The Party Begins for Kamal Haasan

Kamal Haasan launches his party Makkal Needhi Maiam in Madurai on February 21
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Tamil Nadu’s most accomplished filmstar turned career politician with a launch that went offscript in many ways

TRAILED BY A string of 50-odd cars, the black Land Rover darted down the sea-grazed road from Rameswaram to Ramanathapuram, and after lunch, forded inland towards Paramakudi. Kamal Haasan was running late on his first-ever tour as a politician. But the couple of hundred people waiting for him in the searing sun of his hometown seemed not to mind. A small stage had been set up in front of a wedding hall, over a dozen faces beamed down from welcome posters and a band of traditional drummers kept the mood giddy. “We have waited a long time for Ulaganayakan [as Haasan is known] to enter politics,” said Sarathkumar Mani, 25, an Army lieutenant who is here on week-long leave from his current posting in Rajasthan. “Our star has come to meet his people—the people of this town—for the first time. This is a rare occasion I just could not have missed,” Mani said. For Haasan’s PR team, Paramakudi was only a pitstop en route to a public meeting in Madurai where he would unveil the name of his political party. But something flared in him as he shared a brief moment with the crowd. He did not promise much, nor did he perform to the gallery. He scanned the heaving throng of fans with a mix of nervousness and elation. The morsels of wisdom that he had to offer, the mental mastication, would have to wait. This was lived experience, intimate and joyous.

Tamil Nadu’s most accomplished filmstar turned career politician with a launch on February 21st that went offscript in many ways. The crowds, except at the main event in Madurai, were small and peaceable. His categorical refusal to buy votes for Rs 6,000 a head, encourage a freebie culture, or associate with any ‘isms’ felt like a breath of fresh air in Tamil Nadu’s dungeon of retaliatory politics. Those looking for a manifesto, however, returned home empty-handed as Haasan refused to be the Prometheus chained to the rock of Dravidianism or Leftist thought. Citing three chief ministers—Andhra Pradesh’s N Chandrababu Naidu, Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal who was onstage with him at the launch— among his inspirations, the star talked of a new south India in the making. His party symbol, six arms clasping one another, stood for the six southern states, he said, sounding dreamy for a politician daubing at the Tamil landscape. The party name, too, was tut-tutted by political kibitzers—Makkal Needhi Maiam is a play on the Tamil word for a court of justice, neethimandram— but it has the potential to channel the current activist mood of Tamil youth. Haasan is one of the most vocal supporters of jallikattu , a sport that united tens of thousands of Tamils in protest against a ban last year.

After thumbing through all his cine avatars, Haasan has pitched himself as ‘Nammavar’, literally ‘one of ours’, after his 1994 film where he plays a professor of history who redeems a college from its knavish administration. The film, incidentally, was a critical success but bombed at the box office. “No one doubts his intentions. He is perhaps the only politician in Tamil Nadu today who is not in it for the money. But his politics will take time to build up and to yield results,” says Nallamuthu Pandiyan, a 43-year-old autorickshaw driver in Madurai, a former AIADMK supporter who in 1990 cycled to Chennai to attend a party rally. The people of this city that has launched several Tamil politicians in the past, the last one being ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth, will watch Haasan with keen anticipation in the coming months, says Pandiyan. “Madurai is one of his largest fan bases. We will watch him even if just to see how his fans turn into party workers.”

“Our research tells us that women will be an important support block for him,” says a consultant who has been working on Kamal Haasan’s political campaign, on the sidelines of his press conference in Rameswaram. “He is concerned that men over 30 are deeply dissatisfied with politics in Tamil Nadu, but we advised him to appeal to smaller demographic groups to make himself heard over the promises of other parties,” he says. The consultant also notes wryly that for the first time in his life, Kamal Haasan is listening more than he is talking. On the day of the launch, Haasan did turn the focus on fishermen, but his speeches and his responses to questions by the media were far from the focus- group hooey that is expected of newly-minted politicians. His sentences were finely wrought poetry, his mangled metaphors about grains of rice were reminiscent of the heydey of Tamil oratory, and most of all, the antinomy of a Tamil intellectual shunning the pious hypocrisy of Dravidian politics felt liberating.

“His strategies so far are not faultless,” says Srikant ‘Anbu’ Prabhakaran, a member of the leading Kamal fan club from Erode, seated among the gangly youth cheering at drone cameras from the front rows at the Madurai rally. “We all know he is inspired by Abdul Kalam, but Kamal sir being an atheist, it is a difficult association to make. He is his own man, full of common sense, and many decades in incubation.”