IN the streets of Madras, popularity cults are measured by the height of the giant cutouts that dominate the skyline of this fast-growing South Indian city.
The soaring hand-painted plywood posters are synonymous with the cinema and politics of India's Tamil Nadu state, where making it in the movies has become a prerequisite to making it to the top political post of chief minister.
The image of a sari-clad Jayaraman Jayalalitha once dominated the posters. But now Mrs. Jayalalitha, the chief minister, is finding herself outsized and outmaneuvered by a new kid on the block. In a battle for power that will have far-reaching consequences for the ruling Congress Party in India's next general elections, a bus conductor-turned-movie-superstar has threatened to take his campaign to unseat Jayalalitha from the movie set to the political arena.
Rajnikanth, the undisputed king of the South Indian cinema, has accused Jayalalitha, herself a former movie star, of corruption and promoting violence.
If Rajnikanth, who commands a 7 million-strong fan club, were to throw his weight behind the Congress Party in his anti-Jayalalitha campaign, it could reverse the Congress's sagging prospects before elections, which are expected in April.
Movie stars command immense respect in India, and political parties have long tried to exploit their vote-winning potential. The tradition is strongest in Tamil Nadu and neighboring Andhra Pradesh, where an actor has been chief minister twice.
FACED with widespread voter disenchantment over its handling of political, economic, and religious issues, Congress needs a star like Rajnikanth (who only uses one name) to retain its traditional stronghold in the south. But Rajnikanth is keeping the script of his forthcoming political blockbuster closely guarded. Appearing on television recently, Rajnikanth said that if he entered politics he would launch his own party rather than join the Congress Party, disappointing many members of the ruling party. ''My path is always unique,'' he said cryptically.
But the star's praise for Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his pledge to support any group that was opposed to Jayalalitha were interpreted as signs that Rajnikanth was leaving his options open and encouraging supporters to vote for Congress.
Historically the Congress Party and Jayalalitha's party, known here as the AIADMK, have been allies in Parliament. But recently the ruling party has tried to distance itself from Jayalalitha's excesses.
Rajnikanth launched his anti-Jayalalitha campaign after supporters belonging to her AIADMK party allegedly firebombed the house of his favorite film director, Mani Ratnam, earlier this year. Rajnikanth lashed out against the chief minister for allowing a ''bomb culture'' to flourish in the state and criticized her ostentatious style and her corrupt coterie of advisers.
Jayalalitha was charged last April with two cases of criminal misconduct and corruption relating to an alleged publishing scam and kickbacks in coal-import licenses. Last September she attracted the attention of income tax officials after staging a lavish wedding for her stepson that cost an estimated $30 million.
Despite her own impressive celluloid credentials, Jayalalitha may have met her match in Rajnikanth, who has worked as a coolie, carpenter, office boy, and finally as bus conductor before being recognized for his on-screen talents.
Today he is the highest-paid actor in South India, commanding a minimum fee of $10 million. His network of 15,000 fan clubs is reputedly the largest in the world.
In the drama that is Tamil Nadu politics, most political observers believe the top political job is his for the asking. As long as he remains a box-office success, his prospects for victory at the ballot box appear to be bright.