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Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt

COVER STORY

I have to contest elections

I have to contest elections Photos : R.G. Sasthaa
  • What brought you to this moment, of being finally an electoral politician? First we said they are all corrupt. What do you do? Take the machine gun and take the Mahasabha route? I mean, destroy them and then the problem goes away? No, it won’t.

  • BJP asked why Kamal Haasan didn’t talk about Muslim terror groups. Let’s talk about it. I would like to condemn all kinds of violence that comes through religion.

  • You don’t see Rajinikanth and yourself on the same side? I am not going to turn worshipper overnight. He is not going to become rational overnight.

  • You actually don’t eat beef anymore. But you used to. I took the doctor’s advice, [but] I love the meat. It’s fantastic. And I like it rare.

After years of seeing him on the screen, I met Kamal Haasan in person for the first time on November 4. The first thing that struck me about him was his erudition, his multiculturalism and his fierce individualism. Taking some tough questions from an astute Chennai audience, he was unfazed. “A politician is not a shepherd; you are not cattle,” he declared as he officially revealed the much anticipated decision by him to contest elections. Contentiously calling for the dismissal of the present AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu—“Sheer inactivity is reason enough,” he said, when I pushed him to make a legal case—the much admired actor has run into an early controversy with his remarks on Hindu extremism. Sticking to his stand, Kamal Haasan told me some words were lost in translation. “I said extremism, not terrorism. The threat from the Hindu Mahasabha to shoot me only proved my point. Hindus are aping Muslim fundamentalists.”

Some say Kamal Haasan may be too much of his own person to make it in the hurly-burly politics. But he is more than ready to take the risk. And his first step will be to communicate directly with the people. His team has created a special app that will enable voters and fans to connect with him directly on problems that they confront; he promises to take them to the concerned authorities and demand accountability. When I asked Kamal Haasan about the other cinematic giant who may well become his political challenger—Rajinikanth—he revealed that Rajini was the first person he confided in about his decision to enter politics. Who has a better chance, I teased. “I have as much of a chance as him,” said Kamal Haasan, confidently, getting ready for his newest avatar after more than 50 years as an actor. Kamal Haasan, who still describes himself as a “reluctant performer” on screen, is the exact opposite as he opens a difficult new innings on his 63rd birthday on November 7.

There is a lot of anticipation about what you are going to do with your political plunge, so can you share a little bit of your plans? Are we going to see you contesting elections? Who do you see as your potential partners? What is the first thing you are going to do as neta Kamal Haasan?

I have already started doing that, so it is not the first thing that we are talking about. See, when I said that I am already there, nobody understood what I am saying, because I am a politician. Now sitting here and talking, I am a politician.

But are you an electoral politician?

Yeah, I am going towards that. That’s an announcement if you want.

Well, there we have the announcement that we have been waiting for.

When I said that I cannot announce the party’s name or everything because the media have already [said] “he is going to announce it”, I meant no insult. I only mean the pressure. So, I cannot do that because there is so much preparation. I take three months to make a film. To prep a film, leave alone the writing of the story, screenplay and all that… After the screenplay is written I take about three months.

So, where are we with this political thing? Has the film been shot? Is it at the editing table?

No, no...

Is it pre-release? Are we in the publicity phase? Like, where are we with this?

The release will happen during elections.

40-kamal-talk Man of convictions: Kamal Haasan in conversation with Barkha Dutt | Vibi Job

So, Kamal Haasan will contest elections?

I have to. When I said I will come that’s what I meant because it’s no use talking that I am inviting all of you. It’s not enough if Kamal Haasan goes [into politics]. He is not going to do the work for you. You have to appoint somebody—the politician is not your leader. You are not sheep, you need no shepherd. I truly feel that. I feel insulted when they say that he is my shepherd, he is going to herd me towards success. I don’t want that. He is my keeper of my gate, of my city. Call him the town crier, or whatever, but, it’s a job. I have appointed him, he is not my leader. He is like a CEO of a company. He can be, he should be, fired if he is not up to the mark. And with that preparation to vacate the chair or vacate the position, whatever position you give me, is how I am coming into politics. Whenever I say that politician is a civil servant, [others say] no, no, no, politician is not a civil servant; he is something above civil servant. How? I don’t understand. Why this hegemony there? I think he is also a civil servant of higher order, if you want.

And accountable to the people.

Accountable to people. And that’s not the case.

What brought you to this moment, of being finally an electoral politician, under your own banner, under your own party? Was it the disenchantment with Tamil Nadu politics? Was it the disenchantment with every political party here?

No, but after some time I felt my dialogue, my argument, my stance is not changing—it’s improving. It’s becoming bolder and bolder, the voice. The thing is, first we said they are all corrupt.

Right.

What do you do? Take the machine gun and take the Mahasabha route? I mean, destroy them and then the problem goes away? No, it won’t. Because who are they after all? These people didn’t come from Mars. They came from our streets, from our districts, from our cities. We appointed them, they—like the gods that we make—are very similar to us. In form, in behaviour and all that. So, the politician’s corruptness comes from the people.

Yeah.

Are you ready to take that insult? I am.

You are saying we get the politicians we deserve. In a way.

Yes, but, should we deserve that or should we not deserve more? For which what is our input? And that’s what I am asking. I was insulted and I beseech you to be insulted. And say that no, I am not like them. Then you change, and they will change. This is something which might sound new to you, but it’s been said almost a hundred years back by Mr M.K. Gandhi.

Be the change you want to see.

Yeah. He put it down so precisely into words. And, another thing, I have been, as every youth does, icon bashing—it’s a great sport, and it’s fun. And I have been doing that, and Gandhi did not escape our target practice. But, let me tell you it is not the Congress, it is not the rupee note, it is not my school textbooks that made me go near Gandhi.

Then?

I found Gandhi. I excavated Gandhi, from within the people of India and their problems and I found him. That doesn’t mean I am pro-Congress. Because, what you call BJP today used to be those people who supported Gandhi physically when he walked across planks, to go into Noakhali to meet people. They were all one, they were fighting together. Then they split up as parties. It’s the same house. I see it that way. And there is enough for everyone’s need but not any man’s greed.

Where do you locate yourself in the political spectrum? Though you say we are all one country, clearly you are not with the BJP, you are not with the Congress. How would you define your political value? Are you left of centre?

I like all. I like all the things.

Or you hate them all? That’s another way of looking at it. 

What?

To hate everybody equally also makes up your mind, right?

Oh I can do that, too. I mean, they make it easy on my part. It’s very easy. But what I am saying is, since we are sitting in a hotel, let me use the hotelier language. These are like chefs. I am in a buffet. I am the customer. I can choose, I can take a pick of everything and create a new plate. And that’s where I am. The chefs will say ‘that’s what I made, this is what I made’. Each one claims that he has made that, it’s fantastic. But, I want to eat only...

 The stargazers: The audience had a gala time at The Town Hall in Chennai | RG Sasthaa

You want to make your own dish.

Yes.

You want to be your own dish.

Yeah. And it’s already cooked. I am not saying I am going to cook all over again. I am not reinventing the wheel. But, there is that possibility for all of you. There is this thing. Don’t sort of go and invest everything. It’s an old adage, don’t put all the eggs in one basket.

So where are you putting your eggs? And how many baskets?

I am creating a basket (laughing) and collecting eggs. I will have to be careful about choosing the eggs and the quality of it. Rotten eggs, we know what to do.

Rajinikanth, someone who is your friend; some would say your cinematic competitor, also someone who is speculated to maybe enter politics. Do you see both of you on different sides of the political trenches, in a way?

Maybe, maybe. It can happen.

Do you see him closer to the right of centre and you closer to the left of centre?

Yes, that’s how it’s perceived.

Do you agree with that perception?

No, but ultimately left and right don’t matter; it’s about the people. Use both of them as instruments. All isms are instruments. Political instruments which will improve the life of the world and the people.

PTI4_15_2017_000052A Legends in arms: Kamal says he confided in Rajinikanth (left) his decision to enter politics

How do you see Rajinikanth as a future politician?

Well, he has got as much a chance as I have or as much problems that I will face. I mean it could go either way.

As much chance and as many challenges.

Challenges, yes.

But you don’t see yourselves on the same side? Politically, I mean.

As I told you, I am not going to suddenly turn worshipper overnight.

And you are saying he is religious...

He is not going to become rational overnight. So we will have to find a meeting point, if at all there is a meeting point. But, doesn’t matter. I mean there is enough for everybody’s need.

Have you shared with him your decision?

Yes. The first person I told before anybody else. I said, I am into the game. I am going there.

And how did he respond?

He said, ‘yeah really?’ Because he knows me. I said I am very angry. But that is not the reason why you should come. But I feel committed. I think the time has come. We had a longer conversation. He said, okay, all the best. And I said one promise we will have to make each other—when we get into the field we will be very cordial, kind, and never throw insults because we have to set an example, like we have in the film industry. We have set an example. We had a lot differences of opinion, we are competitors. And the fans don’t help at all, they keep fuelling. “He has come down!” They are like people in the Circus Maximus. They want to kill, they keep doing this. In spite of all that, we have been very cordial. There were a lot of people who tried to gain currency by whispering things and we have to work with the same person. And we always communicate and say, “Look, there is danger, this guy is playing us against each other.”

So you talk directly to each other?

We talk directly. So that there is no confusion. We never start suspecting that it could have been that. We just ask each other, and that’s what we have been doing for nearly 40 years now.

Would you call him a friend?

Yes.

Good friend?

Good friend.

So, talking about getting shot. You have received a threat from an extremist group actually threatening danger to your life because you were quoted as having written that “Hindu right-wing groups, too, are now not immune from terrorism”.

Yeah.

Do you want to first tell [us] what you exactly said? Because it was in fact in response to something raised by the Kerala chief minister.

Yeah. The subject was raised by him and it was answered by a man whose family is 99 per cent Hindu.

But when you wrote about right-wing Hindu “terrorism”—that’s how it’s been translated.

Theeviravaathi and bayangaravathi are two different things. When somebody works hard for an exam, they don’t say I am working extremely hard. In Tamil we say theevarama. Theevaram means intensely also. And theevaram also means extremely hard. So that’s when we actually use it. When we want to say terror, we say bayangaravathi.

But you did not say bayangaravathi?

I deliberately [did not] because I was scared of the Hindus in my family. (Laughs.) They have a bigger weapon, my emotions. They could play with it. So I am quite used to being shot at, but the instrument is going to change.

India Killing Over Beef Candles in the wind: People in Delhi holding a vigil in memory of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched on suspicion of eating beef at Dadri in 2015

One of the criticisms that came from the BJP was, why didn’t Kamal Haasan not talk about islamist violence? Why did he not talk about Muslim terror groups? Why did he not talk about the Kerala young men who are being recruited by ISIS? Why did he talk only about Hindu right-wing extremism?

Well, if you are keen to talk about it, let’s talk about it. (Laughs.) Because I would like to condemn all kinds of violence that comes through religion. Violence in general. Why go all the way to religion? I mean the uncontrollable guns of America, is another religion. It is a new, new religion.

When you got the death threat—I mean you read about it, “let’s go and shoot him or he should be shot for his comments”—did you feel that that kind of threat proved the point that you were trying to make?

My case rests. (Laughs.) My case rests, ma’am.

The Hindu Mahasabha is saying Kamal Haasan should be shot.

Many people have given me, or been thinking of giving me, or already given me my birthday present. But, they beat them all to it. And I am very happy they sort of proved my point and gave me a birthday present. Because that is what I was saying.

So you are saying the death threat from the Hindu Mahasabha was a great present because it actually proved your point?

Proved my point and I am used to being shot at, but the instrument they meant is something else. It’s not a camera.

Why did you do the apology video and say to people, ‘I’m sorry, I should not have supported demonetisation’?

Because I was really going across the line, welcoming it [demonetisation]. Like, Swachch Bharat is still a good idea. I’ve been talking about it.

The prime minister reached out to you at one point to be a Swachch Bharat ambassador?

Yes, it is a grand idea. I have been thinking about it and somebody is putting it to action. So, I must be part of it, I will still be part of it. It doesn’t matter what I spoke about Hindus, Muslims, Christians; it doesn’t mean I will not be part of something that will improve my country. And I still feel demonetisation is not a bad idea.

What went wrong?

Something went wrong, and we are not blaming the PM for it. What I said in my statement is, if he says the same thing and says ‘Yeah, the implementation went wrong,” another salute goes up for him. ‘Salaam,’I said. Probably that’s a little bit of a mischief. I can apologise for it.

46hey-ram Words as bullets: A still from Hey Ram

For saying ‘salaam’ instead of ‘namaste’?

Yeah.

How do you see the Modi government’s performance, the slogan of ‘acche din’? Do you feel that ‘acche din aa gaye hain’?

Did he say ‘aage’?

No, I’m asking you, he promised ‘acche din’.

We have to go by what he said. I’m looking forward to it.

You mean you’re waiting for your ‘acche din’ in Tamil Nadu?

Yeah, I’m looking forward. ‘Aaega’ means it will come. I also believe it will come. One day.

You had a very interesting position earlier on beef politics. We have seen innocent people—cattle traders, Muslims, dalits—being lynched over rumours of beef. The irony is, it isn’t even beef, it’s been rumours of beef. You have taken a position, where you actually don’t eat beef anymore. But you used to.

I took the doctor’s advice, [but] I love the meat. It’s fantastic. And I like it rare. But that’s my choice. I mean, there are people going hungry, it is unfair to even talk about well-cooked or rare beef. Especially among vegetarians. I think I can quickly spot a few vegetarians here.

How do you spot a vegetarian?

No, I know them.

I thought there was some way to spot a vegetarian.

I wish.

But yet you took the position that ‘Give your people food, don’t give us a menu.’ When you make these statements, do you sometimes worry that people will come after you, that they will troll you, they’ll beat you up on the street?

It stopped after some time, so I cannot say that all politicians are like that. Gandhiji took on criticism head on. It is there in my film [Hey Ram]. About two or three days before he was shot, somebody from Gujarat came. They had suffered a lot. They were very angry, and someone said to Gandhiji, ‘Enough of you fooling around with the country. Why don’t you go away? Be gone, old man.’ And Gandhiji said, ‘I want to go with a group of people to Pakistan. To talk to people like you there, who have also suffered.’ And the would-be assassin, whom I played, is now vacillating. His gun is still in the holster, he doesn’t want to shoot the man. That’s the film I made. That’s how I found Gandhi, I was saying sorry to him.

For his death?

Yeah, because I come in that lineage. Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je peed parayi jaane re… And I am born in a Vaishnava family. I felt I owed him an apology. Yeah, it’s mushy and I do get mushy about the man. 

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