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The Many Messages of Sivaji

Sivaji The Boss may appear to be just an extravagant blockbuster, but this Tamil film with an entrepreneur-technocrat hero who takes on a corrupt bureaucrat-politician nexus reflects certain aspects of the changing Indian economy. With larger-than-life superstar Rajinikanth in the lead, it also "oozes southern confidence" in a scenario dominated by Hindi cinema and reaches out to a pan-Indian audience.


The Many Messages of Sivaji

M Vijayabaskar, Andrew Wyatt

warmed up audience among Tamil cinema goers globally.

The attempt to capture the attention of the whole country centred on the budget (said to be Rs 60 crore) and the fee that

Sivaji The Boss may appear to be just an extravagant blockbuster, but this Tamil film with an entrepreneur-technocrat hero who takes on a corrupt bureaucrat-politician nexus reflects certain aspects of the changing Indian economy. With larger-than-life superstar Rajinikanth in the lead, it also “oozes southern confidence” in a scenario dominated by Hindi cinema and reaches out to a pan-Indian audience.

he release of the major Tamil film Sivaji The Boss was an important cultural event in 2007. Rajan Krishnan (2007) deftly located the film in the history of modern Tamil Nadu. Here, we link the content of the film with some important trends in the contemporary political economy of Tamil Nadu and India. We argue that the film is of significant interest as a text offering, even in its more mundane elements, and insights into a range of issues of political and economic significance. There are important ideological inconsistencies in the messages carried by the film, but its richness as a text commands our attention. The circumstances under which the film was released also repay analysis and we begin with a review of the pre-release hype before offering a political reading of the film itself.

The origins of Sivaji suggested it would be a blockbuster. Rajinikanth’s appearance in his hundredth Tamil film was anxiously awaited by his fans.1 A key subtext of the film is that it confirms Rajinikanth’s leading status in the Tamil film industry; the film could not have been made without him. Rajinikanth plays the film’s eponymous hero, Sivaji. The title references Rajini’s original name (Shivaji Rao Gaekwad) and the star is ever present in the film. Sivaji comes from AVM Productions, which has been making films for 60 years and has acquired a reputation for movies made with lavish budgets.

The director of the film, Shankar, has a formidable reputation, having never lost money at the box office and A R Rahman’s music is an important selling point, especially when it is a big banner film. Expectations were also increased by the success of Rajini’s last film Chandramukhi, which broke all collection records in Tamil cinema. There was a big controversy about the unauthorised release of the music even if some felt it was an orchestrated move and a month-long media blitz preceded the release. The hype was carefully managed with bold strategy to tempt a non-Tamil audience and an already Rajinikanth charged for the film. Both were the highest ever in the country. These were important “facts” in a context where Hindi cinema is seen as synonymous with Indian cinema despite flourishing regional cinemas that include Tamil and Telugu cinema [Borpujari 2006]. The release of Sivaji sent several messages to the pan-Indian middle classes. It heralded the arrival of regional cinema on the pan-Indian stage. The next big public relations move, with which the broadcast media was complicit, was to pit Rajini against the Hindi film megastars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan.

The Biggest Star Numerous news channels posed the question, “who is the biggest star of all”? Rajinikanth seems to have won it hands down in most instances, especially among experts on Indian cinema. The blogs on Rajinikanth show his fans’ efforts to establish him as the leading star in India and also reflect his global fan following. He is known to have a fan following in Japan [Rajadhyaksha 2004: 118], and apparently there are moves to dub the film in Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.2 Such an ambitious projection of a regional filmstar would have been unthinkable a decade ago when regional cinema was never seen to, or even hoped to have a pan-Indian presence. The release of Sivaji simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu reminded industry watchers that regional cinema is doing well. At present, Tamil and Telegu cinema together account for a much larger number of releases than Hindi cinema [Thangadurai 2007: 36-38].

The Tamil audience was primarily tempted by the image makeover of the 57year old actor. Would he live up to his earlier screen presence? Those involved in the makeover said Sivaji looked like the Rajini of 15 years ago. However, the omens were not good. In an earlier film, Baba, that preceded Chandramukhi, Rajini looked rather jaded and old and when it bombed at the box office, many saw it as the end of his career as a larger-than-real

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hero. Even his comeback appearance in Chandramukhi was not as a larger-thanreal hero, but as a psychiatrist trying to solve a series of murder attempts on his close friend. Many viewers were disappointed that Rajini was frequently absent from the screen. The producers of Sivaji were in the enviable position of having a core audience desperate for a spectacle that would remind them of Rajini’s golden past. Rajinikanth has taken to producing scarcity-induced demand in the latter part of his career. Between his films, that are separated by over a year (two in this case), Rajinikanth abstains from appearing in the media be it by way of interviews or TV commercials, unlike most big actors. He also adds value to his image by attempting to copyright even a gesture he makes in an earlier film. As a prelude to the release, his rise to fame from humble beginnings as a bus conductor was repeatedly showcased on the media through interviews with his old time associates like a bus-driver friend to stress his association with the lives of ordinary people.

The Film The plot revolves around the efforts of Sivaji Arumugam, a super-rich philanthropist who has made his money as an IT professional in the US, and comes back to improve the life of the people of Tamil Nadu by building a new hospital and university that would offer free healthcare and education. At a point in the film, when the going gets really tough for him, his close friend and uncle, advises him to go back to the US. He poignantly replies, “This is my place, where else can I go”? He has to overcome the indifference of politicians and bureaucrats who are more interested in getting kickbacks than the projects themselves. He is also opposed by another businessman, Adiseshan (Suman) who will stop at nothing to thwart Sivaji’s plans. Sivaji and his rival attempt to outmanoeuvre each other with allegations of income-tax evasion and corruption.

There is a romantic subplot as Sivaji seeks to woo an attractive younger woman. As if to emphasise Sivaji’s longing for domestic rootedness in his home country the object of his affections is named Tamilselvi (daughter of Tamil). Tamilselvi (Shreya) and her family are straightforward honest people of modest means. In terms of aesthetic value those who are not diehard Rajini fans will probably feel that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. However, so much has been put into this film that it appeals to a range of different tastes. The camera work is clever with good use made of varied locations, jump cuts, fast and slow motion. In the outdoor scenes the camera captures lush colours though some of the indoor scenes and close-ups are harshly lit and the colour contrast is less satisfying. Several of the dance scenes are set in exotic locations or on even more exotic sets with large numbers of carefully choreographed scenes.

The action scenes pay homage to those from The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and are spectacularly choreographed and lovingly filmed. Ambitious use is made of special effects, make-up and computer generated images. Rajinikanth plays the lead role with tongue firmly in cheek and it is hard to avoid warming to his puckish charm. The film has a liberal dose of his stylish mannerisms3 that are especially cherished by fans and encourage them to return for repeat viewings. There are elements of violence in Sivaji but the film, in pursuit of a broad audience, does not dwell on this aspect. The early fight scenes have a comic element that is typically associated with Rajinikanth and it is only in later scenes that the violence is shown to have fatal consequences. Overall the visual package shows that south Indian talent more than competes with that available to film-makers in Mumbai and Hollywood. The combination of romance, action, humour, music, dance and special effects are not so much a masala-mix as an outsized thali groaning under the weight of a rich feast.

Reading Sivaji, Rajinikanth It is easy to dismiss Sivaji as an over-sugared cinematic confectionary. Rajinikanth is a highly-skilled popular entertainer, a fact, as Pandian (2007) argues, that is ignored when critics infantilise his audiences. Most of those who value Sivaji will do so because it is an entertaining film. However it would be a mistake to overlook the various political themes that the film brings to our attention. Firstly, it serves as an important footnote to Rajinikanth’s extremely uneven political career. Though earlier political stumbles seem to have blighted his chances of becoming a political leader the release of Sivaji raises interesting questions about his future in politics. The film could be seen as a statement of Rajinikanth’s disillusionment with the current political dispensation in Tamil Nadu. Sivaji is a film about politics and it is a film that confirms Rajinikanth’s immense popularity. His superstar status was acknowledged in the separate prerelease screenings in Chennai arranged for chief minister Karunanidhi and the leader of the opposition, J Jayalalithaa. Screenings were also organised for exchief minister Chandrababu Naidu and chief minister Rajasekhara Reddy of Andhra Pradesh in Hyderabad and Amitabh Bachchan in Mumbai [Thangadurai 2007: 38]. Naidu’s invitation to Rajinikanth to join the third front soon after viewing the film and the latter’s silence indicates this latent possibility.4

Mix of Comic and Serious Rajinikanth’s unique selling point in the last few years has been an adroit mix of the comic and the serious, with adequate allusions to his possible entry into politics. In films like Baasha, Padayappa and Muthu, his utterances about those in power and his warnings to them about what his entry can do were received with great enthusiasm. In fact, until very recently, many were hopeful of him launching a party on his own. But since Baba, these rumours have vanished though apparently with this success, hopes may be revived. In the last elections, he supported the BJP-All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK) alliance, but managed to keep other parties in good humour.

People expected Rajinikanth to take a more active role in resolving the Kaveri water issue, given his Kannada origins and the goodwill he enjoys there, but he remained non-committal. In Sivaji, though there are no such grand statements, his actions and the storyline do convey a strong criticism of the current political class in Tamil Nadu and suggest Rajinikanth’s ability to deliver development. Also of possible political significance, if Rajinikanth is contemplating a political


comeback, is the strong and unprecedented screen presence of Vivek who plays his uncle Arivu and close associate. Vivek hails from the numerically strong Thevar community and closely identifies with them.

The plot of Sivaji reminds viewers of the upward political trajectory of the other superstar of Tamil cinema: Vijayakanth. Vijayakanth made an impressive entry into Tamil politics in 2005 and captured a notable 8.3 per cent of the votes in the May 2006 assembly elections. The actor-politician Vijayakanth, like the fictional Sivaji, is also a businessman and benefactor regarded as a hero by his fans. His non-cinematic businesses include an engineering college, and a marriage hall, and he is known for his public acts of philanthropy. Memorably, Vijayakanth disassociated him self from “suitcase politics” in campaign speeches during the 2006 election campaign (The Hindu 2006).

Populism Sivaji valorises a populist approach to politics. Populism is a word with strong pejorative connotations so we need to clarify what we mean by the term. Popu lism is over-used, especially in the press, as a term to describe a crowd-pleasing style of politics based on the profligate spending of public money. Freed from its negative overtones “populism” has been used more helpfully to describe a form of politics that revolves around the idea of the common people or as P Wiles argues, it is a creed or a movement in which “virtue resides in the simple people” (italics in the original, 1970: 166). An anti-elitist attitude is often a feature of populist rhetoric that depicts the common people as oppressed and cheated of their natural dues by powerful interests [Canovan 1981: 294].

There is no denying that politics that revolves around the common people is a challenging analytical category to work with. The seemingly primal urge to locate movements in established ideological categories on a left-right spectrum is frustrated by populist leaders who can appear both reactionary and radical. While populism may be an ambiguous pheno menon there is no denying that focusing attention on the needs of the people can become a powerful political style. This has certainly been the case in Tamil politics. The political styles of both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) and the AIADMK have had strong populist features [Subramanian 1999; Swamy 1998]. This “protection” or “paternalist” populism is expressed in terms of a general appeal to the people but the substantive policies associated with it are aimed at the poor (these two terms were coined respectively by Swamy (1998: 109) and Subramanian (1999: 74-75) ).

The terminology of protection/paternalist populism very suggestively captures the political style of MGR, later emulated by Vijayakanth and acknowledged by the fictional Sivaji. Sivaji is so pained by the sight of poverty and suffering that he is moved to act. He may live in a sumptuous mansion but he has a direct link to ordinary people. When he is forced to surrender all his property, including his car, the lawyer asks him if he needs to be dropped off at home. Sivaji says that he has walked without footwear as a child and poverty is not alien to him. In contrast elected politicians sit in air-conditioned offices and enrich themselves. The formal political system is deeply compromised and in this fictional account only direct interventions by exceptional and wealthy individuals will address the needs of the poor. While Vijayakanth and other Tamil film stars with political ambitions like Sarath Kumar have acted as protagonists in such anticorruption films, this is a first of sorts for Rajinikanth.

However, wealth and capitalist accumulation are not treated as problems. Sivaji shows that vast wealth, if possessed by a good man, is a legitimate outcome.5 In the persona of Sivaji, as with MGR and Vijayakanth, the paradoxical possession of wealth, and solidarity with the poor are resolved [Pandian 1992]. In fact, toward the end of the film, Sivaji is killed by his rival but he is revived by a doctor. While he is legally declared dead, he resurfaces as another NRI Tamil and a close friend of Sivaji, M G R (M G Ravichandran, he hastens to clarify).

Neoliberalism and Governance Sivaji gives eloquent voice to popular concerns about high-level corruption. Officials are literally shown collecting suitcases of cash in order that Sivaji can build his hospital. Politicians are wily and predatory creatures that obstruct progress. The harassment that Sivaji faces resembles the pressure exerted on Vijayakanth as he opened his political career. Vijayakanth became embroiled in income-tax investigations and the marriage hall that he owned was demolished as part of the expansion of a major road in Chennai. Vijayakanth claimed that this act was a politically motivated vendetta.

The treatment of corruption in Sivaji underlines our argument that populism facilitates the extension of a mixed ideological project. Sivaji depicts a bloated state bureaucracy completely sold out to corrupt politicians. The state is shown to be a big stumbling block to development. This theme has been always a major ingredient in Shankar’s attempt to sell films with a message, but here it acquires a more Kafkaesque tone. A middle-level bureaucrat who promises to get government approval for Sivaji’s charity hospital and university (for a fee of course) says that he needs 560 signatures to get the approval. And when finally he does get the approval from concerned departments after several rounds of bribing, the minister orders the building to be demolished as the project does not have his approval.

Rules are cited and used to stall Sivaji’s charity work at all levels. In a curious aside a connection is made between educational status and virtue when Sivaji says to his uncle Arivu, “I am educated, I will follow the rules”. The film has a vision not only for Tamil Nadu but for the whole of India. As the credits roll at the end of the film, hopes of India becoming an economic superpower in the near future are suggested. There is mention of a series of steps that the Indian government initiates to eliminate black money like enforcing payment with a credit card for any purchase worth over Rs 100. Steadily, the lines on the screen say, black money is completely flushed out and India becomes part of G-10.

The overlap between the theme of corruption and the contemporary neoliberal governance agenda is too large to go unnoticed. As mentioned earlier, there is complete disdain for the state bureaucracy. The political class is portrayed as illiterate and hence, unfit to govern, and

Economic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007


corrupt. Redemption comes through the activism of an educated and wealthy businessman who wants to “do good”. Some of the scenes depicting the transformation of backward rural areas into modern hubs seem to come straight out of a technocrat-planner’s road map for development. A technocrat sorts out issues of governance, accountability and development more efficiently than the state. The problem of poverty and lack of development is explained in terms of corruption and non-compliance with the tax regime, without reference to structures of inequality. What the bureaucracy and the political class cannot do, the technocrat and benefactor Sivaji/ Rajinikanth can.

The entrepreneur-technocrat’s interests and the people’s interests overlap, but their interests do not coincide with the selfish pursuits of the politician and the bureaucrat. Also interestingly, the film completely overlooks the relatively strong history of public intervention in healthcare provision in Tamil Nadu that has included the training of healthcare professionals. The hero’s building of a “free” hospital and a university is merely juxtaposed against another ruthless businessman’s college that charges a huge capitation fee for admissions.

On one level the film can be seen as an orgy of commodity fetishism with expensive food, gadgets, clothes, watches, and cars as ubiquitous props. There is a good deal of product placement as global brand names are less-than-discretely displayed. The film speaks to a new Indian economy based on connectedness, technology and conspicuous consumption [Wyatt 2005]. Even the music shop where the heroine is employed could easily be located in central London or downtown New York. Cell phones are routinely in use as the lifeline of the ambitious wheelers and dealers that people this film. The hero’s laptop computer acquires a near human role in the film. Interestingly, it also highlights the underbelly of such global connectedness with vast illegal money laundering cross-border networks and the routing of foreign funds through networks of charity. The film also hints at the inability of the nation-state to regulate such flows as the protagonist Sivaji uses these global networks to outwit the state and its corrupt representatives.

Relocating Tamil Nadu and

‘Tamilness’ Sivaji as a film oozes southern confidence. As noted, Rajinikanth was reported to have extracted a fee well in excess of those given to the megastars of north Indian cinema and this too for a dark skinned 57year-old actor, whose looks are very much unlike those of the Hindi filmstars. We are presented with an image of Tamil Nadu that is enthusiastically joining global networks of finance, production and consumption. The Tamil elite are shown consuming as excessively as elite groups elsewhere, including the corrupt bureaucrat who keeps asking for “foreign liquor”. Information technology is an important aid to the efforts of our hero and draws attention to the strengths and technological prowess of south Indian enterprises. However this cosmopolitan “Tamilness” is counterposed with a preference for “Tamilness” in marriage.

In one sequence, Sivaji’s confidant Arivu takes him to see Tamil girls in a temple, so that he can find a suitable match. When Sivaji observes that there are not too many women in the temple, Arivu tells him that it is because most “family” women have started working in call centres and only the few really “genuine Tamil” girls go to temples these days. It is at that point that Sivaji sees Tamilselvi and is later completely taken in by her Tamilness. She is a graduate in Tamil and hence as Arivu jokes, unemployable. That Shreya and most other heroines who have made it big in recent Tamil cinema are all fair, non-Tamils tells another story of gendered Tamilness. Going by the hero’s name, his rural origins and preference for meat, Sivaji is a non-Brahmin and so is Tamilselvi. In one passage of the film Sivaji transforms himself into a white man to woo his Tamilselvi only to realise that she prefers his usual darker body.

Sivaji reflects important political developments and structural changes in the Indian economy, in particular the trend towards a more federalised economy in which individual Indian states seek their fortune in a more global economy. The film expresses some pointed judgments about the political establishment at a time when Tamil political parties and businesses are making an impression well beyond their south Indian heartland. Sivaji is a notable film for a variety of reasons. Above all it locates Tamilness in a new geographic, political and economic space.



1 Rajinikanth has appeared in 50-odd films made in other languages. 2 ( accessed on August 13, 2007). 3 He is often referred to as the ‘style king’.

4 stories/2007061510810100.htm, accessed on August 10, 2007.

5 Similarly Price argues that the acquisition of wealth and status has largely been normalised in the political life of Tamil Nadu (1996: 378).


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– (2007): ‘Why Rajni Rules’, Times of India, June 23, 2007, Editorial/LEADER _ARTICLE _Why_Rajni _Rules/

articleshow/2142400.cms Price, P (1996): ‘Revolution and Rank in Tamil Nationalism’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 55, No 2. Rajadhyaksha, A (2004): ‘The Bollywoodisation of the Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena’ in P Kaarsholm (ed), City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience, Seagull Books, Calcutta. Subramanian, N (1999): Ethnicity and Populist Mobilisation: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Swamy, A R (1998): ‘Parties, Political Identities and the Absence of Mass Political Violence in South India’ in A Kohli and A Basu (eds), Community Conflicts and

the State in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi. Thangadurai, S (2007) ‘The Rock’, Filmfare, August, pp 36-38. Wiles, P (1970): ‘A Syndrome Not a Doctrine: Some El

ementary Theses on Populism’ in G Ionescu and E Gellner (eds), Populism: Its Meanings and National Characteristics, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.

Wyatt, A (2005): ‘Building the Temples of Postmodern India: Economic Constructions of National Identity’, Contemporary South Asia, Vol 14, No 4.

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