Sangam Drama
The tales of poor artistes, irate policemen and disillusioned media-persons, which played-out on the side lines of Nadigar Sangam elections
Membership card of an old Nadigar Sangam member

For the film-stars of Tamil Nadu, especially those who were fighting it out for control of the Nadigar Sangam, Sunday was a long day. The polling at the venue started very early, and by 8:30am Rajinikanth had casted his vote and left. There was afternoon drama thanks to the ‘Vishal attack’, and an evening dose of theatrics too - a clash between Sangam members and the police, followed by a long wait for the results. It was not until midnight that the results finally emerged.

The reportage on the Nadigar Sangam issue, including our own on TNM, was done ad nauseam. The media reportage has been focused, for obvious reasons, on the stars. But there are those stories hidden in plain sight, out for everyone to see but for no one to report. They are not juicy pieces of filmy gossip, but stories of the lesser known actors living in near-penury, of the hundreds of reporters, cameraman and technicians sweating it out to beam every single development of the day live to viewers who are hooked, and of the battalions of cops who stood there all day for the elections in a private association of 3000-odd members.

Take the case of the wheel-chair bound Chandra and her friends. Chandra says she is the wife of Kundumani, the heavily-built popular actor of the MGR era. She is now more than 80 years old. She cannot walk and has a low voice. But she was at the venue, CSI St. Ebbas School on RK Salai, along with two other drama-artistes friends of her age. The anger among them was palpable, and cut both ways. “We are living with a lot of difficulty,” says Chandra, “but we have never seen something like this happen,” she says confounded at how the association, which she has been a member of for decades, has become a public issue. Her friend Vijaya steps in with a sharp attack, “What drama! Is this how we fight? They have shamed all of us by making it such a public affair,” says Vijaya.

Rajasekaran and Chandra at the election venue

Their concerns, initially, are mystifying. Their association has not helped them much they say, but they are angrier at the dirty linen being washed in public. Is it not good for them that their issues are getting more attention? Yes, and then their real grouse emerges – they are still on the sidelines. They were ignored then, and they remain ignored now. All the noise about the Nadigar Sangam is still about Vishal, Sarath Kumar and Radharavi, not about these poor old artistes who need help.

There are other similar stories of desperation and disdain. “How have they helped us? When my son got married, I got Rs. 1000 from them. Not even enough to pay for the flowers,” says Rajasekharan, who came all the way from Karailkal to cast his vote. He must be in his late 60s, but he had the strength to meander around the media all day under the hot sun hoping to peek into one of the TV cameras so he could get a few seconds of ever-elusive fame.

“I left and took a job at the Anna University, because I was tired of it,” says SK Moorthy, a retired actor whose father was also a stage artiste.  “I got frustrated moving from one place to another, so Kalaignar helped me get a job at the University,” he says. He does not act anymore, but he lives in the past, and spent hours trying to remind other artistes as to who he was.

An equally uneasy sight was that of the hundreds of policemen standing guard at the venue. The electorate was made up of less than 3200 votes, but at least 300 cops were at the venue for security.  A police source said that at least 4 Assistant Commissioners, 20 inspectors, 40 sub-inspectors and a couple of hundred constables were pressed into service - all for the elections to the governing body of a private association. And after the Vishal drama in the afternoon, even a Deputy Commissioner, an IPS officer, had to be called in to control the situation. There was believable speculation that rowdies were on the prowl, packing knives under their white shirts, ready to start a bloody street-fight if things came to that. All the cops stayed till well past midnight, thanks to the threat perception.

One of the senior cops was combing the area for anti-social elements and asking people to move away. He pointed to one young, seemingly pissed-drunk chap, asking him to leave the campus. That guy was cocky. He eyeballed the officer, with the “do-what-you-want” look, and asked, “What? I’ll be here.” I could see the police officer seethe with anger. But he kept his cool and asked one of the other officers to deal with him. “Look at all these guys I have to deal with,” he said to me, almost like he had resigned to his fate. I asked him if the city police stint was better than rural postings. “Initially I was cynical about the city police, but now I am better,” he said, “I have the hope that good things can be done here.” But here he was, policing hot-headed punks thanks to some ego-driven film stars, and I wondered if it was one of those days which brought back cynicism in him. But he was clear about who to blame, “It is the media which has made this a big issue,” he said.

Police officers and media at the election venue during a tussle between the police and Sangam members

The real story, an untold one at that, of the Nadigar Sangam elections is that of the news media. This was perhaps the first instance in the history of Tamil TV news media where an undeserving event was made larger than life almost entirely by the media’s hunger for eyeballs. Had it not been for the media, this simply would not have reached the massive proportions that it did. That an issue among 3000-odd people became one which hooked millions was only because of the media.

Puthiya Thalaimurai alone had 8 cameras at the venue, along with at least 8 reporters at any given time. They had jimmy-jip cameras and had also set up a makeshift studio in a caravan. Anchors and guests were going live from the location all through the day. Production staff arrived at 4am in the morning to set things up, some even spent the night there after parking the Outdoor Broadcast vans at the venue the previous night. No other channel was as enthusiastic about the elections as PT, but Thanthi TV came close, with at least 4 units if not more. Not to mention the tens of other TV cameramen, print photographers, web journalists and support staff, slogging it out all day, and all night. “Not even for MLA or MP elections did we work so hard” was a common refrain. And yet, we all stood there, jostling with each other, trying to report the latest news development.

During a press briefing at 10pm, an irate ‘election officer’ asked the media, “don’t you have brains?” in response to a question. As journalists started plotting their revenge on him for his rude behaviour, one among them remarked, “We deserve it, for standing here all day and waiting for him to announce results for these great elections.”