What makes Tamil Nadu film stars think they’re great philosophers and noble politicians?

by Charu Nivedita

By Charu Nivedita

Fans give a milk bath (abhishek) to a poster of film star Rajinikanth on the occasion of the release of his film Kabali (2016). Photo: Prabhu Kalidas Promotion for the Bigg Boss Tamil, presented by Kamal Haasan, 2017. Courtesy Star Vijay

Tamil Nadu is plagued by a culture of hero-worship within which religion and politics are dictated by the red-carpet-and-silver-screen crowd. Here, the Tamil film industry serves as a convenient launch pad into the political arena. This is evident when we consider that five chief ministers of the state started out from film. At present, there are four actors hawk-eyeing the seat of the chief minister: Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijay and Vishal.

A few years ago, I went to visit my journalist friend in his office. I almost gasped when I saw on his table a glass bottle with a severed thumb suspended in formaldehyde. My friend showed me the letter that accompanied the curiosity on his table. The letter was a request to present the bottle with the thumb to Vijay ‘as a token of love’. The crazy fan, I was told, was desperate to secure himself a place in the actor’s heart.

If I’ve observed correctly, Tamils would much rather watch a film review than read one. A film review in print gets maybe a thousand readers, but the same review in the form of a video draws watchers by the million. My video-review of the Ajith Kumar starrer Vivegam garnered 240,000 views in two days along with a string of death threats and obscene abuse. Ajith’s fanatical fans openly declared in a very Marquis de Sade fashion that they’d ‘shove a hot iron rod up my daughter’s cunt’ and rape all the women in my family. India’s recent history – the 2002 Gujarat riots where a foetus was cut out of a woman’s stomach with a machete and the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case where Jyoti Singh was penetrated with a rusted implement – tells me that my countrymen are perfectly capable of perpetrating the most ghastly deeds.

For a week, I didn’t put one toe across my threshold as I feared being cut to pieces

The fanatical fans went on to upload a video in which they enacted a mock-hacking, all the while hurling obscenities at me. At the end of the video, they warned me that they’d lop off my head – a direct threat. I wrote an open letter to Ajith about this and am still awaiting his response.

For a week, I didn’t put one toe across my threshold as I feared being cut to pieces. I refrained from approaching the police because once, when my email was hacked, they summoned me to the station almost 15 times and finally asked me to withdraw my complaint. I had witnessed a police inspector demanding money from cab drivers at around 3pm, standing right in front of the police headquarters. Even when my cab driver was ready to show his documents, the inspector ignored that and ordered him, with great authority, to give 200 rupees to the constable, and leave the place. How can I present a complaint about my issues to such a police force?

There is no reason for them to take me seriously. After all, what is a Tamil writer but lowly scum? Kamal Haasan, an atheist, is our ‘God’ and our ‘Michel Foucault’, and the man has no qualms about being placed in this lofty niche. He hosted a tatty, sensational reality show called Bigg Boss Tamil. At the end of every episode, the participants would make reverence and prostrate before him. I wrote an open letter to him too, criticising his behaviour. On the hundredth day of the show, he asked that people stop falling at his feet, but they did anyway. However, I was relieved that no fingers, toes or dicks were chopped off for the love of Kamal Haasan.

The state has suffered much under the DMK and the AIDMK regime, and more so at present with the clown-rule of AIDMK. So, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have decided to come to the rescue of the people. When Rajinikanth said “Wait for a war in Tamil Nadu!”, he wanted us to understand that we must expect him to enter politics. Kamal ‘Foucault’ Haasan, on the other hand, has not been as cryptic as ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth about his intentions of getting into the political domain. Though everyone else thinks Kamal is a class onscreen-act, I think he’s just an Al Pacino wannabe. But all that is of little import when I consider his political ambitiousness.

When Jayalalithaa was in power (the actor-turned-politician served six terms between 1991 and her death last year), 30m cutouts of the woman – depicted as Mother Mary and Mariamman – were erected in several places. But Kamal Haasan, even before his induction into the political scenario, is being hailed like an almighty god. It scares me to think of what might happen if and when he lands his hindquarters on the hot seat of political power.

More than his political aspirations, I am irked by how the man fancies himself a writer and a poet. His ‘poems’, which get featured in pulp magazines, are mere nursery rhymes and slogans. Kamal, who claims to know literature, introduced a ‘masala’-film (films that mix genres) director as a writer in an episode of Bigg Boss Tamil. Jacques Lacan, who said ‘la femme n’existe pas’, should know that in Tamil Nadu ‘l’écrivain n’existe pas’.

Writers in this state are penniless nobodies who either work clerical jobs to eke out a living or die hungry and unemployed while waiting for their due recognition

Writers in this state are penniless nobodies who either work clerical jobs to eke out a living or die hungry and unemployed while waiting for their due recognition. In Tamil Nadu, a state with a head count of 80 million, a literary work sells a mere 200 copies. And Kamal Haasan royally sticks his middle finger down every Tamil writer’s throat while he, with his so-called writing skills, sells his hokum to commercial film directors and gets acclaimed as a philosopher.

These actors mention eradicating corruption as their reason for entering politics. How will they do it? In films, when the bullets shower on them, they just swat them aside as if removing the fleas from the body of a dog. They think the same about corruption too. When Mahatma Gandhi fought for freedom, he created thou- sands of followers who were ready to sacrifice their lives, like him, and were considered the symbol of virtue. An example: the year is 1924. A village called Kodai Road, near Kodaikkanal. A village that is devoid of basic amenities, even today. How would it have been a hundred years ago? At that moment, a man had come to send off his sixteen-year-old daughter, who was travelling alone, by train, to Madras. The girl had never travelled by train before. To whom could he entrust her safety? There sat four or five youngsters in the same compartment, donning Gandhi caps. The father gained courage. ‘These people will take care of you,’ he said to his daughter. Those youngsters were followers of Gandhi. One of them recounted the incident to me in 1980. But the fans of the heroes of today’s cinema are just lumpens and are only fit to erect huge hoardings for their heroes. Even as I write this, I have received a new threat from a hero’s fan...

From the Winter 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia