Open Essay

Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan: Two Heroes and a Theory of Chaos

Vaasanthi is the author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey from Movie Star to Political Queen
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The combined force of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan shifts Tamil politics from the ideological to the personal

IT LOOKS LIKE an avalanche in the midst of Tamil Nadu’s political chaos, pushing the ruling party and opposition into action. Two big stars of the silver screen have decided to enter politics for real. They want to practice on the ground the rebellious roles they have often depicted on the screen. Like in the movies, the rebel will have to be the winner. Except the prize will be the Chief Minister’s seat. Going by Tamil Nadu’s past, it is a plausible dream. Or so it seems.

Reminiscent of a time four decades ago that witnessed intense competition between two popular Tamil actors MGR (MG Ramachandran) and Shivaji Ganesan, ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth and ‘Padmashri’ Kamal Haasan have entered politics, promising to change its face for the better in the state. Both say they are disgusted with the present state of affairs and see no saviours on the scene—except, of course, themselves.

Their confidence is amazing. The passing away of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, the supremo of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) who ruled the party and the state with an iron fist, has certainly created an extraordinary situation in the state with no charismatic leader left to lead that party, and the ageing DMK Chief Karunanidhi is out of action (his son MK Stalin being in charge of party affairs). This has triggered the imagination of film stars who see a crown up for grabs. After all, the past 60 years have had film personalities at the helm of governance in Tamil Nadu. For all you know, Rajini could be the next MGR; and the media-savvy, radical Kamal Haasan, who wears his ‘Periyarism’ on his sleeve, the next Karunanidhi.

The rivalry between MGR and Shivaji was an unequal one. MGR, representing a cadre-based Dravidian party with an image of ezai pangaalan ( ‘friend of the poor’ ) and a winning smile that charmed women, stole the show. While Shivaji was a great actor, he was a poor speaker who could not grasp the dynamics of electoral politics; to oppose MGR, he joined the Congress, which had lost its sheen by the time the DMK’s first government was formed in 1967. That was a period that saw a big socio-political churn in Tamil Nadu, a resurgence of regional pride that focused on greater federalism and autonomy for the state. It was an aspiration that fired the minds of Tamils. Ganesan miscalculated and failed as a Congressman. After the 1987 death of MGR, his wife Janaki took the government’s reins. Ganesan left the Congress in a huff when her government was dismissed and formed his own party. He must have felt that he could fill the void created by MGR’s demise. But in the election that followed in 1989, destiny had other designs; Ganesan’s party drew a blank while the young Jayalalithaa emerged as the future leader of the AIADMK, having wiped out Janaki’s front in the polls. It was a revolution in the making.

For the most part, the Tamil film industry exploited only Rajinikanth’s style and never taxed him with a long script he couldn’t master. He is still not able to speak Tamil like a Tamilian. But the film world and his admiring masses have always been cosmopolitan in their tastes

The actors who have now entered the fray also speak of a revolution. Be prepared for one, Rajini thunders. Kamal Haasan speaks of social engineering to put an end to rampant corruption. But both are yet to form their parties and formulate an agenda. They have no cadre-based political structure or clear- cut ideology that people are accustomed to. One is a spiritualist displaying his guru’s symbol, the ‘Apaana Mudra’ (which has a lotus in it), while the other is a self-declared atheist.

CITING A SANSKRIT verse from the Bhagavad Gita, fingers folded in the Mudra sign, Rajini has said that his entry to politics is ‘certain’. It’s strange that this actor who captured the hearts of the young in the 70s with his ‘style’ and gestures of irreverence towards the system with a whiff of smoke and sardonic smile should, at this late stage in his life (he’s nearing 70), wake up from slumber and declare he has entered politics to replace a system that has become ‘very bad’ with aanmiga arasiyal (spiritual politics). This is a provocative phrase in a state that was swept by a rationalist movement fortified by regional and language identity several decades ago. It is also bold indeed for a person born in Karnataka to a Marathi-speaking family who owes his fame and status to Tamil cinema.

For the most part, the Tamil film industry exploited only his style and never taxed him with a long script he couldn’t master. He is still not able to speak Tamil like a Tamilian. But the film world and his admiring masses have always been cosmopolitan in their tastes. They found no difficulty in accepting a non-Tamil Malayalee, MGR, as their chief minister, forgetting they had once puffed up their chests and chanted ‘Tamil is our breath’, and voting four times to power a Brahmin woman, Jayalalithaa, who was born in Karnataka and spoke Kannada better than Tamil, though her party sprang from a movement that denounced Brahmins.

Rajinikanth may well quote all of that in his defence as he spreads his arms wide, Modi style, like a messiah, and says, “Here I stand before you, to repay my debt that I owe you, who have brought me to this height.” How is he going to do it? He will make people’s lives better by giving them a clean, honest and just government. What is his philosophy, his ideology? Spiritual politics.

Articulate and sharp, Kamal Haasan speaks politics non-stop. Critics remind him that he did not dare speak a word of dissent while Jayalalithaa was alive, even though corruption was no less rampant under her rule

Journalists are running hither and thither to decipher his words. Does it mean ‘religious’? Is it a reflection of his right- wing leanings? The Baba symbol is surely a Hindu symbol. Is it the saffron brigade that eggs him on? Does the latter want to rule Tamil Nadu through him? Times have changed bro, but not the suspicion that Tamils have of the BJP. It is still alien, an Aryan, Hindi-speaking party of upper castes—and all this is anathema to the Dravidian mindset. There are wild rumours that it is BJP President Amit Shah’s strategy to drag Rajinikanth into the politics of a state where India’s ruling party has no base. Whispers abound that the BJP will fund his election expenses. There is widespread criticism already. You cannot avoid the press, he is being told, you will be questioned, probed, analysed and criticised. You cannot say, as you have, that your party will be announced on the eve of the Assembly elections three years away; you cannot instruct, as you have, your followers not to comment or speak politics till then. You think you can build up the momentum by such methods? Not easy, even for a superstar of his stature.

AND THEN THERE is Kamal Haasan, stoking the embers of discontent among Tamils with his tweets and well-argued articles in the popular weekly Ananda Vikatan. An intellectual, he makes his case in Tamil and English with strikingly sharp élan. A recent article of his about the blatant use of money in Chennai’s RK Nagar by-election is full of anger and anguish, attacking the candidates who allegedly bribed voters and the voters who accepted it. He sounds sincere and genuinely pained. He was away for a month and more in the US, and people had almost forgotten him during the drama of Rajini’s entry to politics. However, he is back with a bang, having congratulated and welcomed—from America—his rival’s decision.

Rajini has massive fan club support, an estimated 50,000 fan clubs with an average of 25 members each. Many of them are old and poor and their lives have remained the same for much too long. Since many Tamil youth have joined the fan clubs of younger stars like Vijay, Rajini has asked his fans to widen the membership of his own and widen their reach. Just as MGR did.

Kamal Haasan motivates his fans to work at the ground level and help people in need. Articulate and sharp, he speaks politics non-stop. Critics remind him that he did not dare speak a word of dissent while Jayalalithaa was alive, even though corruption was no less rampant under her rule. In 2013, he needed her grace for the release of his film Vishwaroopam, and when he was embroiled in a hopeless controversy over his cinema, he even pondered aloud if he should quit the country.

He now feels the hour beckons him to sort out the muddle he suddenly sees in the system. He and his men have shown they can literally roll up their sleeves and get down to the soil during floods to help out. But he still seems to have a disconnect with the Tamil masses. He is a part of the elite—uncomfortably so when he shows his erudition each time he speaks and writes. His ideas are taken from the Left. But the poor of Paramakudi, the small town where he was born, may not be able to connect with him. They have always known him as ‘aiyer veettu pillai’, son of a Brahmin household.

Times have changed. So has the cinema world. The MGR- Ganesan fight was on a different socio- cultural platform. MGR’s mass appeal was a phenomenon. It is difficult to predict if either of the present duo will succeed. Rajini is no MGR. Nor is Kamal Haasan. There are players old and new. Stalin is now leading the DMK. There is TTV Dinakaran (nephew of Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala who is now in jail) laying claim to the MGR-Jayalalithaa legacy, he had a stunning victory as an independent candidate in the recent RK Nagar bypoll. These leaders are steeped in Dravidian politics, speak the language of the masses and can mobilise party cadres.

Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, for all their claims to the contrary, signal a shift from a politics rooted in ideology to one that is entirely personality-centric. If at all they do contest the state’s Assembly polls, they may together end up playing spoiler by splitting votes and preventing any of the Dravidian parties from winning a majority. The result of this would be chaos. That is not good news for Tamil Nadu.