A few days back, the legend that is Kamal Haasan released his Vishwaroopam 2 Poster, a striking tone of patriotism and also subtle messaging as always. It almost felt like a political statement. This, after a series of fiery tweets and interviews on the current political situation in Tamil Nadu.
Now, Kamal Haasan is not someone known for hugely political statements. So when he came all guns blazing with tweets right and centre, the Twitterati were shocked and perplexed. In the tamil cine-political sphere, it is often his great rival Rajinikanth who was forever spoken as a political force and the next great hope. With his son of the soil looks and larger than life personality and films, the Superstar was pictured as the next MGR for nearly all my life. However, bar a brief yet fiery cameo in 1996, Rajini has more or less stayed away from politics.
But is Kamal Haasan really apolitical? In fact, it is astonishing to me that people have not been able to notice how political Kamal Haasan and his films are. I have never seen another actor speak against the system, question patriotism, quote communist thoughts or make hard hitting and realistic movies about caste and its ills like he has done. And amazingly, he has done all this being a mainstream megastar with countless blockbusters under his name. With this piece of writing, I would like to point out 5 movies where Kamal Haasan has been bolder than anybody else in expressing his politics.
The Politics of Hunger and Unemployment — Varumayin Niram Sivappu
One of my all time favourite films, this 1980 K Balachander classic was a bold and daring portrayal of the vagaries of the early 80s. My parents often recall those times and tell me tales of unemployment and distress which I could never fathom. Until I saw this film. Kamal Haasan plays the lead to an ensemble cast which includes an incredible Sridevi. A tragedy, a black comedy, satire and drama, the film had it all. This is one of the earliest films showing the political anger of Kamal Haasan who plays Rangan with ease and aplomb that belies his age at that time. The film had so many hard hitting scenes and shows us some of the most discomforting characters, like the leech of a father who exploits his own daughter for money. Kamal’s Rangan was a fiery, Bharathi quoting, rationalist young man with a strong communist lean. There is the famous interview scene with Kamal spitting out furiously at the interviewers which sum up the anger of a whole generation :
“Red Tapeism Down Down, Bureaucracy Down Down, Nepotism Down Down, Favouritism Down Down ! Vaazhgha Bharatham !
If that is not a political statement, then I don’t know what is !
The Politics of Caste and Power struggle — Thevar Magan
As a young boy, I watched this movie with a certain innocence and did not understand the underlying caste implications and an underbelly of years of feud and discrimination that surround the Dalit/Thevar politics. One of the greatest screenplays ever made, Thevar Magan had two colossuses of Tamil Cinema, Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan as father and son. I do not recall any other movie which hit the nail on the head with regards to the caste politics that still prevail till date. That too, when a megastar like Kamal portrays it, it reached a wider audience and made people wake up from their slumber of comfort. Thevar Magan asked uncomfortable questions again on whether the society has really moved on from caste superiority and discrimination of certain sections. Despite controversies of caste glorification, it is one of the most authentic representations of rural Tamil Nadu and dangers of caste politics and caste pride.
The Politics of Religion and Nationalism — Hey Ram
A film that was about a man’s plot to kill the Mahatma ! To avenge his wife’s death for which he blames Gandhi. You could not get more controversial than questioning the holiest of holy leaders that our country celebrates. Hey Ram was a cinematic masterpiece, unfortunately, more known for its controversies rather than the magic on screen it was. The film follows the aggrieved Saket Ram in his pursuit of revenge by killing the Mahatma and at the end, realising the futility of his anger and the magnanimity of the man he wanted killed. The film raised questions on nationalism, Hindu-Muslim bond and the narrative of Muslims in our collective struggle to free ourselves. Kamal Haasan wrote, directed and acted in this magnificent take on one of the most turbulent times in Indian History.
The Politics of Death Penalty — Virumaandi
I consider this as the most accomplished film directed by Kamal Haasan. With a Rashomon-inspired narration to boot, Virumandi was a raw and visceral take on egoistic men, their quest for blood and more importantly, the state’s right to take a life. Virumandi questioned the rule of land asking how can you solve a crime by committing another on behalf of the state. With some amazing music by the maestro again, this film explored the dingy lanes of jails, the caste politics present within and threw light on how power can be abused in the name of the law. It questioned the effectiveness of force when the same ills that affect the society corrode the walls of justice and more importantly, how can a state promote the philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye’. The fight he had to undertake to hold onto the name ‘Sandiyar’ is another political struggle which needs a separate article.
The Politics of Communism vs Capitalism — Anbe Sivam
Only Kamal Haasan can take a cue from Planes, Trains and Automobiles and mount such a heady topic as Capitalism vs Communism through the inimitable Anbe Sivam. Featuring breathtaking performance from Kamal and Madhavan, Anbe Sivam weaved a wonderful journey across multiple states and presented us a beautiful concoction of the idealistic communist Nalla Sivam and staunch Capitalist Anbarasu or A Aras (enakku anbu pidikkadhu) as Madhavan puts it. The conversations between the two are a connoisseur’s dream with each outdoing one another featuring some of the most pristine dialogues by Cartoonist Madhan. The verbal volleys then transcend to Theist vs Atheist debates but also, how both are like sides of the same coin. Kamal presents us some of the most hard-hitting dialogues questioning the younger generation’s ready acceptance to work relentlessly for MNC’s while looking down upon their own nation and how Communism is still alive, in the heart of the Communists regardless of whether they have nations behind them. Anbe Sivam was a heady cocktail of so many pertinent questions which made us laugh, cry and think about.
As you can see, I am really surprised on how people missed this aspect of Kamal Haasan. All his films are his political statements. In fact, I cannot find a parallel in world cinema where a mainstream actor did the impossible triple jugglery of being a Commercial Hero with Arthouse acting capabilities and also carry a political message within.
Let me finish it by saying
Yaar endru purigirathaa
Ivan thee endru therigirathaa
Nyaabagam varugirathaa !
Written by - Aditya Raghavan