It’s been over 50 days since Bigg Boss premiered on Vijay TV, and it often seems like the reality show is all anyone can talk about in Tamil Nadu. While contestant Oviya's wild popularity buoyed the show to unimaginable levels, Bigg Boss has also seen the rise of Kamal Haasan as one of the most popular hosts on TV today.
Hailed by the audience as 'Aandavar' (God), Kamal's sarcastic responses and rebuttals have entertained the watching public. After Oviya’s departure, many swear that it is only Kamal's insightful observations and repartee that have kept them watching the show.
Ironically, Kamal is an atheist and regularly makes irreverent comments about religion. But for his fans who admire him for his contribution to cinema and his unapologetic lifestyle, he is nothing short of a god. And it helps that Kamal's films have sometimes told the future – from chit fund scams to the 2004 tsunami and the more recent Ebola crisis!
Kamal's gestures and one-liners from Bigg Boss have found their way into memes on social media – a definite sign of our times of the impression a show or film makes on popular culture.
Among his biggest hits has been the simple gesture of pointing to a strand of hair on his head (conveying an abusive word in Tamil) to quell Gayathri, one of the show's least popular contestants. Gayathri is known to swear freely around the house and the audience loved Kamal's reference.
His linguistic skills and knack for literary allusions are sometimes lost on the contestants, but they've certainly found their mark with the audience.
Lines like, "This is not manipulation, it is hallucination" – a comment aimed at Julie, who the audience disliked for making stuff up – became quite the "punch" dialogue. So did the phrase 'maruthuva muththam' (medicinal kiss), which took a dig at Arav, who claimed he had kissed Oviya only to give her "treatment" for her "depression".
Kamal has been quite forthright as a host – when contestant Raiza said that Shakti and Gayathri are from influential film families, Kamal shot back saying he was yet to feel their influence. He also issued a straightforward apology for the mental hospital challenge in which the contestants were required to dress and act like people in an asylum. Kamal went as far as saying that if the show indulged in such insensitive portrayals again, he wouldn't think twice about leaving the programme.
He has also been empathetic to the contestants, offering insights like 'Love is a state of mind' from his personal life, blurring the boundaries between the viewer and the viewed. And though he has sided with the audience in questioning the unpopular contestants (his stance on Oviya harassing Arav was certainly populist), he has also reminded the viewers that these are human beings at the end of the day and that we shouldn't judge them too harshly.
The actor, who has been in the film industry since his childhood, and is now in his sixties, has stayed away from the small screen for the most part. It's only in recent times that he has started appearing in advertisements and is frequently giving interviews to TV channels.
Like his contemporary Rajinikanth, Kamal perhaps felt that he'd dilute his brand value if he endorsed products or made too many appearances on the small screen. This stance has been markedly different from the way veterans in Bollywood have approached television, with Amitabh Bachchan appearing for a wide range of brands from children's products to state tourism. The Khans, too, have not shied away from advertising or TV shows.
Younger Kollywood stars like Vijay, Ajith, Vikram and Suriya have all endorsed brands, with Suriya also hosting the first season of Neengalum Vellalam Oru Kodi.
But now it seems Kamal, who has been dropping strong hints about joining politics, appears keen to connect with the public to further his ambition. And it's not only through Twitter that the actor has been doing this.
Apart from interviews to TV channels, where he has repeatedly talked about corruption in the state, specially targeting the AIADMK, Kamal has also taken potshots from the Bigg Boss platform.
When contestant Namitha remarked that the Bigg Boss house was like a jail with five-star facilities, Kamal replied with a thinly-veiled reference to VK Sasikala, that there were such jails outside, too.
Then there was the time he used the fact that Gayathri wasn't eliminated despite being voted out to make his favourite point about elections – that people should vote based on their candidates' actions.
From his first day on the Bigg Boss sets, when he looked awkward and mouthed scripted lines, Kamal has transformed into a confident host with a keen eye for the public mood. Among the Kollywood men who've ventured into television like Sarath Kumar, Prakash Raj, Suriya, and even the very stylish Arvind Swamy, Kamal Haasan has stood out. He's proved to be head and shoulders above these stars in capturing the audience's imagination and getting them to sit up and take notice.
A self-confessed fan of Kalaignar, Kamal's oratorical skills fill a void in a state which was once famous for the onstage battles between the two powerful leaders from rival camps – Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. He seems ready to take on any issue and speak about it without beating around the bush. Or at least, he has been quite clever in giving us that impression.
How much of Bigg Boss is scripted? We may never know. But from the looks of it, it's a script that's worked out perfectly for Aandavar.