Will Indian superstar Rajinikanth go into politics?

Rajinikanth in Kabali
Image caption The Tamil actor is one of Asia's best-paid stars

Last week, India's Tamil cinema superstar, Rajinikanth, again made noises about joining politics.

Speaking to his fans, the 66-year-old actor told them to be "ready for war" at the right time to take on the "corrupt" political system and a "rotten" democracy.

"If God wills, I will enter politics tomorrow. If I do, I will be truthful and will not entertain the corrupt people," he said.

"I'd like to tell those who want me to enter politics for their personal benefit, don't be disappointed if I don't enter politics. At the same time, just in case if it happens, I will not even let such people near me."

The political uncertainty in the southern state of Tamil Nadu has given new meaning to Rajinikanth's remarks and has led to heated televised debates.

The state plunged into crisis after the death of chief minister J Jayalalitha in December. It eventually led to a split in her ruling AIADMK party. The opposition party DMK is now led by an ageing leader who is enfeebled.

Political watchers say the Hindu nationalist BJP - which rules at the centre - is biding time to enter Tamil Nadu, a state that has so far resisted it. And many believe the party has been wooing the superstar to make political inroads into a state, which sends 39 MPs to the parliament.

"There is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu that can be filled by the BJP. Rajinikanth is the right person for the right party," Narayan Thirupathy, BJP spokesperson in the state, told reporters.

In the past, the star has dropped hints about joining politics, but eventually stayed away.

Image copyright Getty Images

Many say Rajinikanth's rhetoric sounds similar to the growling threats the star routinely delivers to the villains in his hit movies.

They believe he has not done anything concrete in the past two decades apart from making "vague" statements about his political ambition.

Critics say his statements on important matters for the Tamil people - like the Cauvery river water dispute or the more recent support to a controversial bull-taming festival - have never gone deep into the issues beyond platitudes.

Rajinikanth was born into a Marathi family in the southern state of Karnataka and worked as a bus conductor before the movie bug bit him and led him to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

Uncertain moves

Married into an upper-caste Tamil family, he says he's a "pure Tamil" whose heart beats for the Tamils who have welcomed him and given him "fame, fortune and love".

Rajinikanth has made regular statements about participating in politics since his famous public appeal during the 1996 elections.

In a televised appeal then, he had urged the people not to vote for the AIADMK party since Ms Jayalalitha was facing criminal charges for economic offences, and urged people to support the DMK.

Political watchers said his appeal swung the elections, leading to the AIADMK's defeat in the polls.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are more than 50,000 fan clubs devoted to the star

During the 2004 elections, he supported an alliance of the AIADMK and BJP. And, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi met Rajinikanth at his Chennai residence. Mr Modi later said the two did not discuss politics.

Tamil Nadu has had a unique relationship between its movie industry and the politics of the state for over 70 years.

Fan clubs

There have been three movie stars who have been chief ministers - the late matinee idol MG Ramachandran (MGR), later his actress wife Janaki Ramachandran and more recently, Ms Jayalalitha.

The opposition party leader M Karunanidhi was a script writer and there have been many Tamil movie stars - Sivaji Ganesan, Karthik, Napolean, Sarath Kumar, Vijayakanth, Khushboo - who joined political parties.

Rajinikanth's extraordinary popularity and brand value, especially with his mammoth fan base, makes him a potential vote magnet for political parties.

"Fans have a big part in his stardom," says Rinku Kalsy, who worked on For the love of a Man, a documentary on the actor's all-male fan clubs. At last count, there were 55,000 such clubs in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.

Image caption Rajinikanth played an ageing don in the film Kabali last year

To keep alive his larger-than-life image among his fans, Rajinikanth's script writers add to the speculative frenzy by adding dialogue loaded with political meanings in his movies.

His portrayal as a righteous spokesperson for the underdog in all his movies, who takes on social injustices, powerful and greedy villains, has been successful in sending subtle messages to his fans who often request him to join politics.

Will the star, whom even Mr Modi wished on his birthday, retire from the movies and join politics this time around?

Rajinikanth, for his part, keeps the fans and politicians guessing in movie-style suspense.

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