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2018 In Review: The Politics and Politicians of Tamil Cinema

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On December 31 2017, Rajinikanth said to a fan-packed audience at Raghavendra Kalyana Mandapam that his time to enter politics, kaalathhin kattayam, had come. He said, “Political developments in the state over the past year have made us the laughing stock of the country.”

This was a year after Jayalalithaa’s death, and after Karunanidhi’s health had deteriorated. At many occasions in the past three decades we thought Rajini would make the politics plunge, but this time of a perceived political vacuum seemed like the best.

For him, Kamal Haasan, and other Tamil actors, 2018 has been one of the most active years in politics. Kamal launched his political party Makkal Needhi Maiam. Vishal said he would contest in Tamil Nadu’s next general elections. Vijay hinted joining politics. Karthik Muthuraman launched a new party after dismantling his old one. Khushbu Sundar continued as the only woman actor-politician. Prakash Raj said he will enter politics if someone challenges him to. He has opposed the ruling AIADMK on various occasions, and has been extremely critical of BJP’s Hindutva politics, especially after the murder of his friend and journalist Gauri Lankesh.

A look at the things that the actors have said in films and outside will tell us about their politics, or the lack of it, and if it promises to ‘fill’ this vacuum. Mainly, it will tell us about the decreasing influence of Dravidian politics. Kalaignar Karunanidhi in his two decades as a politician, and longer as a writer, battled for Dravidian and Self-Respect movements, he launched many policies for marginalised people. His death in August this year reminded us of the grounded politics that is missing today.

Rajini vs Kamal – who will ally with BJP?

It was incidentally at Karunanidhi’s funeral meeting, organised by South Indian Artistes Association, that Rajinikanth first openly questioned the current AIADMK government. He asked why the ‘first citizen of state’ didn’t attend the funeral, when even Congress president Rahul Gandhi was present. “Karunanidhi is the reason AIADMK exists,” he said, referring to MGR’s expulsion from DMK, headed by Karunanidhi, after which MGR started AIADMK.

This was the first time Rajinikanth spoke against the ruling AIADMK. Two months before this, in June, he supported the state government during anti-sterlite protests. He said the protests were by anti-social elements, and police firing in Thoothukudi was justified.

So Rajini’s political stand and his alliance with parties in the state is still unclear, and he hasn’t yet launched his party, but the more worrying possibility of an alliance with BJP also remains vague. Rajini has maintained, from the beginning of this year, that his politics would be, “Jaadhi madham illaadha aanmiga arasiyal –  spiritual politics without communalism and casteism.”

This lead many to believe that he might be associating with BJP, and his ‘spiritual’ politics would end up being communal. He has supported Modi in the past about demonetisation, saying it was a timely initiative to curb black money. But in November this year, he said, “The implementation was flawed. It is a matter that should be discussed in detail.”

The same month, he supported the opposition’s claim that BJP was a ‘dangerous party’. This created a big buzz, after which he clarified, “If the opposition parties think BJP is dangerous, it must be dangerous to them. Whether it really is dangerous or not is for the people to decide.” On being asked his personal opinion however, he said, “If ten people come together to stand up against one, you tell me – who is stronger?”

When Kamal Haasan launched Makkal Needhi Maiam in February, he was clear he wouldn’t associate with BJP. He said on the possibility of allying with Rajini, “I hope Rajinikanth’s colour is not saffron because if it is, an alliance is unlikely.” This year, Kamal has been more vocal about his politics, and he hasn’t been vague like Rajini, but he has said contradictory things.

His party launch was in Madurai, where MGR launched AIADMK in 1972. This was seen as symbolic but it was confusing because Kamal has been critical of AIADMK for many years now. He criticised AIADMK at the launch too, with Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan in attendance. He said unlike TN government, his government will not give liquor to men and scooter to women. “I will make you prosperous enough to buy scooters for yourselves, it will make you want to give freebies to the poor,” he said.

Unlike Rajinikanth, he criticised the state government during anti-sterlite protests in April. He visited Tuticorin, and said the central and state governments did not hear the voice of the people, and that “the people should make them hear now.” He was against the removal of scenes from Sarkar as demanded by TN government. In December, he said he will not ally with DMK or AIADMK, but he also said, “We will not ally with any party which is desperate to change the DNA of Tamil Nadu.”

Incidentally, after bashing BJP multiple times – NEET controversy, Cauvery Tribunal dispute, action against Lois Sofia, the student who shouted slogans against BJP on a flight – and making clear in February that he will not have an alliance with BJP, Kamal said in October, “If my DNA is not going to be tampered with, then no one is politically untouchable.”

A week back, in a ‘debate’ with Smriti Irani moderated by Arnab Goswami, Kamal mostly agreed with Smriti on BJP’s politics. He did not question her about BJP members who garlanded people accused in lynching cases, despite attempts by Arnab Goswami to get him to comment. Kamal first said BJP’s politics was based on dividing people into Hindus and Non-Hindus. He then said but India is a Hindu nation based on population. He said elder brothers (Hindus) must take care of their siblings (Non-Hindus).

Kamal’s language only makes it more difficult to take him seriously. He has said multiple times that he should be called ‘polity-culturist’ instead of politician. He said it means, “someone who cultivates new polity.” He said, “Yes. My party should not become redundant till at least 30 years after my death. The polity-culturalism would have worked.” Why then the repeated insistence on ‘DNA of Tamil Nadu’, and inability to pick one ideology from a ‘buffet of ideologies’ (when he was asked if he believed in Ambedkar, Periyar, or Gandhi’s ideals)?

Rajini, Kamal, Vijay, Vishal: films of 2018, passing mentions about caste & gender

Rajini’s films this year were Kaala and 2.0. Both were nothing like each other, and even with Kaala we can’t be sure if Rajini was conscious of it as a role meant to speak for the oppressed. Director of the film, Pa Ranijth, said that Rajini told him, “I want a film that my fans will love. But I want to be seen differently, so I am choosing to work with you.”

Kaala was about Tamil Dalits living in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai. Rajini as Kaala was their leader, and the film was as much about the women and their collective fight against eviction of their homes. It was Rajini’s first film critiquing right-wing Hindutva politics, and upper caste development. It has also been reported that Rajini’s upcoming Petta by Karthik Subbaraj may speak about caste killings and Hindu-Muslim clashes in TN. In August, Rajini announced that his outfit Rajini Makkal Mandram will not allow members from ‘religious and caste based outfits’.

Kamal Haasan’s only film this year was Vishwaroopam 2 where he played a nationalist agent tasked to kill an Al-Qaeda terrorist. Kamal announced that his upcoming Indian 2, set to release next year, will be his last film before he fully enters politics. We’re not sure if he is making Thevar Magan 2 as said earlier. Thevar Magan was about Thevar caste pride. Kamal wanted to release the sequel as political propaganda, but his position on caste has only showed that he does not see caste as systemic oppression even though he wants to annihilate it. He tweeted in June, “I refused to fill in the caste and religion column in both my daughters’ school admission certificate. That’s the only way it will pass on to the next generation. Every individual should start contributing for progress. Kerala started implementing the same. Those who do should be celebrated.”

Kamal also made a mention about women’s issues during his political party launch. He said, “We need to think about our mothers, sisters and daughters. Not everyone can be your lover, or your dream girl. A woman needs to be treated equally. Give her space.” In May he spoke against NEET, and in September against Anita’s death, but he didn’t make any mention of her murder as caste killing.

No actor from the industry spoke against caste killings that happened in Hosur, Salem and other parts of the state this year.

It might be early to speak about Vijay and Vishal’s politics. Vijay’s 2018 release Sarkar was an attempt to tell us about his politics. In the film he criticised TN government’s freebies, spoke for fishermen, spoke against corruption. The film’s co-writer Jayamohan said Sarkar was Vijay’s political vehicle, and Vijay too said, “Usually people join politics and create a Sarkar. But we are creating a Sarkar first. And then, we will join politics.” But in Sarkar, with Vijay’s speeches, lwe don’t find out what his politics as a ‘corporate criminal’ really is. He also stayed quiet through the controversy that the film faced, even as many others from the industry supported the film’s director AR Murugadoss.

Vishal’s 2018 releases were Irumbu Thirai where he played a military person, and Sandakozhi 2 where he returns to his birthplace from New York to protect his clan from the vengeance of a woman. Vishal has been more active in politics and as TFPC president this year. After his nomination to contest in RK Nagar by polls was rejected, and after Rajini’s announcement to join politics, in January, Vishal said he will contest in the next general elections.

He also said, “I am not talking as a politician here. I am talking as a representative of the people. I have seen things happen for the few years. I have been seeing people wanting a change.” He was elected the president of TFPC and Nadigar Sangam this year. And amidst allegations of irregularities in the council, and an arrest, he has been hosting television show Sun Naam Oruvar on Sun TV. He said it was to “change the lives of those who are waiting to be loved.”

Rajinikanth and Vishal have said they will contest in the 2021 general elections. Both are yet to launch their parties and manifestos. Rajini will soon launch a TV channel called ‘Superstar TV’ or ‘Rajini TV’ or ‘Thalaivar TV’, on behalf of Rajini Makkal Mandram. Kamal Haasan is yet to launch his manifesto. He has however said he is ready to contest in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, in 20 State Assembly constituencies and local body elections if and when it is announced. His party’s vice president Mahendran has been given the responsibility for vetting the candidates contesting in the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2019.

Both Kamal and Rajini have said that they have not fully entered politics yet. Before they contest in the next general elections, in 2019, we must wait to see if they steer clear of the confusions, how much ground work they do, who they ally with, if their politics will work towards equlity, will look beyond the anti-corruption politics that they aspire to be now, and mainly what their guiding ideals will be if they continue to avoid saying the words Dravidian politics.

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