Rajinikanth, the wildly popular Indian cinema star who inspires almost godlike adulation in some parts of the country, announced his entry into politics on Sunday.
The 67-year-old actor’s announcement ended a wait of almost two decades for many of his fans, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where he is revered and referred to simply as “The Superstar.”
“I will form my own political party and contest from all 234 seats in the next [state] assembly election,” he told a hall packed with supporters in the state capital Chennai.
The state, home to 72 million people, has been hit by political instability since the death in December 2016 of its charismatic chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, also a former movie star.
Rajinikanth worked as a bus conductor in the southern city of Bangalore before heading to Chennai in 1973 to pursue his passion for acting. He rose to become the biggest star in the history of Tamil-language cinema.
Rajinikanth is widely credited for almost single-handedly defeating a state government in 1996 by asking his fans to vote it out days before the election. “I am not doing it for any post or money or fame as I have enough,” he said on Sunday of his political plans.
Many fans let off firecrackers, danced to drums and shouted slogans in support of Rajinikanth after the announcement.
India’s junior finance minister Pon Radhakrishnan, who is also a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu, congratulated Rajinikanth on Twitter. One of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Amitabh Bachchan also had warm words.
“My dear friend, my colleague and a humble considerate human, Rajinikanth, announces his decision to enter politics… my best wishes to him for his success,” Bachchan told more than 32 million Twitter followers. But most political parties—especially the two regional parties DMK and AIADMK, which have dominated Tamil politics and have the most to lose from Rajinikanth’s foray—were guarded in welcoming his announcement.
The BJP, despite its preeminent position across most of India, remains a fringe player in Tamil Nadu. Modi however has a good rapport with the Tamil star, who has often publicly praised the prime minister.
The entire state of Tamil Nadu goes into a frenzy every time a new Rajinikanth movie is released. Many companies give their employees a day off, expecting low attendance.
Fans cut their hair to resemble Rajinikanth’s characters, and some even get his face tattooed on their bodies to mark the release of a film.
In Chennai, many fans hand out sweets and even pour milk over giant posters advertising his movies—a tradition that derives from the ritual bathing of Hindu idols in milk. In his movies Rajinikanth specializes in playing ruffians with a golden heart. He also often portrays underdogs fighting for the good of society against corruption.