He has played no less than ten characters in a movie. In fact, Kamalahaasan has donned multiple roles in quite a few others. Lately, the 62-year-old actor has openly informed the world and his fans that he is donning a real-life character—of a political leader.
That came with an August 15 tweet: “My aim is a better Tamilnadu. Who dares to strengthen my voice? DMK, AIADMK & parties R tools to help. If those tools R blunt find others.” It was the first loud indication at Kamal sharpening his tool as a neta. Soon, in a television interview, he announced readiness to jump into politics and be the “chief minister if required”. He went on to elaborate thus: “It will be a crown of thorns. Someone has to clean the quagmire and make this place habitable for people. I’m not hungry for power, but we will seize the opportunity if that’s the only way to deliver for the people.”
For now, Kamal looks calibrated in his political potshots at Tamil Nadu’s ruling dispensation. His multiple tweets on corruption aim solely at the Edappadi Palanisami government, with the actor targeting its ministers, its failure in controlling dengue and the death of a studious medical aspirant who failed to clear NEET.
Lately, Kamal met two chief ministers—Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal—in what were again well-orchestrated moves to grab attention. The Vijayan meet was supposed to exhibit his Left leaning. And “anti-communal” tones too: that’s why Kamal said he had worn different colours but saffron in his movies, indicating he was against the BJP. Playing host to Kejriwal at Chennai, Kamal sought to further reiterate his anti-corruption credentials.
Upping his act from mere posturing to actual politics would be the real test. “It is one thing playing to the cameras (movies or TV). It’s another to take the political plunge,” says actor Kavithalaya Krishnan. “As a leader, you have to sweat it out at public meetings and rub shoulders with the hoi polloi.” Even late Sivaji Ganesan was a “disaster” in politics, he recalls, having failed to retain his deposit in an election the thespian fought in 1989. “Kamal’s fans are not as devoted and diehard as that of Rajinikanth or present-day stars Vijay and Ajith,” adds Krishnan. “So I really doubt if he can make a difference to Tamil Nadu’s electoral politics.”
AIADMK spokesperson Avadi Kumar challenges Kamal to first win an election to a corporation council. “He wants to enter politics only because four of his last films have flopped and future movie assignments have dried up. Kamal talks about corruption under the AIADMK. Did he ever open his mouth against corruption when the DMK was in power? He is being heard loud only because he is talking politics for the first time.”
Earlier this summer, another Tamil film star gave people a hint at his possible political role. Rajinikanth, in May, told fans that if God wills it, he would enter politics—but then pushed off to shoot his next film. Kamal used the interest generated by his friend, and began testing the political waters with tweets on a government paralysed by infighting within the ruling AIADMK. He also began making politically loaded statements on the TV reality show Bigg Boss: “Anger is good if it is against injustice. Store it up, we may need to use it soon,” he told the audience.
Recently when the state said it would cut pay for striking government employees against whom the Madras High Court also had come down heavily, Kamal asked: What about the state’s MLAs whiling time in a hill resort without working for their constituency? When there was a hue and cry against the Uttar Pradesh chief minister following deaths of infants in a Gorakhpur hospital this monsoon, Kamal wanted to know why a similar demand was not made in the case of Yogi Adityanath’s Tamil Nadu counterpart facing multiple charges of corruption and ineptitude. On September 24, Kamal told the people that they have to defend themselves against dengue, as the government agencies have failed.
But many believe that the actor is being critical of only the state government, reserving his comments about the Centre. “For someone who is so vocal about his criticism of the state government, Kamal has maintained an inexplicable silence about his views on the Narendra Modi government,” observes Tamil writer Charu Niveditha. “He has nothing to say on the negative impact of demonetisation or cow vigilantism, but talks about mosquito menace in Chennai. I am sure he has been floated by the BJP to undercut the DMK votes.”
As Charu says, Kamal, during a TV interview, defended Modi, saying at least he was doing something rather than getting stuck in inertia. He praised the Swachh Bharat initiative and supported demonetisation since it was a crackdown on black money. Kamal also explained the black colour he was sporting now had absorbed all colours including saffron. Quoting iconic rationalist E.V. Ramasamy Periyar (1879-1973) and wearing self-respect on their collar are “a matter of convenience and marketing for many”, notes Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy. “The Periyar-INSpired anti-god and self-respect movement had floundered even during the days of MGR (M.G. Ramachandran, former CM). It would have no takers today.”
Kamal’s anti-Hindu pronouncements as an atheist highlighting self-respect have close parallels in the DMK’s ideology and could actually undermine that party’s electoral prospects, argues political commentator Ravindran Duraiswamy. “In addition, he has also been against (late CM) Jayalalitha and her party. This means that only the anti-AIADMK voters, who otherwise would have preferred the DMK, may view Kamal as an alternative,” he adds. “Kamal may not win any seat, but he could shave off a few thousand votes in a few constituencies which could prove costly in a close election.” The DMK has also woken up to this threat posed by Kamal. The party first courted him enthusiastically, and dropped him silently.
But Kamal has his own supporters, who feel the state needs such intellectual intervention. “There is no established leader now and Kamal cannot be faulted for attempting to establish himself as a leader just as MGR or NTR (late actor N.T. Rama Rao) transitioned from cinema to electoral politics in their days,” observes fellow actor and film historian Mohan Raman. “If he can convince a section of non-DMK, non-AIADMK voters to come out and vote for him, Kamal can create his own vote-bank that could become crucial. He will be targeting the young voters and he has to be different to make an impact.”
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai