Tamil Film Hero Kamal Haasan Turning Into a Political Zero

The Political party launched by Kamal in 2018 - “Makkal Needhi Maiam” (Centre for Justice) – together with a few smaller parties contested all 234 seats in the Legislative Assembly at the 2021 polls in Tamil Nadu. The Kamal Haasan led alliance failed to win a single seat

It is a well -established fact that the political environment of Tamil Nadu state has in the past been conducive for film stars to do well as political leaders. In Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema have been inextricably intertwined in a big way


D. B. S. Jeyaraj

Srinivasan Kamal Haasan known popularly as Kamal Haasan and Kamal is arguably the finest actor in Tamil cinema today. He is also acknowledged as being one of India’s foremost thespians.The multi-faceted artiste is a film director, producer, screenwriter, film lyricist, poet, dancer, choreographer and playback singer. The 66 year old actor whose screen debut was in 1960 as a child artiste has acted in about 230 films and won many awards and laurels. His adulatory fans hail their idol as “Ulaga Naayagan” or global hero.  

The recently concluded elections to the Southern state of Tamil Nadu in India has dented the larger than life image of Kamal Haasan. The Political party launched by Kamal in 2018 - “Makkal Needhi Maiam” (Centre for Justice) – together with a few smaller parties contested all 234 seats in the Legislative Assembly at the 2021 polls in Tamil Nadu. The Kamal Haasan led alliance failed to win a single seat. The party leader Kamal lost by a narrow margin in the Coimbatore South constituency.   

Kamal’s flagship the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) was expected to poll around 10% of the total vote and become the “third force” in the state next to the two Dravidian parties the DMK (Dravidian Munnetra Kazhagam) and AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). However even that “honour” went to the “Naam Thamizhar Katchi”(We Tamils Party)led by film director - actor Seeman. While Kamal’s MNM got only 10,58,084 (2.45%)votes , Seeman’s NTK gained 30,67,458 (6.89%) votes.  


People ask me what is this ‘Maiam?’, and if I am on the left or the right. That is why I kept the name ‘Maiam’, which means centre.” He added that he as a centrist who would incorporate the best from all sides


Inner-Party Crisis
Furthermore the MTM party which hogged much of the media spotlight during the election campaign due to the cinematic charisma of Kamal Haasan seems to be facing an inner-party crisis in the aftermath of the poll. Heated discussions took place when key party officials met to analyse the electoral debacle.   

Much of the blame was aimed at Kamal himself. Several accusations were levelled against him. These included lack of transparency and accountability in financial transactions , The disproportionate influence wielded in intra-party matters by a cabal favoured by Kamal and the party leader devoting much of his time and energy to his own electoral propaganda and neglecting the needs of other party candidates.  

Afterwards Kamal Haasan requested undated letters of resignation from office-bearers saying he wanted to reorganize the MNM. He met with an explosive response. Leading party officials -many of them respected personalities in their own right- began submitting dated resignation letters quitting not only their positions in the MNM but also their basic membership in the party. Most of them except for Party vice-president Dr.R.Mahendran cited personal reasons for their decision instead of targeting Kamal openly. Mahendran issued a public statement denouncing Kamal to which the party leader responded by referring to Mahendran as a “betrayer”.  

Given the humiliating defeat suffered by the MNM in the polls and the cavalcade of on going resignations by prominent party officials, it appears that the fledgling party is undergoing a crisis of disintergration. The only way to counter this process of depletion, decline and decay would be for party leader Kamal Haasan to immerse himself fully in party matters.  


“Indian 2” and “Vikram”
Even as the upper crust of the MNM is deserting him, Kamal needs to consolidate himself with the rank and file by reaching out and appealing to them. He needs to tour the state and inter-act with party branches. The actor - politico does not seem to be thinking on those lines. Instead he has chosen to return to the film world by reviving the stalled shooting of his movies “Indian 2” and “Vikram”. Unless the unexpected happens it appears that Kamal Haasan the Global Hero is turning or being turned into a political zero in his own, native Tamil Nadu.  

Kamal Haasan was born in Paramakkudi in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, India, on 7 November, 1954. His father Srinivasan was a lawyer and mother Rajalakshmi a housewife. Kamal acted first as a six-year-old in the film “Kalaathoor Kannammaa” in 1960.He won the Indian President’s gold medal for a child artiste then. After a few more films as a child actor Kamal went off-screen for some years. But he was involved in theatre and also learnt dancing.  

 His enlightened parents allowed him to pursue a career in the arts instead of forcing him to follow conventional courses of study. Kamal became a jack of all trades in film trying his hand at different things by assisting directors, script writers, cinematographers and choreographers.  

Kamal re-entered cinema as an actor at the age of 16 in 1970. He acted in a dance sequence in the film “Maanavan”. This was followed by other minor roles in films like “Kurathi Magan” and “Arangetram.” He even acted as the villain in films like “Sollathaan Ninaikkirean” and “Vellikkizhamai Viratham”. He got his first break as lead actor in 1975 in the film “Pattaampoochi“ followed by “Cinema Paithiyam”. These were followed by three superb roles in films by maestro K. Balachander. They were “Abhoorva Raagangal”, “Manmatha Leelai” and “Moodru Mudichchu”. Then came another great director, Bharathirajah, who cast Kamal Haasan in path-breaking films like “Pathinaaru Vayathiniley” and “Sigappu Rojakkal”.  

While the above mentioned films helped Kamal establish himself as a great actor, he also acted in roles which helped him click at the box office. Films like “SahalaKalaaVallavan”, “Guru”, “Kalyana Raman”, “Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey” were all commercial successes.   


Artistic and Commercial
Having made a reputation as an artistic and commercial actor, Kamal Haasan started making and/or acting in films with a difference, ranging from rib-tickling comedies to suspenseful thrillers. Kamal acted in ten different roles in the film “Dasaavathaaram” He also experimented at times by playing a man dressed as woman in one film “Avvai Shanmugi” and making “aesum Padam” a silent movie without dialogue.Some of the films performed well at the box office while others did not. But Kamal Haasan was acknowledged as one of the finest and most popular actors in India.  

He did not act in Tamil films alone but also in movies made in other languages like Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. But it was as a Tamil film hero that he made his mark. While some prominent playback singers lip synched for him in many films, Kamal Haasan sang in his own voice in several films. He also choreographed many of his dances in addition to trying his hand at directing, producing, screenwriting, composing film songs, etc.   

Kamal Haasan first married actress-dancer Vani Ganapathy in 1978. They divorced in 1982. Thereafter, he had a live-in relationship with actress Sarika for some years during which his elder daughter Shruti was born in 1986. He formally married Sarika in 1990. Their second daughter Akshara was born in 1991. Both Shruti and Akshara are actresses now. Kamal split with Sarika in 2002 and divorced in 2004. Later in 2005, he entered another live-in relationship, this time with actress Gautami who had a daughter from an annulled marriage. Kamal and Gautami broke up in 2017. Currently “film world gossip” links him with two actresses but there is nothing concrete.   


Awards and Laurels
In a career spanning six decades, Kamal has won many awards and laurels. Chief among them are the Indian National Award for best actor in three films, namely “Moondraam Pirai” directed by Balu Mahendra, “Naayagan” directed by Maniratnam and “Indian” directed by Shankar. He is the only actor to have won the Indian National Award for best actor thrice. He got the Tamil Nadu State award for Best actor eight times.  

Among his numerous awards are those bestowed by the prestigious cinema journal Filmfare. Kamal Haasan has won 19 Filmfare awards and has been nominated for 12 more. He has also been given the Kalaimaamani Award by the Tamil Nadu State Government and received the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards from the Government of India. The French Government honoured him with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Chevalier) award. 

Having earned fame, wealth, the affection of fans and heaps of laurels as an actor, Kamal entered active politics in 2018. Unfortunately the reel-life cinematic hero has in real life become a political zero.  

What then went wrong for Kamal Haasan? Why did his party the MNM fare miserably in the 2021 elections? Does this mean the political journey of “Ulaga Naayagan” Kamal has come to an end ? Also is there no chance of a viable third political force evolving in Tamil Nadu? The answers to these questions with particular reference to the poor electoral performance of Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam would be delved into in greater detail in this two - part article.  

Though Kamal Haasan has had very litte formal schooling, he is very intelligent, well-read and knowledgeable. He has an avid interest in many matters and is a seeker of greater enlightenment. Kamal is arguably a great intellectual among film artistes. He has also maintained a keen interest in politics and the welfare of Tamil Nadu. However he was not interested in becoming a member of a political party or engaging in politics for a very long time . It was only after he had passed the age of sixty that Kamal began entertaining notions of dabbling in politics.  


Vacuum in Tamil Nadu Politics 
This change was brought about by two factors. The first was the perceived vacuum in Tamil Nadu politics after the demise of AIDMK leader Jayalalithaa Jeyaram and the ailment and physical disabilities of DMK Chief Muthuvel Karunanidhi who had lost his power of speech and was confined to a wheel chair. (he passed away in 2018) The DMK and AIADMK had been ruling the Tamil Nadu roost alternately since 1967.Karunanidhi was the DMK leader from 1969 and Jayalalithaa the AIADMK chief from 1989.  

 With these “giants” effectively out of the political scene, many opined that the DMK and AIADMK would be weakened thereby opening up space for a third force to emerge. When Karunanidhi’s son M. K. Stalin donned the DMK leadership mantle there were strong doubts as to whether he could deliver. Likewise there were many who had misgivings about the abilities of Jayalalithaa’s successor as chief minister Edappaadi. K. Palaniswamy.  

Attempts by smaller parties including the leftists to form a common front as a third alternative failed miserably at the 2016 polls. Casteist and parochial parties have a community vote bank but are unable to transcend those barriers. The BJP and Congress have again and again demonstrated that their national appeal does not work in the Tamil land of Tamil Nadu.  

Against that backdrop it was felt that a political leadership vacuum existed in the state. The perception was that there was a need for change from more than 50 years of Dravidian politics. It is a well -established fact that the political environment of Tamil Nadu state has in the past been conducive for film stars to do well as political leaders. In Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema have been inextricably intertwined in a big way. Thus the expectation was that Kamal Haasan and/or Rajinikanth with their millions of fans should step in and become political forces to be reckoned with in the state.  


Tamil Superstar Rajinikanth 
Therefore the second factor which influenced Kamal to enter politics was the announcement by Tamil cinema Superstar Shivaji Rao Gaekwad alias Rajinikanth a.k.a. Rajini that he would be forming a political party, engage in “Aanmeeha Arasiyal”(Spiritual politics) and contest elections. Actors Kamal and Rajini were close friends personally but firm rivals professionally. Rajini announced the formation of his political party on December 31st 2017. He followed it up by converting his network of fan clubs into a political organization named “Rajini Mandram” or Rajini Forum.  

Many Tamil filmgoers have for long been polarised as competing “Rasikas” of two famous lead actors or heroes. Enthusiastic fans divided themselves into supporting one or the other of two contemporary popular actors. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar - PU Chinnappa , Sivaji Ganesan - MG Ramachandran, Jaishanker - Ravichandran, Rajinikanth - Kamal Haasan, Ajith -Vijay and so on.  

Rajini and Kamal are very close friends on a personal level but their fans are grouped into rival film camps. So when Rajini plunged into active politics, Kamal had to follow suit. Interestingly enough both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan formed their own political outfits within a month of each other. Rajini’s “Rajini Mandram” was inaugurated in January 2018 while Kamal launched his “Makkal Needhi Maiam” in February 2018.  

Kamal Haasan selected the Southern city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu state as the launch pad of his new party the MakkalNeedhiMaiam. Madurai is of great historical and literary significance. Kamal Haasan launched his party officially at the Tamukkam (Ottakkattai)grounds in Madurai, in the presence of a huge, wildly cheering crowd. Associated with him was Chief Minister of New Delhi Arvind Kejriwal who is the leader of India’s Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party).  

As stated earlier the name of the actor turned politician’s political party is Makkal Needhi Maiam which would mean in English ‘Centre for People’s Justice’. Explaining his political leanings according to the left-right political spectrum, Kamal Haasan said, “People ask me what is this ‘Maiam?’, and if I am on the left or the right. That is why I kept the name ‘Maiam’, which means centre.” He added that he as a centrist who would incorporate the best from all sides.  


Makkal Needhi Maiam
Kamal Haasan also hoisted his party flag with its embossed logo for the first time in Madurai. The flag in red, white and black serves as the logo and symbol of the new born MakkalNeedhiMaiam party. The logo has six hands holding onto one other. Three of the hands were in red and the other three in white. At the centre of the flag is a six pointed star in black, forming a white core.  

Speaking at the party launch event in Madurai, Kamal said in Tamil, “If you look closely, you will find the new map of south India. The six hands stand for the six states. The six pointed star represents you and people’s justice.” It was surmised that the actor-politico was including the union territory of Puducherry to the list of five southern states - Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. For decades, the former French colony of Pondicherry now known as Puducherry has demanded full statehood within the Indian union.   

The South Indian states are non-Hindi speaking. The predominant languages used in the Indian south are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tulu, apart from of course English. The southern languages are classified as belonging to the Dravidian group of languages while Hindi and other Sanskrit derived languages widely prevalent in North India are classified as Aryan. The Aryan-Dravidian divide has been exploited by politicians for many years. The new kid on the block Kamal seemed to be no exception to this rule.   

For many months prior to the launching of his party, Kamal Haasan had been speaking out about Tamil Nadu as well as the other southern states being discriminated against and getting a raw deal from the Indian Central Government. With topics of Hindi language imposition and interference in state government by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government figuring prominently in public discourse in the past , Kamal Haasan’s flag depicting the southern states assumed great political significance in Tamil Nadu in particular and South India in general.  


“Saffron Politics” of BJP
Prior to the launch of his political party, Kamal Haasan undertook a ‘journey of learning’ wherein he met many leaders including Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Both have spoken out against the “Hindu supremacist saffron politics” of the BJP and its aligned outfits, and have also criticised the communal forces in India.  

Kamal Haasan, though a Brahmin by birth, describes himself as an agnostic and rationalist. He has espoused strong anti-right views and criticised the “Hindutva” ideology vehemently. In that context , the new party too was viewed as being secular and opposed to Hindu ultra-right extremism.   

This resulted in the Tamil Nadu BJP coming out strongly against Kamal Haasan and his party. This was in contrast to the BJP welcoming the advent of Tamil Nadu cinema super star Rajinikanth’s political party. Rajinikanth’s brand of “spiritual politics” was palatable to the BJP but not Kamal Haasan’s secular anti-religious chauvinist politics.  


Usher in “Hindutva”

The BJP game plan in Tamil Nadu was to forge a common front together with Rajinikanth’s party, the AIDMK and a few smaller parties and face hustings. The fundamental aim was to defeat the Secular DMK and usher in “Hindutva” through a Rajini backed administration. If that had happened Kamal’s MNM would have become a tactical ally of Stalin’s DMK. The best laid plans of the BJP went awry when Rajinikanth pulled out of politics due to ill-health. In an altered political environment without Rajinikanth, the political fortunes of Kamal Haasan too began to fluctuate.   

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]    

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