Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth: Star Wars

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They are the twin pillars of heroism in Tamil cinema. Will Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth now reinvent heroism in Tamil politics?

KAAVIYUM KARUPPIL ADANGUM.” Saffron, too, is subsumed in black—the colour of the subaltern Tamil man. There is a reason the media these days hangs on to every word of Kamal Haasan’s, spouter of mystical epigrams in the thaw after Jayalalithaa’s Ice Age. In a world full of the words of other people, Annadurai, Kamaraj and MGR among them, Haasan speaks his own mind, taking a dig at “bumbling politicians” and enthusing leaders to be CEOs. At a time when the political scenery in Tamil Nadu has been reduced to two withering leaves and an eclipsed sun, he is an artist promising to restore its lost beauty. As he sets out, armed with irony, intellect and purpose, to steady a faltering democracy, a question looms large: will his politics meet the same end as some of his critically-acclaimed productions, and like Raja Paarvai (1981), Hey Ram (2000) and Anbe Sivam (2003), bomb at the box office?

The road to hell, as we know, is paved with good intentions. With the Dravidian building blocks of atheism, Tamil nationalism, socio-economic inclusion and welfarism dissolving into deceit, corruption and hero-worship, the anti-incumbent automatism of Tamil voters could, in the next elections, be replaced by informed choice. And as they turn a corner, waiting to greet them are cutouts of their two biggest superstars, moulded of two entirely different substances. One is a rationalist Brahmin who may be able to slip into a politician’s slithery soul the way he slips into his onscreen characters, and the other a devout superstar with a following rivalling those of the gods he worships. “Between Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, I am not sure who I would pick. Kamal because he is intellectual, or Rajini because he is a believer? Kamal, who comes across as a bit egotistic, or Rajini, who is a reluctant politician?” wonders 33-year-old Saranya L, who, in her own estimation, is a god-fearing woman. Once a week, she hails an autorickshaw to visit a Balaji temple in Mogappair, about 5 km from her apartment in Annanagar, Chennai, and spends a good hour or two praying for the well-being of her family. “But being a Hindu is not my primary identity,” she clarifies. “I am a sound engineer and a mother who feels strongly about women’s rights and safety.” She voted for the AIADMK in the last Assembly elections, a party now hamstrung by the absence of its supreme commander. Like much of Tamil Nadu, Saranya expects a FOMO-inducing showdown between Tamil cinema’s two biggest stars in the treacherous arena of electoral politics. Whether they plunge into the fight or back a winning horse remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that they are in the midst of Tamil Nadu’s juddering transition from Dravidian to modern-day politics, one leaning Left and the other counterbalancing on the Right. In the hands of these adored icons, religion, caste, intellectual inquiry, civic duty, anti-corruption and tolerance could become fine tools to chisel an image of the all-new Tamil leader, free of the shackles of the past.

“If they are indeed serious, they should be among the people already, instead of resorting to social media and TV to air their political views,” says S Thirunavukkarasar, state party president of the Congress. “Politics has become a kind of second chance at success for ageing stars. MGR was not like this. He was determined to be a politician even while he was a star in his prime.” Politics is a game of dice, Thirunavukkarasar says. A recognisable face will get you a seat at the table but to win, you have to be shrewd as well as lucky. “Look at the political careers of Chiranjeevi and Sivaji,” he says. While Haasan has announced his arrival, Rajinikanth, who is expected to take the plunge on December 12, his birthday, is lying low even as political groups vie to enlist his support.

“Unlike Kamal, who has always wanted to make experimental and aesthetic films despite facing failure and criticism, Rajinikanth played it safe. Most of his films were remakes of others’—or his own—films. So he did not suffer as many losses as Kamal did. Perhaps this guardedness is what stops him from readily entering politics. He is not ready to lose,” says Maalan V Narayanan, a senior Tamil journalist. “The irreverent young voters do not indulge in icon worship. They do not spare anyone on social media. Rajinikanth will become fair game the moment he enters electoral politics. Like Captain Vijayakant, he could be easy fodder for memes. So I think he will not engage directly with the people through social media,” says Maalan, even as Kamal Haasan prepares to launch an app and mobilise the support of young urban voters. Maalan was the news editor at a Tamil TV channel where, for the first time, in 1996, Rajinikanth publicly endorsed a political party. If Jayalalithaa came back to power, he declared, “even god could not save Tamil Nadu”. He would later regret it, but at the time, he could not say no to his mentor Cho Ramaswamy, the magazine editor and political matchmaker who had just architected an alliance between the DMK and the newly-minted Tamil Maanila Congress—a result of GK Moopanar’s discontent with PV Narasimha Rao’s decision to continue supporting the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa’s first term as CM was a dark age in the history of Tamil Nadu, and Cho made sure he used every weapon in his arsenal—including Rajinikanth at the height of his stardom—to turn the tide.

Tamil politics has long been a fanged politics of blame. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who have vowed to be civil with each other, could potentially veer voters towards constructive and issue-based politics

In a Tamil Nadu ruled by ambivalent forces, Rajinikanth has once again gained currency as a political weapon. Should the precarious peace between O Panneerselvam, Edappadi K Palaniswami and members of Sasikala’s family within the AIADMK shatter, Assembly polls could be induced alongside the General Election next year. This would work in the BJP’s favour which is trying to make inroads in the state by backing—“hijacking,” a senior DMK leader calls it—a faction of the AIADMK. The party’s role in the Cauvery issue, its pro-Hindi stance, and the imposition of NEET will be held against it in a state where politics has long been associated with the Tamil identity. Rajinikanth, while he cannot claim that identity with as much authority as Haasan does, nevertheless enjoys the unmitigated adulation of a large section of Tamils. His deep empathy towards the common man endeared him to subaltern audiences, who had never before identified with a ‘hero’, or even laid eyes on one with dark skin. The BJP, which lacks a popular face in the state, is reportedly trying to project him as the voice of the Tamil Hindu, even if he doesn’t directly enter electoral politics.

GOD, WHO HAS so far worked away behind the scenes in Dravidian politics, is all set for a stare-down with Kamal Haasan. Haasan recently wrote about Hindu extremism in a Tamil magazine and by doing so, consciously dragged into the political sphere his previous ontological enquiries into the Indian identity in films such as Indian and Hey Ram. Often accused of being a closet Hindu, Haasan says he is a rationalist, not an atheist, who cares about not offending “the Hindus in my family”. The Right, though, is easily offended. Thanks to his anti-corruption plank, Haasan cannot align with the DMK either, leaving him with the option of supporting a small clutch of Dalit and Left parties. “It will be a fun election, just like the old days, if the stars enter the fray but I have a feeling Rajinikanth won’t. Kamal is sharp, he will have a plan in place. A plan like that will take years, not months,” says senior DMK leader Durai Murugan. Even with CN Annadurai at the helm, it took the DMK several years since its founding in 1949 to begin contesting elections. Haasan cannot win only by replicating the AAP model in urban centres; he will have to assemble a gargantuan ground force, turning fans into political workers, and spending a considerable sum to sustain the well-oiled machinery of seeking votes.

Another worry for Rajini, says an observer, could be the perception of his family as “stingy and avaricious” after the premises of The Ashram Matriculation School, run by his wife Latha Rajinikanth, were sealed for non-payment of rent earlier this year. At a time when Sasikala’s kin are facing IT raids and the DMK empire is caught in the 2G net, Rajinikanth, a dedicated family man, knows politics does not stop at the threshold.

Both Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth changed the perception of the Tamil hero, the latter with his unlikely success and superstardom in an industry dominated by handsome fair men from the upper echelons of society, and Haasan by reversing the stereotypes of machismo—Apoorva Sagotharargal (1989), where he plays a dwarf, and Anbe Sivam (2003), where his character is disfigured and partially paralysed—and questioning the social imperatives of caste and creed. “Tamils have a fascination for films, but we also ask hardcore political questions about agriculture, reservations, social justice and education. For now, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have made no real contributions to such discourse. They haven’t addressed real issues yet,” says Jegath Gaspar Raj, a Catholic priest and founder of the Tamil Mayyam, a pro-Tamil organisation.

Haasan’s entry into politics may also be read as a form of retaliation against the AIADMK regime that prevented the release of his ambitious film, Viswaroopam, causing him untold financial and emotional stress. “While Jayalalithaa was alive, he could not speak up against her. She was a mother figure who just could not be denounced. This is a belated revolt,” says a source in the film industry.

Tamil politics has long been a fanged politics of blame, where the party in power is projected as the Nero who fiddles while Rome burns. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who have vowed to be civil with each other, could potentially veer voters towards constructive and issue-based politics. The next elections, with neither Jayalalithaa nor Karunanidhi in the reckoning, will be different from all previous elections. “The DMK hasn’t been able to consolidate its position despite the split within the AIADMK. A figure like Kamal, who transcends caste and class, and is passionate about what he does, could take young voters with him,” says Gnani Sankaran, a political commentator. “Kamal is a very political artist. He spoke up about Babri Masjid much before he made a film on the subject,” Sankaran says. “Rajinikanth has always been vague and general.”

Haasan was initiated into political cinema by his mentor, filmmaker K Balachander, who explored the decaying social systems of the time, says K Hariharan, who teaches film studies at Ashoka University, Delhi. “Some of Kamal Haasan’s first films with Balachander were subversive, dealing with sexual and social norms and questioning the institution of marriage,” he says. “Kamal moved on from there to overtly political subjects, painting disturbing portraits of close-knit communities and then progressing to the national stage.”

A cerebral artist, Haasan has never had to strain for profundity. His politics is agitational and not just electoral. And when he speaks with a bracing consciousness of Tamil Nadu’s dire straits, his words do seem outstretched and heavy. He rues the complicity of the people in selling their souls to the Dravidian parties at Rs 5,000 a vote—less than Rs 3 a day for a five-year term—and demands dialogue. He gives the impression that in an indeterminate future, where he may not even be an elected representative, he will continue to rail against virulent strains of nationalism and campaigns to suppress freedom of speech. He has said that he may even work with Rajinikanth, for they disagree on religion but their ultimate goal—to fill the political and ideological vacuum—is the same.

In a memorable dialogue from Thevar Magan (1992), Kamal Haasan says: “Nalladhu inga irundhu thaan seiyanum nu illa ayya, veliya irundhum seiyalam.” (One does not need to be here to do good. One can do it from the outside.) The coming weeks will tell if he and Rajinikanth intend to sit the next election out or dive right in.