Tamil Nadu has a history of celebrities playing the ‘will they, won’t they’ game about taking the plunge.
There’s a scene in the 2014 Tamil movie Kaththi where actor Vijay explains communism with the help of the humble idli.
“The next idli we eat after our hunger is satiated,” he says, “belongs to someone else.”
This is what political pundits in Tamil Nadu have been up to for the past week – parsing Vijay’s movies for political messaging after the actor indicated he might enter politics. Interacting with school toppers at an event on June 17, Vijay cautioned students against “cash for votes” and urged them to “read Ambedkar, Periyar and Kamaraj”.
Casual bystanders might find this innocuous enough, but given the context of events of the past years, the Chennai event spawned dozens of headlines, op-eds and think pieces on Vijay’s “soft launch” into politics. Members of his fan association told the media that Vijay has “made up his mind”.
We tread with caution though. Similar think pieces appeared when Rajinikanth launched the Rajini Makkal Mandram as the first step in his journey to politics, with multiple hints thereafter. All came to naught when he dissolved the organisation in 2021 and firmly said he had no plans to enter politics in the future.
Vijay, though, is more intriguing.
Clues and context
The parsing of Vijay’s recent movies throws up a lot of fodder for discussion. This list is by no means exhaustive.
During the release of Sarkar in 2018 – the story of one man taking on major political parties in the state – Vijay talked about his plans if he became chief minister “in real life”. “I won’t be acting as a CM, but do my duties honestly,” he said.
As for the movie itself, the AIADMK, in power at the time, called it defamatory because “schemes and objectives of the government have been criticised”. Party workers staged protests at movie theatres across the state, and ministers accused director AR Murugadoss of sedition. The Madras High Court finally directed the police not to arrest Murugadoss, and the producers deleted “controversial” scenes from the movie’s final cut.
Interestingly, Sarkar was produced by Sun Pictures, owned by the DMK’s extended family.
Then there was Bigil in 2019. In the run-up to the release, Vijay criticised the governing AIADMK again and said, “If people place the right person for the job in the right position, then all the issues will be solved.” This was at an event held at a private college in Chennai.
In retaliation, the state government issued a show-cause notice to the college, saying educational institutions must not be used for “political” events.
In 2021, the censor board objected to a sentence spoken by Vijay’s character in Master: “the government doesn’t listen to the people”. Bafflingly, among other cuts, the censor board muted only the word “government” in this sentence in the final cut of the film.
Ahead of Beast in 2022, Vijay said that if his fans want him to “transform into Thalaivan” – leader – “I can’t stop the change.”
And then there was Mersal in 2017, damned by the state BJP for criticising the central government’s GST and Digital India policies. BJP general secretary H Raja suggested Vijay had ulterior motives and “outed” him as a Christian by tweeting a photo of Vijay’s voter ID that had his full name, “Joseph Vijay”. The implication being that Vijay was criticising the Modi government’s policies because of his religion.
This stupendous plan backfired. Raja himself was doxxed with Vijay fans tweeting out his address and contact information. Later, the actor issued a statement – using the letterhead C Joseph Vijay under the words “Jesus Saves” – thanking his fans for making Mersal a success.
There’s more. In 2020, Vijay’s father, producer SA Chandrasekhar, registered Vijay’s fan club, Vijay Makkal Iyakkam, as a political party with the Election Commission. He cryptically said it was his own “initiative.”
Vijay promptly issued a statement saying there was “no relation whatsoever” between him and the party and urged his fans not to join it. He then filed a case against his parents and nine others for using his name for polls and to gather the public.
A year later, members of the fan club contested in rural local body elections. They contested in 169 seats and 129 got elected.
A constellation of stars – but few successes
So, does this matter?
Politicians and cinema go hand in hand in Tamil Nadu – Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa are testament to that. But merely being a superstar is no guarantee of success.
Six years have passed since Kamal Haasan launched his party, Makkal Needhi Maiam. It won no seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, though it came third in 13 seats. It won no seats in the 2021 assembly poll and its vote share fell from about 3.7 percent in 2019 to 2.5 percent. Haasan himself lost to the BJP candidate in Coimbatore South. Several party leaders quit after the election.
Haasan is now seemingly open to alliances – he walked beside Rahul Gandhi in the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Delhi and his party supported the DMK-Congress candidate in the Erode bypoll in February.
Actor R Sarath Kumar bounced between the DMK and AIADMK. He was a Rajya Sabya MP in 2001 on a DMK ticket. He quit the party in 2006 citing “insults and humiliation” and briefly joined the AIADMK until he started the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi in 2007. He was elected as MLA from Tenkasi in 2011 in alliance with the AIADMK, a partnership he would break five years later.
In January this year, he hinted that his party might ally with KCR’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi in the future.
Filmmaker Seeman revived the Naam Tamilar Katchi in 2010. It won no seats in the 2021 assembly poll, but it did increase its vote share from about 3.9 percent in 2019 to over six percent. He’s allegedly set his sights on the 2026 assembly poll. Interestingly, Seeman announced that 50 percent of the candidates fielded by his party will be women – a promise he’s kept for several elections.
Then there’s Vijayakanth. In the memefication of politics, he’s the gift that keeps on giving. But he shouldn’t be written off as a figure of fun because among the constellation of stars trying to make it in Tamil Nadu politics, it’s Vijayakanth who made one of the biggest impacts.
A year after he launched the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, it got a vote share of over eight percent in the 2006 assembly election, and then 10.3 percent in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. The party allied with the AIADMK in 2011 and won 29 seats out of 41 contested. With the AIADMK getting a simple majority and the DMDK being the second largest party, Vijayakanth became the leader of the opposition.
The party’s been on a downward slide since then, with Vijayakanth’s ill health making him step back in party matters.
Going back some decades, K Bhagyaraj started a party in the late 1980s that crashed and burned. T Rajender started two parties but neither made an impact.
The legendary Sivaji Ganesan has a political history too. He was MGR’s peer, but saw little of the former’s political success. Ganesan supported the DMK under Annadurai until the 1950s when he visited Tirupati, triggering criticism from his party. He then joined EVK Sampath’s short-lived Tamil National Party, a breakaway from the DMK. It merged with the Congress, where Ganesan remained. A supporter of Kamaraj and Indira Gandhi, he was a Rajya Sabha MP on a Congress ticket.
When MGR died in 1987, the AIADMK split into two factions, one under J Jayalalithaa and the other under MGR’s wife Janaki. Ganesan quit the Congress, which was also split over whom to support, and launched his own party in 1988, the Thamizhaga Munnetra Munnani. He lost the 1989 election and later joined the Janata Dal.
All this returned to the public eye when Ganesan’s son, producer Ramkumar, joined the BJP in 2021. The Congress, claiming Ganesan as its own, said it was “deeply disappointed”.
As for Rajinikanth’s brief flirtation with politics, perhaps it’s the BJP who is most disappointed. After all, he espoused “spiritual politics”, supported demonetisation (though later criticised its implementation) and the Citizenship Amendment Act, and hailed Modi-Shah as Krishna-Arjuna.
Coming back to Vijay, we’re still far from having any clear understanding of his plans and prospects. But other politicians have been cautiously welcoming, hedging their bets considering his immense popularity.
BJP state president K Annamalai said he “welcomed” Vijay’s speech on cash for votes, while AIADMK chief Edappadi K Palaniswami said “everyone has the right to talk politics in a democratic country”. Sports minister Udhayanidhi Stalin, son of chief minister MK Stalin and an actor-producer himself, said “everyone has the right to enter politics”.
As much as there has been a history of filmstars turned politicians in Tamil Nadu, there has also been a history of stars playing the “will they, won’t they” game. Vijay’s recent moves indicate a strong inclination in the “will they” direction – but still falls short of a clear commitment. It would be premature to make any sort of predictions about his potential political career until we actually see his name on the ballot paper at some point in the future.
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