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PTI10_28_2017_000126B On the ground: Haasan, with environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, at the Ennore creek, which faces encroachment by industries | PTI

Kamal Haasan the politician will talk anti-corruption, but his lack of ground support might be a problem

  • such is Haasan’s thirst for knowledge that he once travelled all the way to the US to attend a carpentry workshop. Also, he once learned Urdu just so he could read the works of Saadat Hasan Manto.

  • At Chandra Haasan’s memorial event, Rajinikanth pointed out how Kamal could easily become infuriated, react easily to provocations and how Chandra was the one who was able to control him.

It was the Tamil version of Kaun Banega Crorepati. Suriya was the host and fellow actor Shruti Haasan was the contestant. The question: Which temple did the elephant, that struck poet and activist Bharathiyar, belong to? Shruti, unsure, opted for the phone-a-friend lifeline. She called her father, Kamal Haasan. “It is Parthasarathy Temple, in Triplicane. I am sure about this. I don’t need any options,” said the veteran actor. Incidentally, Haasan was named Parthasarathy at birth. Shruti won the round. But Haasan was not done. He went on to narrate a story to his daughter, linking Parthasarathy to Tamil and Bharathiyar.

Haasan was born into an Iyengar family in Paramakudi on November 7, 1954. His father, D. Srinivasa Iyengar, had named him Parthasarathy, but later, inspired by his friend Yaakob Haasan, with whom he had shared a prison cell during the freedom struggle, Iyengar changed his son’s name to Kamal Haasan. His brothers, too, got the second name Haasan.

Iyengar was a renowned lawyer who assisted Muthuramalinga Thevar, a political icon of south Tamil Nadu and a leader of the All India Forward Bloc. Iyengar and his wife, Rajalakshmi, were both practising Hindus.

Haasan, however, is a self-declared atheist, frequently alluding to the politics of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and the ideology of leftism. He is a well-read, erudite and versatile actor-producer, as well as a dancer, choreographer, director and scriptwriter. He can speak six languages and for hours on any subject. Having travelled the world, the ulaganayagan (universal hero) is now set to don yet another hat—that of a politician. “I am already a politician. I came into politics when I took part in the anti-Hindi agitation,” Haasan told journalist Barkha Dutt at The Town Hall hosted by THE WEEK.

Politics is not new for Haasan. Though not directly involved, he had supported chief ministers M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi, and had locked horns with chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. In fact, in the late 1980s, Karunanidhi gave him the title kalaignani (legendary artist) and called him to join his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Haasan, however, has always identified himself with the left. In fact, in a 2011 interview with journalist Saeed Naqvi, he said that his heart was with the left. So, it was surprising that people were shocked when he declared his allegiance to the left, and communism in particular. Various shades of this leftism can be seen in many of his films, including the 2003 hit Anbe Sivam.

“He is not someone who would just talk about something and then not act on it,” his director-friend Bharathiraja said in a recent interview, talking about Haasan’s jump into politics. “He is a person who will learn deeply, be it cinema or politics, and then get into it. If he gets in, he will be unstoppable.”

In fact, such is Haasan’s thirst for knowledge that he once travelled all the way to the US to attend a carpentry workshop. Also, he once learned Urdu just so he could read the works of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Interestingly, unlike other Tamil actors, he concentrates on his looks. For instance, at the Town Hall, he wore a black kurta pyjama; he wanted to send out a message that he was not for or against any colour. He is also fond of traditional attire, and is often seen in veshtis, particularly silk ones. His huge watch collection, say people close to him, is an integral part of his wardrobe.

A prolific writer, Haasan once wrote a series titled ‘Thaayam’ in the Tamil magazine Ithayam Pesugirathu, and a book called Thedi Theerppom Vaa (Come, let’s find a solution), which talks about various topics, including the Kashmir issue and everyday problems that affect the common man. The book was not reprinted, but Haasan is set to launch a digital platform, called Maiam whistle, with the same idea—Thedi Theerppom Vaa—in January.

“I will have to get a strong foundation before I launch my party,” Haasan said at a recent news conference to announce his digital platform. “I am pregnant with politics. That doesn’t mean I will have to announce the name of the party. I am already into politics. I have said that I am coming into politics.”

Apparently, once he becomes active, Haasan will campaign on an anti-corruption plank. Of course, actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth, too, had the same agenda, but the best he could do was become an opposition leader. “Unlike Vijayakanth, who successfully converted his fan clubs into a political party, Kamal is playing a different game,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, writer and political thinker. “He wants to grab the youth, who don’t want to join the Dravidian parties. He wants to grab the vacuum available. That is why [he has this] digital platform, social media and modern methods to attract the crowd.”

Though Haasan first thought of active politics after his film Vishwaroopam courted controversy in 2013, he announced his intentions only after Rajinikanth teased a political role in April. After that, Haasan’s tweets and statements became stronger.

“It is too early to comment on his political path,” said actor and political commentator Kasthuri Shankar. “However, as far as I know, Kamal has always exhibited an incredible ability to learn and to evolve. He was the first person to actually institute a welfare movement instead of a fan club. For a person like him, who transformed his fan clubs to a welfare movement, it is a short walk to get into politics.”

Apparently, another reason for Haasan to take the plunge was the “anger” at the misrule in Tamil Nadu. His critics, however, question why he didn’t speak up earlier. “The only time he expressed his anger was when his Vishwaroopam ran into trouble. He then said he would flee the country,” said Raja Marthandan, an AIADMK member. “What was he doing for all these years, when it was raining corruption under the DMK?”

It seems the trigger was pulled after Haasan’s elder brother and mentor, Chandra Haasan, died earlier this year. At Chandra Haasan’s memorial event, Rajinikanth pointed out how Haasan could easily become infuriated, react easily to provocations and how Chandra was the one who was able to control him. “Chandra Haasan’s death is a big blow to Kamal, I know,” Rajinikanth had said.

Now, Haasan seems to have found likeminded people in Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. He also has with him a group of activists who are always on the ground. Apparently, while meeting his fans a day before his birthday, on November 7, Haasan told them to learn how to file RTI petitions, an important tool to fight corruption.

The journey, however, will not be easy, as Haasan also has his share of detractors. One of his critics in the film industry, who didn’t want to be named, said he was a hypocrite who backtracked on his statements. “Why doesn’t he stand by the Hindu terror comment?” asked the critic.

In fact, just that one comment seems to have turned many of his middle-class Brahmin fans against him. “I have watched all his films in these 30 years,” said Srinivasa Ramanujam, one of his fans. “He is extraordinary, no doubt. When he talked anti-corruption, I was for him. But, I am staunch Hindu. His Hindu terror comment makes me think if I should vote for him.”

Moreover, the anti-corruption, anti-communalism stand might not work for long. Though Tamil pride is still alive, voters have gone beyond the rhetoric. Haasan might emulate Mahatma Gandhi in his fight against corruption and Periyar to oppose communalism, but his lack of connect at the ground level, apart from his tweets, could keep him from climbing the political ladder. Politics, especially in a state like Tamil Nadu, is a bundle of strategies and stunts.

“Kamal is smart enough,” said his brother, Charu Haasan. “He knows voicing his views is not the same as launching a political party. He knows how to get things done.” As Haasan himself said, “I don’t say I will win. But, I want to win.”

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