HE IS AN actor par excellence. Acting comes naturally to him. After all, he has been acting almost all his life, from the age of six to 62 now. He can get under the skin of any role—be it that of a serial killer in the Tamil thriller Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) during his early years, or a don like the fine-crafted Velu Nayakkar played brilliantly by him in Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987), or an utterly charming distressed divorcee and loving father in Avvai Shanmugi (1996), or the quadruplets he played in the pure comedy Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), or even the ten different roles he had in Dasavatharam—and dazzle the audience. He has earned a Padma Shri as well as a Padma Bhushan for his contribution to Indian cinema, apart from countless other awards for his performances. Hollywood filmmaker Barrie M Osborne—of The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix fame— called his knowledge of literature, history and films ‘encyclopaedic’ and Ang Lee said he was stunned by his brilliance and understanding of films. His fans call him Ulaga Nayakan, a ‘universal hero’. Others may be amused by this hyperbole, but not intrigued; Tamils are used to such monikers not only for their actors but also politicians. And now their Ulaga Nayakan is transforming himself from one to the other, saying he will stop acting if need be.
“Politics is a crown of thorns,” Kamal Haasan has said, “I am willing to wear it.” Is it for real? Or just a scripted reel?
For once, the people of Tamil Nadu are intrigued. He was never known to be interested in politics and had never ventured forth to mouth ideologies or offer opinions on political issues. Not on the Cauvery river dispute, nor on regional rights. Not on corruption either, even when a chief minister was sentenced to jail twice for it. No sir, he would remain an artist and nothing more. In interviews, he had said politics was not his forte. It was the other Tamil superstar, Rajinikanth, who was always veering in and out of it, and this was largely why that the question ‘Will he or won’t he?’ assumed importance among Haasan’s fans.
However, after the passing away of Jayalalithaa, the state’s former chief minister and leader of the AIADMK, which had a vote bank of about 45 per cent under her leadership, there is a buzz all over about how that vacuum may be filled, resulting in renewed aspirations among many, especially celebrities who see a far clearer chance of achieving power than lesser mortals. With Tamil politics in flux, even national parties have rushed in, albeit through the back door. Shedding his earlier inhibitions, Rajinikanth has started indicating that he may finally start a political party. And now, out of the blue, comes Haasan stating that he is not averse to playing a lead role in politics. He may soon announce details of a party he is about to form. That is, within the next ‘hundred days’. His fan clubs, the Makkal Narpani Manram/ Iyakkam (People’s Welfare Associations/ Movement), have urged him to aim high—for the Chief Minister’s position.
Why indeed shouldn’t he? There exists a symbiotic relationship between politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu. He was never apolitical, Kamal now clarifies. Yes, he had been a mere observer all these years. He has been witnessing the sham in the name of democracy over the past several months and cannot stay mum any longer. He rolls out tweets everyday attacking the present government. The root cause of all evil, he concludes, is corruption. No ‘isms’, please. They are passé at this juncture. And redundant. His only goal is to fight corruption and eradicate it. It is this thought that motivates him to join politics, though he is aware of the thorny aspects of such a crown.
For once, the people of Tamil Nadu are intrigued. Kamal Haasan was never known to be interested in politics and had never ventured forth to mouth ideologies or offer opinions on political issues. He would remain an artist and nothing more
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It is the righteous indignation of an honest citizen who pays his taxes, a smouldering anger that has been within him all along. This has found expression in many of his films, he says. Like Moliere’s hero, who is surprised that he was speaking prose all his life without knowing it, he too has had a recent realisation: ‘I have been speaking politics all my life without knowing it’.
Either corruption should go, he says, or he should. What does this mean? Well, that’s Kamal Haasan. When he speaks Tamil, it is in quaint expressions. Asked where this anger was before, he answers in words that too vague to understand. When he speaks English, it is no better. He portrays himself as a liberal non-conformist— Tamils are sentimental about family ties but he has defiantly had live-in relationships—and an atheist. Till recently, he was a beef-eater. He is a Marxist and a pacifist, a follower of Gandhi and his idea of ahimsa. In the same breath, he also says he does not rule out the possibility of aligning with the BJP if it is for the good of the people and his own ideologies are not ‘hindered’. Remember, he is a brand ambassador of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This, even as Modi’s opponent Arvind Kejriwal knocks on his door to discuss a strategy to wipe out corruption. They hug and dine and talk, and Kejriwal departs, perhaps impressed by the actor’s passion as a do-gooder of the people.
“The reason why we got together is the purpose—it is singular,” in Kamal Haasan’s words on the Delhi Chief Minister’s visit, “Kejriwal has a great national reputation of fighting against corruption and communalism. I too have a similar view and it is no wonder that we decided to have a dialogue on the existing situation.” Later in the day, the actor spoke at length on a TV channel saying he would launch his own party with the aim of leading the state.
Earlier, Kamal Haasan had gone to meet Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPM to get insights on secular-communist governance, marvelling at the clean roads and simple living on display in the neighbouring state. He called it ‘a learning curve’. More than a month ago, speaking on the celebratory occasion of the DMK’s official organ Murasoli, he looked like a supporter of M Karunanidhi’s party, the AIADMK’s archrival.
What is Haasan’s ideology? ‘There is a buffet of ideologies to choose from.’ A hotchpotch, that is. Journalists who interview him return utterly confused. When someone reminds him that actors like Shivaji Ganesan and Vijayakanth failed as politicians, he dismisses the unfortunate references. He never looks at failure. He follows success, of which there have been several examples.
THE SUCCESSES FROM tinseltown in Tamil politics were products of their times. In the period around Independence, the air was charged by the Dravidian ideology of Thamizh Desiyam or Tamil nationalism, which nurtured the careers of CN Annadurai, the playwright, and Karunanidhi, the script writer, both of whom were great orators who could mesmerise audiences with their theatrical flourish, sharp rhetoric and rhythmic lines. There was MG Ramachandran, the matinee idol, darling of the masses, dream lover of Tamil women, young and old, who reached the status of a living god; his very presence was enough to have crowds swoon. Then came Jayalalithaa ,the glamour queen who had the charisma to hold millions in her thrall with her down-to-earth words, playing the wronged woman to symbolic heights: “I stand before you having come this far, wading through a river of fire…’ She was everyone’s sister, and then Amma, the mother ever ready to bestow love and largesse.
How far can he go? Wearing a black shirt or speaking the language of Periyar may be taken as verbal stunts under the current circumstances. The atheist badge on his sleeve is unlikely to move Tamils, most of whom are unabashedly God-fearing
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The age of rhetoric is now gone and appeals of motherhood have turned obsolete. Increasingly, people have little patience for words they cannot grasp. They need to feel a new kind of connect with the person standing before them for their votes. Will Haasan be able to create it? Some say that in a state like Tamil Nadu where politicians identify with Tamil pride and rationalism, he seems to be on the right path. He wears black, favoured by the DMK. Why does he wear it? ‘Black has all colours in it’, meaning that his politics is ‘inclusive’. He insists he is anti-saffron, and this has impressed many. Twitterdom has sat up and taken notice of his series of barbs against a non-performing Tamil Nadu government, with leaders of the ruling party decried as running about like headless chicken, and his protests against the growing Hindu activism in the country. His comments have been enough for his fans to egg him.
Statements in Tamil and English on TV have set the stage for his political entry. When he says people at large are participants in the corruption all round for having elected corrupt people to rule, he sounds earnest. Unlike Rajinikanth, he has turned very vocal and this has given him a scoring point over the superstar with the larger fan base.
On whether he will be able to shed his image as a film star for one as a state’s saviour, Haasan responds with a word of caution for those who underestimate his popularity. “Beware,” he says confidently, “I am not just a man, I am the people.”
Even so, there are questions of arithmetic. What if the alliance he is in wins, but he does not get the numbers needed? Will he play a secondary role under another leader? This scenario is neither conceivable nor worth the trouble. He may quit politics altogether. People have not forgotten his emotional outburst, saying he would leave the country, when the release of his Vishwaroopam ran into trouble.
How far can he go? Wearing a black shirt or speaking the language of Periyar—the rationalist who inspired the Dravidian movement—may be taken as verbal stunts under the current circumstances. The atheist badge on his sleeve is unlikely to move Tamils, most of whom are unabashedly God-fearing. Even during the heyday of the Dravidian movement, people who held Periyar in high regard did not take his atheism seriously. They took what they wanted, realising that atheism was not central to the discourse. It is not central to Kamal Haasan’s mission either. But the relevant political reality is that the DMK and the AIADMK still have electoral support bases to reckon with. In the last Assembly polls, speeches against corruption and communalism did not help forces eager to unseat Jayalalithaa. Such talk had once helped MGR in his battle against the DMK, which he attacked on the issue of corruption in his day. But Haasan is no MGR. The latter had the cadres of a well-established political organisation to back him, even as his fan clubs joined his party. It was not difficult for Jayalalithaa to take them into her fold as she kept up MGR’s anti-DMK focus.
The fight between the DMK and AIADMK was one of epic proportions. It is still etched in mass memory. The leader of each was exalted to a superhuman status to sustain cadre motivation. The Dravidian duo had mastered the art of combining strategy with publicity stunts to attract votes. Even as an actor, MGR was groomed to take on roles that gave him the image of a Good Samaritan. Jayalalithaa, in her time, lost no time in creating an emotional bond with her supporters. On the other side of the political fence, when Karunanidhi would address crowds as ‘my darling siblings, dearer than my life’, the effect was electrifying.
Times have changed, but not the chemistry required. Election victory still demands a rare intimacy with voters that few are capable of. Haasan has involved himself with social welfare activities, raising funds for an orphanage for HIV-infected children; he has received the Abraham Kovoor Award for his humanitarian activities and secular life. The actor’s fan clubs have been reportedly doing good social work, holding blood donation camps on his birthday, among other deeds. The actor has forbidden them to indulge in meaningless extravaganza. Now it’s difficult to assess the extent to which they will be able to mobilise public support for their Ulaga Nayakan.
‘Universal’ or not, their hero has to evolve into a ‘makkal’ (people’s) nayakan. Politics requires more than social activism and celebrity status. Perhaps he thinks that with Jayalalithaa dead and Karunanidhi ailing, he will have no strong contender, forgetting that this is democracy and not a cinematic fight of stunts to be performed for the camera. For this, he has to meet people in flesh and blood. When Mani Ratnam said, “Kamal can do many things that no other actor can”, it’s safe to assume he wasn’t referring to politics.
In Nayakan, there is a scene in which Velu Nayakar’s young grandson asks him, “Are you a good man or a bad man?” Haasan, the lead character, pauses for a while. “I don’t know,” he replies.
Haasan still seems not to know the answer. He appears desperate to seize the moment, but is still not clear what position he must take. In other words, he is in need of a good director and an able scriptwriter.