Mumbai's Tamilians skeptical about Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan's political forays

Feb 04, 2018, 09:34 IST | Benita Fernando and Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

The long line of superstars who have announced or made a foray into Tamil Nadu politics has Mumbai's Tamilians curious but not quite convinced

Alagusundaram, president of the Maharashtra State Head Ilaya Thalapathy Vijay Makkal Iyyakkam, a fan club located out of Dharavi. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Alagusundaram, president of the Maharashtra State Head Ilaya Thalapathy Vijay Makkal Iyyakkam, a fan club located out of Dharavi. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar 

There are about nine daily calendars that hog one wall of a kholi in Dharavi's 90 Feet Road. All have portraits of Tamil superstar Vijay emblazoned on them, among a Photoshop swirl of colours. And, all are from the year 2017. "This year, the fan clubs didn't manage to reach our printer in Sivakasi [Tamil Nadu] on time. Only one fan club, Nanban Boys from Cheetah Camp, did," says A. Alagusundaram, 37.

SK Aathimoolam, 44, the president of the Maharashtra State Head Rajinikanth Fan’s Welfare Association. Pic/Suresh Karkera
SK Aathimoolam, 44, the president of the Maharashtra State Head Rajinikanth Fan’s Welfare Association. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Our megapolis is several miles away from the state where the lines between politics and entertainment are perennially fuzzy, but, out here, every major Tamil superhero has found his fandom. That Tamil Nadu has had a tradition of being star-crazy is no secret. In a precedent that was set by MG Ramachandran, known as MGR, there have been many who have followed suit. Major stars in lead roles, such as the late J Jayalalithaa (Amma) and "Captain" Vijayakanth, found place in Tamil politics. Last year, more names have shown active interest in carving a niche for themselves -"Thalaiva" Rajinikanth, "Ulaga Nayagan" Kamal Haasan, and Vishal made their political plunges, too.

Natarajan is the proprietor of Aurora Theatre in Matunga. While he calls himself a diehard Rajini fan, he prefers to keep entertainment and politics separate. Pic/Atul Kamble
Natarajan is the proprietor of Aurora Theatre in Matunga. While he calls himself a diehard Rajini fan, he prefers to keep entertainment and politics separate. Pic/Atul Kamble

The man who started it all, MGR's breakthrough came in the 1950 film Manthiri Kumari, written by M Karunanidhi (who, interestingly, would become an arch political rival). MGR's popularity rose with Malaikkallan (1954). A year earlier, the actor, born to Malayalee parents in Sri Lanka, had joined the CN Annadurai Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and in 1972, he left the party, now led by Karunanidhi, to form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Five years later, he won the state assembly elections becoming the chief minister and routing the DMK in the process.

Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan at a function in Chennai in April 2017. Pic/PTI
Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan at a function in Chennai in April 2017. Pic/PTI

A Mahim resident remembers when MGR arrived in Mumbai post the 1977 elections. "I had met him. I was 14 years old and had made a garland of roses. He actually wore it. That's how large-hearted he was," says Shahul Hameed, now 55. Hameed was a reel operator at Matunga's Aurora Talkies for 35 years. When asked about MGR turning politician, he says with the fervour only a Tamilian fan can muster, "He became one because the public made him one. He didn't need to become a politician. He was a good man and had good relations with all parties."

The Maharashtra State Head Ilaya Thalapathy Vijay Makkal Iyyakkam is sure that Vijay will get their support should he enter politics. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
The Maharashtra State Head Ilaya Thalapathy Vijay Makkal Iyyakkam is sure that Vijay will get their support should he enter politics. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Will Rajini or Kamal gather an equal amount of public favour? No, is his short answer. The long one is: "Not just his fans, everyone liked MGR. He did a lot for the party, but also did a lot of work outside the party. Not Rajinikanth. He's a great person, no question about that, but today's stars do everything only for their films."

The Thalaiva conundrum
In Dharavi, known to host one of the largest densities of Tamilians in the city, the mood is one of mixed feelings. There are those who view the matters of the South with complete objectivity, and then there are those whose hearts are inextricably tied to the actors they support. At Jaya Priya Radios or JPR as it is called on 90 Feet Road, a discussion has been in progress just moments before we enter. JPR is a leading cable television provider in the area, and also has its own channel, providing news in both Hindi and Tamil. Its owner, Pakianathan, lost the BMC elections last year by 800 votes and is strongly committed to the Congress.

A rousing welcome ahead of a Kabali screening at Aurora in 2016
A rousing welcome ahead of a Kabali screening at Aurora in 2016

On Thursday evening, he and his friend, PN Natarajan, also a Congress party member, have been discussing the new starry faces that have entered TN politics. "None of them will be able to hold sway in the days to come. It looks like Kamal Haasan has already slowed down quite a bit. But, the public in Tamil Nadu is weird - they go crazy after these actors," says Natarajan.

He left Kanyakumari, his hometown in Tamil Nadu, and arrived in Dharavi in 1971. He now runs a steel furniture store in the neighbourhood, and whether it is this geographical distance from his roots or because of the number of years spent here, he finds himself Mumbaikar first, Tamilian second. He is sceptical about the fate of Rajinikanth - whose charismatic appeal has earned him a huge fan base - in Tamil Nadu. "The only way Rajini can win is if he forms his own party, and doesn't make alliances with others. Even so, I don't think he has taken a strong stand for the Tamil cause. Take the Cauvery issue. Have you heard him state clearly about it in recent days?" he says.

Chembur resident Vignesh Santhanam (extreme right) and his family are Kamal Haasan’s fans. Yet, he doesn’t think the actor’s star power will see him through elections. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Chembur resident Vignesh Santhanam (extreme right) and his family are Kamal Haasan’s fans. Yet, he doesn’t think the actor’s star power will see him through elections. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

But Rajini rules
In random sentences, SK Aathimoolam, a Matunga resident, doesn't refer to Rajinikanth by his name. He is "Thalaiva" to the 44-year-old, who has been the president of the Maharashtra State Head Rajinikanth Fan's Welfare Association ever since he was a 12-year-old. He recalls that as a child, before cable TV brought hit movies to televisions, he and his friends would collect money to rent video cassettes of the actor's films.

Though the actor had made his debut in Tamil films in 1975, these were often supporting or antagonistic roles. It was finally Suresh Krishna's Annamalai (1992), a remake of Bollywood's Khudgarz, in which Rajini played the eponymous character of a poor milkman, that first brought him a cult following and his now several fan clubs. It's also Annamalai that both Aathimoolam and Natarajan, the 55-year-old proprietor of Sion's Aurora theatre, recall as the first film that made them Rajini fans. Yet, the trajectory of fandom is different for the two.

For Aathimoolam, whose fan club regularly distributes laddoos on Rajini's birthday, conducts blood donation camps, even buys free tickets for his fans along with snacks at Aurora, there's no question that the Thalaiva will made a good politician. "He doesn't need the money. He has already made it with hard work. He doesn't need the fame. His films do well even in countries like Singapore, Japan and Malaysia. So, he is getting into politics to do good work."

Aathimoolam recalls a recorded voice message that the actor had left his fans in 2011 when he was flown to Singapore to the National Kidney Foundation there. Rajinikanth had been admitted to Chennai's Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre on May 13 that year after complaining of fever and breathlessness. Following a diagnosis of pneumonia and gastro-intestinal complications, he was put on dialysis and later taken to Singapore for further treatment. In the recorded message, Rajinikanth said: "Kannugala! I am Rajinikanth speaking. I am an actor paid for my work. But the love and care you shower on me is abundant. With all your prayers and God's blessings, I will come back soon from Singapore and meet all of you with my head held high."

But, while, for an Aathimoolam, the Thalaiva can do no wrong, Natarajan says he prefers to keep his entertainment different from his politics. As a Thailaiva fan, he has seen many a film release here at the theatre that he runs along with his brother, Nambi Rajan. Giant cut-outs of Thalaiva have been bathed in milk at this place, over the years. Buses brimming with fans, all the way from Malad and Reay Road, have made their way here to catch the first shows of a Rajini film, sometimes at 5.30 am. "Tamil Nadu has had a history of blocking national parties from entering the state, and, for Rajini to make it there, it is best if he aligns himself with local parties," he says. But, no one, he says, can match the commandeering stature of Amma. "When she would come in a helicopter, people would prostrate themselves on the ground. Have you seen such a thing happen anywhere else in the world?" he marvels.

The December 31, 2017, announcement that he would be joining politics would not have actually been Rajini's first venture into politics. Since 1996, the actor has made several political overtures, to Congress (under PV Narasimha Rao) and to the DMK, but with little impact. He protested against Karnataka's stance on releasing the Cauvery water after being criticised for not doing so. In 2014, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sparking off rumours of joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this he called a courtesy meeting. Even now it is not clear whether he will join an existing party or start his own.

Find your fans
It's possible, however, that the superstar who has raised the most number of questions about his interest in Tamil politics is none other than Vijay. In Dharavi, he is a familiar face. It is common to see banners and hoardings raised around the area in the name of Ilaya Thalapthy, or Young Commander, as Vijay is referred to popularly. His fan club, Maharashtra State Head Ilaya Thalapathy Vijay Makkal Iyyakkam, has been headed in Maharashtra by Alagusundaram for the last 18 years, and has within it 70 branches across Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Solapur. Printing the calendars is just one of the many activities that the association of 3,000 members undertakes. Their hero, whom they refer to as "Anna", is at the centre of all their endeavours, be it making charitable donations to orphanages or doing a food donation drive.

Last October, rumours were rife that the 43-year-old actor, whose full name is Joseph Vijay, was likely to enter politics. His film, Mersal, was caught in controversy, after the BJP raised objections to dialogues and scenes that criticised GST and the tragic death of children in Gorakhpur. As the BJP insisted in having these scenes deleted, it seemed that they were inadvertently paving the path for Vijay's entry into politics.

But, surely, as everyone else has been saying, is Vijay capable of leaving a blazing trail in Tamil Nadu? Alagusundaram has no doubt about it. "His father, who is like our father, is SA Chandrasekhar, who has been a guiding figure in Vijay's life, and continues to do so. Besides, there are few actors in Tamil cinema who keep as much in touch with their fans as Vijay does," he says. As proof, he pulls out letters, handwritten by Vijay on a letterhead that the actor uses, which have birthday wishes as well commendations for the fine work that his fan base is doing. "He has shown so much interest for the people, that if he ever signs up for politics, it will be but natural for him to do so," says Alagusundaram, going on to list some instances - how Vijay puts gold rings for children born on his birthday at a hospital in Chennai, how he comforted the grieving family of a student who committed suicide in 2017.

"Moreover, Anna has always told his fans that family comes first, then job, then friends, and then, if you have the time, the fan club. He keeps in touch with us regularly. Tell me, do you think Rajini meets his fans often? That makes a difference," he says.

But, there are still those who prefer to be circumspect. Among those sceptical of the stars' power to garner votes should they stand for elections is Chembur resident Vignesh Santhanam. He is not sure if Kamal Haassan's on-screen popularity will garner votes off screen. The 32-year-old who works with a startup also says, "Tamil Nadu has had a history of not allowing central parties unless there's an alliance - of course except for Karnataka. Rajini is showing signs of aligning with the BJP. Will this be the entry point for the party to TN? Will the state's people accept that? They love Rajini but will they allow a central party in?"

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