Those watching Kamal Haasan’s 2008 magnum opus, Dasavatharam, couldn’t have missed that it was an undisguised three-hour long showcase for the veteran actor’s many accomplishments in cinema. Kamal played a total of 10 separate roles in the film beating thespian Sivaji Ganesan, who had previously held the record at nine, in Navarathri (1964). Among the roles Kamal essayed in Dasavatharam were a 12th Century vishnaviate, a modern-day scientist in America, US president George Bush, a Japanese martial arts expert and a Telugu-speaking RAW officer.
The actor appears to be trying something similar in politics now. Borrowing from different political streams and identities, his attempt is to manufacture a political whole that will be a hit with the masses. Perhaps, this is how he has forged his artistic identity. But even there he has faltered at times. Dasavatharam for all its cinematic flourishes – who can forget the delightful Telugu-speaking cop Balram Naidu from the film – was one long drag. Not even Kamal’s overweening artistic presence as the actor who has dared to be different could save the film from falling apart. In fact, that was one of its biggest drawbacks. Given this, can Kamal’s political Dasavatharam be any better?
As Kamal took the stage at his maiden political rally in Madurai on February 21, the star of justice at the center of his new party, Makkal Neethi Maiam’s (People’s Justice Centre), symbol appeared dim. It was Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who was in the limelight at this cinematic genius’ big-ticket political foray.
Like Kejriwal before him, Kamal too looked determined to make a difference, and determination is good quality for an aspiring politician. However, Kamal didn’t comes across as convincing. Would the Tamil people buy his promise of change and a corruption free government as his Naalai Namathe (tomorrow is ours) slogan promised? The problem was Kamal’s determination seemed to be lacking direction and focus. And his political persona simply refused to come alive on the political screen.
Other than Kejriwal, Kamal called on two other politicians for endorsement. N Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, and Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala (both of whom sent congratulatory messages through video for the rally). One is a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally, at present miffed with the raw deal offered to Andhra in the Union Budget by Narendra Modi, and the other a Communist heavyweight, who has openly challenged the BJP in his home state. Further, the line up of historical and world leaders Kamal invoked to give his political candidature weight included Periyar, Ambedkar, Nehru, Gandhi and Obama.
Kamal was adroit enough – the good stage actor that he is – to quip in response to a question that he will tilt neither Left nor Right. He said he would stay in the “centre”, as the name of his party indicated. But isn’t this the safe response of an artist and not the instinctive voice of a politician telling his voters what he stands for?
Even Kejriwal, who steered clear of the Right and the Left in the heyday of the Anna Hazare movement, had a clear political plank in place before he entered electoral politics. Kejriwal sought to project himself as a self-made politician who would root out establishment corruption. Kamal may find it hard to pull off a Kejriwal for many reasons.
While Kamal has expressed his views on issues facing the state as an a member of the politically aware Tamil film industry over the years, this does not automatically translate into a political position. He does not, as yet, stand for any identifiable idea. Moreover, unlike Delhi, which was the Lokpal agitation’s main location, Tamil Nadu does not have a ready-made catchment area for such an experiment. Lastly, Kamal, for all his earnestness, is also not a new face like Kejriwal was. The Tamil people have known him and his point of view on issues for decades.
Kamal Haasan is a past master when it comes to playing stereotypes – and to be fair to him at reinventing them too. He appears to be playing the Kejriwal role now, minus the Kejriwal momentum and definitely minus the backdrop of the anti-corruption agitation. True to his style, he’s also throwing in a number of other roles into the mix to see whether they will hold together as a political whole. This is well in keeping with the Kamal spirit of experimentation and involvement – remember his virtuoso act from Salangai Oli (1983) where he plays a struggling classical dancer adept at as many as four dance forms Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak and Odissi?
If and when his grand political performance fails will Kamal find the strength and perseverance to work towards a real political identity? The answer is not hard to work out if temperament counts for anything in life.