Meryl Streep, while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes 2017, had hit out at the then President-elect Donald Trump for mocking a disabled reporter. In her speech, she said, “And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modelled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.” Her rousing speech led to many articles in India which lamented why can’t Bollywood stars show more spine. But a cursory glance at the history of South India would show that film stars have easily taken over the mantle of change-makers.
J Jayalalithaa’s demise in December last year left a political vacuum with Tamil Nadu operating almost like a banana republic. Take, for example, the comical, bordering-on-the-absurd drama that unfolded after actor Vishal announced his decision to contest the RK Nagar by-polls. It was evident that he is a political novice.
A State that has created politicians out of cine-stars is again looking at silver-screen demigods to fill this void. The outcome of the by-polls is of particular significance as it will decide Jayalalithaa’s true political heir.
Jayalalithaa, a star in her own right, joined the AIADMK founded by her mentor, actor MG Ramachandran, in 1982. After MGR’s death in 1987, Jayalalithaa who was the AIADMK’s propaganda secretary, wrested power from MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran and declared herself as MGR’s heir. Another watershed moment in Tamil Nadu’s history that cemented her position as the infallible ‘Amma’ was the shameful incident when Jayalalithaa as leader of the Opposition dared to question the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. She was assaulted, and her sari was pulled and torn. She later said, “The DMK committed a wrong that day. And they paid for it in the parliamentary elections in 1989 and in the general election in 1991.” She became Chief Minister for the first time in 1991.
While she had an ironclad hold over party cadres and the State, the actress-turned-politician was considered an authoritarian and an autocrat. Faced with institutional sexism and deep-rooted patriarchy, she centralised power, leaving no room for a successor or second in command.
Jayalalithaa left without naming any successor. With VK Sasikala in jail and Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam engaged in a turf war with TTV Dinakaran, the spotlight is on the two superstars of Tamil cinema – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan.
Kamal Haasan has always been considered a marketing genius when it comes to promoting his movies. Immortalised on-screen for his roles in Nayakan, Anbe Sivam and Indian, among others, the Ulaganayagan of Tamil cinema is now preparing for the role of a politician. All his actions and statements this year can have only one interpretation: he wants to be taken seriously as a change-maker.
Only an expert actor like him can turn a voyeuristic, reality show such as Bigg Boss: Tamil into a platform to express his opinion on issues pertaining to society and State. His stint as host showcased him as a conscientious citizen, someone who had the courage to question wrongdoing. Amid conversations over evictions, he casually slipped in his opinion on the tragic suicide of 17-year-old Anita over NEET. His tweets criticising the AIADMK-led Government showed that he was already behaving like a responsible Opposition. His tweets, albeit cryptic and hard to decipher, have become a handbook for political pundits trying to predict his next move.
No work no pay only for Govt. Employees?. How about horse trading politicians languishing in resorts?
— Kamal Haasan (@ikamalhaasan) September 15, 2017
காந்திக்குல்லா!காவிக்குல்லா!கஷ்மீர்குல்லா!! தற்போது கோமாளிக்குல்லா, தமிழன் தலையில் . போதுமா இன்னும் வேண்டுமா? தயவாய் வெகுள்வாய் தமிழா.
— Kamal Haasan (@ikamalhaasan) August 21, 2017
From Gauri Lankesh’s murder and the Chennai floods to pollutants in Ennore Creek and ‘Hindu terrorism’, each of Haasan’s tweets or comments has courted controversy. He has made it clear that neither is he aligning with the Left nor is his colour saffron. If his meeting with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal created intrigue, the launch of an app for whistleblowers (Maiyam Whistle) only confirmed his resolve. He has been successful in mobilising public opinion and staying relevant, but his lack of ideology and precedence might come in the way of getting votes.
Though he has said that he will launch a new party with the help of his fans, there is still wild speculation. So far, this is up for interpretation, “I have larger goals, longer time frame. I am getting the political party ready.” His politics needs an identity, without which he will only remain an activist.
Rajinikanth – the superstar, the thalaivar – entering politics has always been assumed to be the natural progress of things. He was Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden neighbour, but their relationship turned acrimonious after he proclaimed in 1996 that, “If Jayalalithaa is voted back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu”. Later, fences were mended when she attended his daughter’s wedding. He is mindful of the DMK, but it is his proximity with the ruling party at the Centre – the BJP – that has aroused most curiosity.
The actor has been reticent about his political plans, for a reason. Even a non-committal tweet on Swachch Bharat Abhiyan is construed as a sign of him joining the BJP. It is not a secret that the BJP has been courting the actor for a while now. On Rajinikanth joining politics, BJP President Amit Shah had said, “We welcome every good individual in the party. The final decision has to be taken by Rajinikanth ji.” This came immediately after Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India, said, “He is welcome in politics and it is my request to him to think about the BJP. There is an appropriate place for him in the BJP.”
The BJP’s reason to court Rajinikanth is obvious. Tamil Nadu is the only Southern state where the party has not been able to make inroads. Whoever is in power, the AIADMK or the DMK, the State Government has so far managed to operate autonomously, with little interference from the Centre. MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa managed to thwart any advances the Centre made in an attempt to control the State. But, this has changed after Jayalalithaa’s death. Taking advantage of the weak State leadership, the BJP has been cosying up to AIADMK leaders. Public anger has been simmering against the AIADMK, in a State that has elected parties that do not toe the religion line. Given that Tamizh sentiments are running high, Rajinikanth’s political move will probably become clear before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. To his fans, Rajinikanth has said that though there is no urgency to enter politics, “when war comes, be ready”.
Shiv Visvanathan writes for the Hindustan Times: “There is something surreal about the possibility of a Rajinikanth joining hands with a Modi. It is like a confluence of two badly scripted films. It is like politics as a symbolic fiction and film as a symbolic politics combining to create a new utopia, a hybridity to fill up the emptiness of Southern politics. It is as if a pan-Indian second-hand state is being created, which makes pragmatic sense to both sides.”
Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan will be pitted against each other – there is no escaping that. Though the two actors have high regard for each other off-screen, cinematic rivals can turn into political rivals. While Haasan is considered a cerebral actor and a maverick who is fearless in voicing his opinions and has no defined ideology, Rajini is more a hero of the masses who is exasperatingly guarded and politically correct.
Entering this landscape is the relatively younger Vishal Krishna. While the two superstars have been taking calculative baby steps, Vishal raced past them to announce his decision to contest the by-polls. A confident Vishal paid his obeisance at MGR’s Ramapuram house and at Jayalalithaa’s memorial before filing his nomination. Soon after, a Shakespeareanesque comedy of errors unfolded. It was reported that his nomination was rejected on the grounds of giving incorrect names of proposers. After his nomination was officially rejected, he cried foul and dramatically pronounced the death of democracy. Meanwhile, some members of the Tamil Film Producers Council, of which the actor is the president, smelling his ambition, accused him of corruption and demanded his resignation. Vishal might have played the quintessential action hero effortlessly on-screen, but his short stint in politics should be a realisation that there is no script in politics and mere promises of change are not enough, one has to walk the talk.
Though Vishal might not have Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan’s huge fan following, he is determined to make a comeback. His tweets indicate that politics or no politics, he wants everyone to know that he cares about the fisherfolk of Tamil Nadu.
In the cult politics of Tamil Nadu, cinematic demigods find easy acceptance as leaders of the masses. Almost as if they never shed the larger-than-life roles they portray on-screen. Politics and cinema are inter-linked in Tamil Nadu, where the stars don’t shy away from making statements on- or off-screen. Whether it’s MGR, Karunanidhi (scriptwriter and poet), CN Annadurai (scriptwriter) or Jayalalithaa, these stars of Tamil cinema have stepped in every time there is a leadership vacuum in the state. Sivaji Ganesan is probably the only star who didn’t have as much success in politics.
These leaders have been the archetypes of personality politics. Despite being leaders in the public sphere, they have managed to hold on to their hypnotic images, not straying far from their silverscreen persona. But, heroes can be given a hall pass and break character, but not politicians.
Whether it’s Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan or Vishal Krishna, these stars are banking on their fans to bring them the votes. But the stars who have enthralled the audience with their movies might find it difficult to play to the galleries while getting their hands dirty in vote-bank politics. The State has been in the doldrums for more than a year now and people don’t have the patience for amateurs. While all eyes are on the superstars to make their political moves, there might be other players who are waiting for their turn. The language of politics have changed. Will these stars be able to impress the electorate?