
Q. Do you consider Kamal Haasan a rival now that both of you have decided to enter politics?
A. Rivals? Not at all. Says who? I won’t even say competitor. My god, he is such a good friend. He is a co-star, in fact, in a serial he would help me even with the dialogue delivery, adjust dates for my sake. He is still a close friend of mine.
Q. What is your impression of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
A. He seriously wants to do good for the nation, he is trying hard and he is trying his best. That’s all I want to say for now.
Q. MGR was a hero in most of his films and was careful about his screen image. But you have acted as a villain, even drinking and smoking in many of your movies. Will that have an impact on your image as a public persona now that you have announced joining politics?
A. My films are different and my life entirely different. Why should you merge the two? I am paid as an actor for films, whether I like the role or not. If I enter politics, I will be myself. I want to make a difference in politics. Otherwise, why should Rajinikanth join politics? I want to introduce a new and different type of politics. Otherwise, I am 67, my health too is in a check-up stage (chuckles). It is not easy to enter politics at this age, it is not a path of flowers. But still you have to change things, change that will make a difference in politics.
Q. Going by your experience, how is politics different from films?
A. I have not become a full politician as yet. With my little experience of it, I can say, my god, it is tough, really tough. I told you everything is a game, drama. In cinema, everybody is there, the producer, the director, the writer…someone else does the script. Whereas in politics, as a leader, I am the director, the writer, everything… It is very challenging.
Q. In films, your acting is all about being superfast. Yet in politics you are cautious and are not rushing things or speaking about your plans.
A. Politics is a very big game and very dangerous too. So I have to play it cautiously. And timing is very important.
Q. Why did you decide to join politics?
A. It is all god’s will. When I say god, it is an answer. Everything is in that.
Q. You talk a lot of about spiritualism, even when you said you were joining politics. What role does spiritualism play in your life?
A. My elder brother Satyanarayana is a very spiritual person. The Ramakrishna Mission ashram was near my house in Bangalore. When I was around 7 years old, he put me in the Ramakrishna ashram. So from childhood, I had the Vedas, the Upanishads, meditation with me. Later, there were many gurus and I made many trips to the Himalayas. It is a deep subject. Only someone who experiences it knows about it. It is difficult to convey in words. Mainly, you get peace. When your mind is peaceful, whatever you do, you do it well. That is most important.
Q. What do you think needs to be done for Tamil Nadu right now?
A. First, leadership. There is a leadership vacuum. Then, you have to educate the people. That is most important. More than getting their votes, we should tell people what they are. They have so much potential, they are good, hard-working, intelligent people. They have forgotten what they are, their capabilities, their strengths, their knowledge. Everything is there, but it is not channelised properly. We need to do that now.
Q. What new thought process or ideology do you intend to bring to inspire Tamil Nadu?
A. The first priority should be to eradicate poverty, create employment, take care of youth and economic growth for the upliftment of the state. Everyone is suffering… farmers, youngsters. We should resolve all these things.
Q. One thing that has hurt people is corruption in the state, you have spoken about it. How does one tackle that?
A. Very strong, strict laws should be implemented. Only that can stop corruption. Fear is the only weapon. Only with fear can we eradicate it, not by any other means.
Q. What is your view on holding simultaneous elections for the state assembly and the Lok Sabha?
A. Today, there is no chance of assembly and Lok Sabha elections being held together. But we can’t predict things. Earlier, politics used to change every day, every week. Nowadays, it changes every hour.
Q. Will your party participate in the panchayat elections in the state if these are held?
A. We will see.
Q. Recently, the film industry was hit by the #MeToo movement. What is your opinion on the subject?
A. It is definitely a very good movement for women. But they should not take advantage of it and misuse it.
Q. What do you think of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women into the Sabarimala shrine and the unrest that followed?
A. When it comes to temples and the traditions they follow, the courts should not interfere, because these are sensitive things. It is better if it [the tradition] is kept as it is. You should not hurt religious sentiments.
Q. What are your views on the Ayodhya movement?
A. I don’t want to comment on such issues.
Q. How important is secularism to you?
A. India is known for its secularism. That is the beauty of India. That should be retained. Any good citizen of this great nation is for secularism.
Q. How can the Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka be settled?
A. Inter-linking of rivers, that is the only solution. As far as I know, it is a big task. Lots of minds have to come together and get involved, give serious thought to the issue, work on it. Otherwise, there will be an unending conflict.
Q. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue has always been contentious for Tamil Nadu. What do you think India needs to do now?
A. First of all, we should immediately deal with the refugees in India-adopt them and give them citizenship.
Q. You think India should do this?
A. Yes, India should do this, and the Tamil Nadu government should take the initiative. They have been living like prisoners for decades, no one talks about it.
Q. What else should India do on this issue?
A. India should always keep an eye on the issue and take care of Tamilians who live there [in Sri Lanka]. They should not think it is just their problem.
Q. Coming to personal issues, you were seriously ill a few years ago and had to be rushed abroad for treatment. How did that impact your life?
A. That was one thing I had never experienced and god gave me that experience too. You realise how valuable health is. When you are healthy, you are not aware of it. The biggest wealth is health. God made me realise that.
Q. What role has your wife Latha played in your life?
A. As a housewife, she looks after our children, our house, everything… She helps me as a friend and sometimes as a philosopher too.
Q. Your daughters Soundarya and Aishwarya are also in films, one as a producer and the other as a director. How do you feel about their careers?
A. Good. They are happy, doing what they want to and enjoying it.
Q. You have acted in hundreds of films. Which are your personal favourites?
A. Baasha, Alex Pandian and Sree Raaghavendar. These three characters I can recollect and say, yes, I really did something as an actor.
Q. In terms of heroines, who have you enjoyed working with the most?
A. Fatafat Jayalakshmi was a very good actress. We acted in only two films, but she was very good.
Q. What about the late Sridevi?
A. She was an excellent person, good artist.
Q. What is the future of cinema given all the changes in technology and people shifting to smaller screens to watch movies?
A. Technological development, you can’t stop. We have to adapt ourselves. Whatever is original- the fun, the enjoyment, the thrill-you will still need that content.
Q. What do you think of the actors in cinema today?
A. We were more disciplined then, we use to respect our profession, respect elders. That was a different era. Value-based.
Q. You are also willing to work with the younger generation; your co-actors praise you for your humility.
A. When I go on the set, I involve myself one hundred per cent with the scene… the situation, the character, everything. Meanwhile, during gaps in the shooting, I joke, relax, make them comfortable. When juniors come, I like them to move freely, I have to break the ice. So, naturally, I have to talk to them on some other topics, mingle with them, put them at ease.
Q. Will you continue doing movies? Is that a parallel passion you will pursue along with politics?
A. For as long as people ask for, and want to see, Rajnikanth, I will do films. Till I have the energy, I will do films.