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Kamal Haasan makes his move

How 'jallikattu' and the controversy over the first 'Vishwaroopam' film paved the way for the actor's political career

Kamal Haasan in ‘Vishwaroopam II’, which released last week.
Kamal Haasan in ‘Vishwaroopam II’, which released last week.

Vishwaroopam, a pulpy 2013 spy thriller, may not be among Kamal Haasan’s best films, but it’s probably the most significant release of his career. It led to a chain of events that resulted in his office plunging into darkness for over a week. It put him in a corner. Almost in exile.

The first Vishwaroopam film ran into controversy that seemed state-sponsored. Even after it was cleared by the censors, Haasan was arm-twisted by the ruling AIADMK into reaching an agreement with groups that believed the film showed Muslims as terrorists and wanted major cuts (though they settled for audio alterations). This was ironic, since it turned out that the film celebrated the good Muslim hero.

The film barely broke even and an angry Kamal Haasan couldn’t forgive the AIADMK administration for its role in censoring it—nor for its inefficiency in running the state. When rains lashed Tamil Nadu in December 2015, he told the Firstpost that “the entire system has collapsed…. If this can happen in Chennai, can you imagine the plight of the rest of Tamil Nadu? Where is all the taxpayer’s money going?"

O. Panneerselvam, the then state finance minister (now deputy chief minister, Tamil Nadu), wrote an extensive statement criticizing the actor. Haasan’s office remained without power for eight days. The Tamil Nadu (Electricity) Generation and Distribution Corporation attributed this extended power cut in his neighbourhood to a “cable fault".

Taking the bull by the horns

After Jayalalithaa’s death from cardiac arrest on 4 December 2016, there was a power struggle. Panneerselvam’s split from the party, coupled with the ban on jallikattu (where native bulls are celebrated through a risky, often violent sport) during the Pongal festival, stirred public discontent. Students took over Marina beach in protest, with candlelight vigils every night for almost a week. Haasan tweeted his support.

As the movement swelled, the actor sensed the kind of political awakening among youth that led to Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party coming to power. He spent a lot of 2017 contemplating if the time was right for him to take the jump into politics, seeking advice from Delhi chief minister Kejriwal and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The actor had steered clear of politics in the past but times had changed. Haasan and Rajinikanth were soft targets for fringe groups every time they had a film for release—Haasan more than Rajini because he would speak his mind and fuel the controversy. Almost every other Haasan film over the last three decades has been in the middle of some controversy or the other.

Change of fortunes

The power cut at his office was a reminder of what the all-powerful system could do. Luckily for Haasan, Star Vijay launched Bigg Boss Tamil in 2017, and, after a nervous start and mixed reviews, the show went on to become the most watched programme in Tamil television. Bigg Boss was for Haasan what Kaun Banega Crorepati was for Amitabh Bachchan: It brought the star closer to the public again. And TV was a more intimate medium than films. He could be himself.

Vishwaroopam II, which released last week, may not have opened as well as he would have liked, but Haasan towers over the second season of Bigg Boss, speaking his mind. “You know what happened to the dictators that ruled the state," he cautioned a contestant. Earlier this month, a lawyer filed a complaint against Haasan with the commissioner of police for defaming the late Jayalalithaa.

While Vishwaroopam II is hardly in service of his political ambitions, the actor has made clear that his sequel to Indian—possibly his last film—might have more of his politics. With the expected launch of his party manifesto on his birthday in November and the sequel’s theme of anti-corruption vigilantism, the film might give his campaign a boost ahead of the 2021 state election.

With (possibly) two more seasons of Bigg Boss and Indian 2 in the works, Haasan sounds like he has a plan in place for the election in 2021. In February, he announced the formation of his political party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, and made clear his centrist stand. He shared his reservation about Rajinikanth’s friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and remained cautious about the “colour" of his friend’s politics.

Iruvar again

The stage is once again set for the iconic Rajini-Haasan rivalry. The kind of friendship-turned-rivalry that existed between superstar M.G. Ramachandran and his screenwriter friend M. Karunanidhi, shown in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar.

Rajinikanth is yet to announce the name of his party or spell out its exact ideology. The actor has been sending mixed signals: He is close to Modi, says he will bring spiritual politics to the table, makes a pro-police press statement after the Sterlite protests (where 13 protesters were killed in police firing after government property was set ablaze) but takes the side of protesters in Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala.

While Rajinikanth is simultaneously left- and right-leaning, Haasan has said: “We have maiam (centre) in our party (name). We will absorb all good things from whichever direction they come." He hopes to appeal to the educated modern voter. He is active on the ground, meeting the Karnataka chief minister on the Cauvery issue, participating in the Sterlite protests and launching a whistleblower app to underline his anti-corruption stance. Rajinikanth’s strategy is more old-fashioned. He wants to enrol at least 10 million party volunteers before announcing the name of his party.

With the rise of M.K. Stalin of the DMK, the death of M. Karunanidhi, and the ever-changing dynamics of AIADMK, Haasan has many challenges ahead.

But many in Tamil Nadu believe he might prove to be his own nemesis. After all, he speaks his mind.

The writer, a film critic for 21 years, is working on a biography of Rajinikanth, forthcoming from HarperCollins.

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