The stage was similar: Madurai, the seat of Tamil culture, was once again providing the stage for the political entry of an actor. In September 2005, it was ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth. In February 2018, it is Kamal Haasan.
But while the stage might have been the same, the reception that two of Kollywood’s biggest stars received as they leapfrogged into the political arena was completely different.
Kamal chose to mark his political entry on Wednesday with a roadshow that began at former President Abdul Kalam’s residence in Rameswaram. He went on to address a band of supporters as he traveled through Ramanathapuram, his hometown of Paramakudi, and Manamadurai, ending the day with a political rally at Madurai. He unfurled his party flag and announced its name in the presence of Delhi Chief Minister and AAP national convenor Arvind Kejriwal, AAP leader Somnath Bharti, and a farmers’ leader PR Pandian.
While arrangements were made for 20,000 chairs at the Ottakattai grounds, the crowd that turned up for Kamal Haasan’s launch was around 10,000.
The launch of Vijayakanth’s DMDK at Thiruparankundram 13 years ago was in stark contrast. Reporters like Tirupathi, who covered the launch in 2005, recalled that Captain’s debut political rally was massive. “The crowd for Vijayakanth could have easily touched 1 lakh. His timing into politics was right. He had a mass following at the time. It was just before the 2006 Assembly elections.”
Fan clubs versus social welfare movement
Lakshmi Subramanian, Special Correspondent with The Week, who covered both Vijayakanth and Kamal Haasan’s launch, points out that the difference in numbers comes down to the fan clubs. “Vijayakanth kept his fan clubs alive, whereas Kamal Haasan’s fan clubs were converted into a social welfare movement. He did not carry out any activity with fan clubs. I counted only 43 posters between Paramakudi, and Ramanad today. Kamal’s fan clubs say police didn’t allow them to put up posters, but they have to do it on their own."
She recalls that in contrast Vijayakanth had cultivated his fan clubs over the years, ensuring that it could be converted into a political vehicle at the right time.
In the run-up to the launch of DMDK, The Hindu’s V Jayanth writes how Vijayakanth and his wife Premalatha carefully cultivated Captain’s fan associations.
“It has been very much on the cards for over a year, but the meticulous planners that he and his wife Premalatha are, the process has been organised into a gradual build-up for the actual launch. Preparatory to his entering politics, the successful film hero has set up different wings of the fans association, on the model of a political organisation. There are a students' wing, a youth wing, an agricultural forum, and another for advocates and the basic fans' clubs that have taken care of social service. All that Vijaykanth needs to do is to convert the whole apparatus into a political vehicle,” reported The Hindu in May 2005, months before the launch.
The circumstances around the launch were also vastly different, argues Lakshmi. “Vijayakanth projected himself as an alternative to the Dravidian heavyweights - AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa and DMK’s Karunanidhi. Kamal Haasan’s entry is at a time when there is a political vacuum in the state. Politics in Tamil Nadu has revolved around Karunanidhi for the past 50 years. Who will Kamal come up against?” she asks.
Another senior journalist TNM spoke to, who covered both the political launches at Madurai, says the massive crowd Vijayakanth drew also reflects on the audience that he was catering to in cinema. “Vijayakanth has fans in rural areas, while Kamal has catered to the A section of audience, primarily from urban areas,” says the journalist.
Paid attendees vs paying for the ride
And while many political reporters note that some of the crowds that came for Vijayakanth may have been paid to attend the rally, it did not appear so in the case of Kamal.
And while it was expected that people would come in from multiple districts to attend the rally, what was surprising is that most had come on their own penny.
"Kamal sir made it very clear that he will not pay us to come to the rally. Every single one of us has paid for our own transport and food," says 29-year-old Gopalakrishnan, who had come from Dindugal District with 300 others.
"He is here to create change and if we don't become part of it, how will it happen? Other political parties may choose to pay for crowds. But Kamal won't," he adds.
Chitra and Selvam, a couple from Trichy were rushing to the exit when TNM caught up with them."We came here this morning. Now we have to catch a bus to the station and then get on a train, "says Selvi. "We came all the way because we believe that Kamal is the solution to the terrible administration that we have today. Their corruption affects every one of us and we need a way out," she adds.
Chitra and Selvam
Interacting with people
The crowd's belief that Kamal was the answer to their problems was further cemented when he did what most political leaders would never dare - take questions from the public.
The very first questions was why - Why now?
Kamal began with a cryptic answer, “I was in your heart all these years and now I want to be in your homes."
As crowds stared unconvinced he followed up minutes later with a soliloquy on how the current political scenario in the state had left him angry. He was clearly referring to multiple allegations of corruption that haunt the AIADMK government.
“Till now, for all the love that you have given to me I have just waved a hand at you. But seeing what is happening around has made me so angry. And I feel it is time I work for all of you to return the love that you have given to me," said Kamal.
The question that however garnered the most attention and amusement from audience was on whether he would continue the 'scooter and quarter' culture. (a quarter is a moniker for a bottle of liquor).
Freebie politics has been the backbone of AIADMK and DMK's electoral victories over the last decade.
But the actor made it clear that his path will be paved differently.
"I will empower you all enough to get your own scooters," he said, to a round of loud applause.
For the audience, just his choice to interact freely proved to be a game changer.
"People like Rajinikanth won't even let us stand too close to him, leave alone answer our questions. But we see clarity in Kamal's answers," says Bala, a college student from Trichy. "More questions will definitely arise as his journey continues. But for now we are satisfied about his sincerity to help us. "