Kamal Haasan’s Political Rout Proves Tamil ‘Fan Culture’ Is a Myth
Unlike MGR, Jayalalithaa & Karunanidhi, who projected Dravidian ideology through their films, Haasan was ambiguous.
On the evening of 23 March earlier this year, scores of people began to assemble at Ramanathapuram, near Coimbatore railway station. Tempos used for election campaigns had already reached the junction.
It was the peak of Tamil Nadu’s election season as the state was bracing for its 16th Assembly election. The demise of AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa in 2016 and DMK leader M Karunanidhi in 2018 had left a gaping vacuum in Tamil politics – and 63-year-old actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan was keen on grabbing the opportunity.
To the Tune of Naalai Namadhe
Haasan, who launched his own political party Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) in February 2018, had fielded 40 candidates (39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry). The election was a watershed moment for his political career, and he was contesting from Coimbatore South constituency.
At Ramanathapuram, when the loudspeakers blared the official song of the MNM’s election campaign, Naalai Namadhe meaning ‘tomorrow is ours’, Kaadhal Nayagan (Prince of Love), as Kamal is popularly known, cinematically rose from his campaign vehicle to address his audience.
Naalai Namadhe invoked history. For people in Tamil Nadu who grew up hearing songs from MG Ramachandran’s 1975 film of the same name, the choice of those words for an official party song didn’t seem coincidental.
The invocation of MGR, in fact, is the essence of Haasan’s political ambitions. Perhaps, the reason behind Haasan’s political rout in May 2021, is also his unsuccessful attempt to find a likeness with the yesteryear celluloid hero, who made it big, politically.
MGR and Haasan: Not Birds of the Same Feather
MGR was the first Tamil film actor who went on to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for 11 years, between 1977 and 1987. His success in politics after a long, laureled film career, created the myth that in the state, cinema and politics blend together. The success of Jayalalithaa, another actor-turned-politician, at the chief minister’s office, only added power to this myth.
Surely, it was not a surprise when Haasan announced his candidacy to contest the 2021 Assembly election. However, his rout in Coimbatore South Constituency, where he lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vanathi Srinivasan, begs the question: Why did Kamal Hasaan, a successful Tamil actor fail to make a political mark, even though the state had earlier accepted other actor-turned-politicians including MGR and Jayalalithaa?
The answer lies in the fate of other film personalities who had followed MGR and Jayalalithaa’s footsteps.
Actor Vijayakant, who launched his own party Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and contested in the 2006 Assembly election, had won only one seat that year. In 2021, the party was routed in the Assembly election. Director T Rajendar’s Latchiya Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam launched in 2004 did not succeed electorally.
Actor Sarath Kumar’s Samathuva Makkal Katchi was routed this year. Banking on the Thevar caste votes, actor Karthik formed Agila India Naadalum Makkal Katchi in 2009, even though the party has not taken off yet. Similarly, banking on the Mukkulathor vote bank, actor Karunas, too, formed a party, Mukkulathor Pulipadai in 2016. However, he did not contest in the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
Kamal Haasan’s fortunes are akin to that of film personalities who attempted treading MGR’s political path sans his charisma and political insight.
“He was doomed to be a failure since his entry into politics,” said M Kannan, researcher, Tamil Studies at French Institute of Pondicherry. “Haasan was always seen as an actor, not a politician. None of his films had mass appeal. He has no ideology nor did he present any political content in his movies.”
Unlike MGR who projected a political outlook even in his films, Haasan’s ambiguous political stance in films, cast a shadow on his political life.
Kamal Haasan hails from a wealthy Brahmin family in Paramakudi. He entered the film field as a child actor in the film Kalathur Kannamma at the age of five. He went on to act in 220 films over a period of 55 years.
“He was able to begin his career in films as a child actor mainly because of his family’s well-connected network with the Chettiars of Karaikudi and Paramakudi,” said Kannan.
“The dominance of Brahmins in Tamil cinema that lasted until the 1980s only worked in his favour… The scripts of his films lacked any overt reference to his politics or political leanings. His films, unlike in the case of MGR, never had mass appeal.”M Kannan, Researcher, Tamil Studies at French Institute of Pondicherry
A Failed ‘Dravidian’ Hero
The Dravidian ideologues used to actively seek out different mediums to reach out to the masses. When talkies entered Tamil Nadu in 1934, the movement was eager to tap into the potential of cinema to propagate its ideology. “Screenplay writers CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi were Dravidian ideologues,” noted K Thirunavukkarasu, a Dravidian ideologue based in Chennai.
When the film Parasakthi (1952) received an astounding welcome in Tamil Nadu, it not just marked a box office success, but also the triumph of its scriptwriter, M Karunanidhi. On the other hand, MGR’s move from the Congress to the DMK, gave him a chance to work with scriptwriters aligned with the Dravidian ideology.
“MGR was with the DMK for 19 years while continuing to act in movies,” said Thirunavukkarasu. “Apart from their presence in the movies, both MGR and Karunanidhi had a strong organisational base, like Dravidar Kazhagam (the parent body of DMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.”
MGR quickly achieved stardom and began to build for himself the image of a working class hero, peasant or ‘lower’ caste man who not only struggled in life but also protected women. His political take off was from this mass film base. He was able to retain his following even after breaking away from the DMK to form the AIADMK. Similarly, Jayalalithaa, who belonged to the Brahmin caste, succeeded in casting away the anti-Brahminical sentiments directed at her by affiliating herself with Dravidian politics.
Disconnect With Subaltern & Dravidian Politics
Though he had not approved of his fans’ clubs turning into a welfare organisation called ‘Narpani Mandram’ in the 1980s, Haasan’s welfare measures were confined to cleaning up lakes and organising blood donation camps.
It was not until 2018, that Haasan, a self-declared atheist, attempted to strike a chord with the people of Tamil Nadu using the tropes of Dravidian identity politics. He said, “We need not say that only Tamils are Dravidian people. People who speak other languages are also Dravidian. This thought should take root. This is my wish”.
By 2020, however, he positioned himself as an alternative for Dravidian politics and promised a “Delhi model”. In this model of politics, he stressed on ‘honesty’ and “corruption-free government”. Though the concept struck a chord with the ‘upper’ castes, especially Brahmins, it did not yield encouraging response from a large section of Tamil people.
Though social justice is the soul of Tamil Nadu’s politics, Haasan neither openly associated with those ideals nor clearly explained his stand on reservation. While his party’s candidates talked against the reservation system, he continuously evaded answering questions about the same. This ambiguity only distanced him from the masses, including his ardent fans.
“Kamal Haasan did not bring his charisma as an actor into politics,” said Neelakandan, who runs Karuppu Pradhigal publication in Tamil Nadu. “Being part of Kamal’s fan club had only created a sense of guilt. It was as if we were leaving behind the community we were born into. It is a fact that a large majority of the subaltern people in the state never accepted him as their hero. This is quite evident from the absence of his fans’ clubs in poor localities.”
During the 1990s, when Tamil Nadu was one of the few states that stood in support of the Mandal Commission, Kamal had openly asked his fans to denounce caste certificates. He asked them never to apply for caste certificates for their children.
“In the urban poor locality where I come from, we knew the struggle for getting a caste certificates. We knew its significance, especially when it came to the education of children living here,” said Neelakandan, who was once a member of Kamal’s fans’ club. “When I brought this up for discussion with the members of Kamal’s fans’ club, I was immediately thrown out.”
Kamal Haasan’s failure in Tamil Nadu politics indicates that fan base alone does not catapult an actor to a political icon. The fans in Tamil Nadu are selective and have a method of their own. Tamil Nadu accepts an actor-turned-politician, only when he is primarily, a political mass leader.
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