It is matinee time in Tamil Nadu politics again. Another film star is dropping enough hints that he is ready to take the plunge.
This week, actor Vijay — arguably the biggest star in Kollywood since the arrival of Rajnikanth — made his first full-fledged political gambit when he formally felicitated class 10 and 12 toppers at a highly publicised event in Chennai.
Though he did not say anything overtly political apart from telling the students to read extensively about leaders like Ambedkar, E V Ramasamy and Kamaraj, the fact that Vijay chose to pick toppers from the 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu is seen as a pointer to his inclinations and ambitions.
(Normally, toppers are identified from, say, districts and cities, but seldom has Assembly segments been the target area).
The talk of Vijay entering the political arena has been doing its rounds for the last five years or so. And he also kept providing grist to the speculation mill with leading and pointed dialogues in his films.
In Mersal, there was some line against the GST.
In Sarkar, the target was freebies culture. In Thalaiva, the tag line 'Time to Lead' landed the film in trouble, and it had to be removed to ensure its release.
Even the monicker that his fans use for him, 'Thalapathy', is a straight contest with M K Stalin who is also referred to with the same chosen title.
Kollywood and politics: A never-ending love story
Of course, in Tamil Nadu, from filmdom to politics is just like moving from IITs to IIMs — different fields but a natural progression in the existing scheme of things.
It all started with K R Ramaswamy, the man who is forgotten now but he was the star who pioneered the trend of an actor leveraging his stardom for political popularity.
A singing star, he was a popular hero of the 40s and was seen as a replacement to M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, whose career stumbled to a halt with his arrest in the now infamous Lakshmikanthan murder case in 1944.
For a brief period in the late 40s and early 50s, KRR's career zoomed to great heights, and his popularity was sought to be used by the then DK leaders, especially C N Annadurai who was his close friend.
KRR helped to collect huge funds for the then fledgling Dravidian party, and in 1960 he was made a Member of the Legislative Council (now abolished).
It is on the trail-blazing path set by KRR that leaders like Anna and M Karunanidhi, and much later MGR made their journeys to politics.
Of course, MGR fine-tuned his films to be the main vehicle for his political communication. And from then on, there has been no end to aspirants from Kollywood for Fort St George, the seat of power in TN.
Jayalalithaa, MGR's on-screen leading lady and his political protege, was the most successful after him. Then there was Vijayakanth, who floated his own party DMDK and became a force to reckon with for over a decade, till ill-health pushed him out of the reckoning in the last few years.
Actor Sarath Kumar is another one to float his own party and become an MLA with a small modicum of success. There have also been a bunch of actors and film personalities who became MLAs after aligning themselves with existing parties.
Among the big failures are Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan. Sivaji, who started as a Dravidian party man, became a hardcore Congressman and much later floated his own political outfit, which proved to be a complete dud.
So has been the case of Kamal Haasan's Makkal Neethi Maiam, which exists only on paper for all practical purposes now. The party drew a blank in the last general elections and the local Assembly elections. There is also Naam Tamila Katchi of Seeman, who was a director and actor of middling talent.
NTK has been a rabble-rouser of sorts in TN politics, but its sound and fury is yet to translate into large votes.
Of course, the biggest name of them all Rajnikanth was also all set to jump into the fray with his own party till he developed cold feet at the last moment and pulled himself out much to the disappointment of his fans and ridicule of his detractors.
Does Vijay have it in him to go the whole hog?
Where will Vijay figure in Tamil Nadu politics hall of history? Can he pull off a miracle and go all the way like MGR? Or will he end up in a whimper like Kamal?
Or can he find his way through like Vijayakanth with some assurance? These are questions that won't get easy answers as very little is known about Vijay outside of his film roles.
Vija's public personality is one of a reserved, even diffident, man who is not the most communicative or articulate.
During audio launches, he has made some spirited speeches, and has managed to land a few fun lines, too. But the well protected dais of audio launches are hardly the platforms to judge whether he has the persona to make a good politician.
Even a recluse like Ajith Kumar — Vijay's projected arch rival — could shake off his shackles and make a courageous speech against the stranglehold of Karunanidhi's family over the affairs of Kollywood when he was the Chief Minister in 2010.
In 1996, Rajnikanth displayed his mental fortitude when he openly told the Tamil Nadu public that if it voted for Jayalalithaa again 'even God could not save it'. Rajni's spirited words, some argue, helped the DMK romp home with a huge majority in that year's Assembly elections.
Someone like Vijayakanth, on the other hand, had always displayed strong leadership qualities.
His stint as the head of Nadigar Sangam, the apex body of actors in Kollywood, is cherished as the golden period as he helped the debt-ridden organisation to spectacularly emerge out of the red.
In general, Kollywood enjoyed great clout and wielded considerable power when Vijayakanth was at its helm of affairs. Even as an actor, he had the foresight to have different cells within his fans association and this helped him to make the switch to a political party when the time was ripe.
Vijay has not shown any such special skills that you would associate with a natural leader. But from what we hear, he has organised his fans' organisations into social welfare units that can be bunched into a political outfit when the time comes.
However, there are also some who argue that Kamal too had such social welfare groups but it didn't help even to cause a small ripple in Tamil Nadu politics so far.
The fact of the matter, however, is Vijay enjoys a huge popularity, especially among the young crowd. Such a huge fan base will come in handy if and when he chooses to go public with his political outfit.
But why now?
There is also a school of thought that actors in Tamil Nadu choose the political path not just for power but also for pelf that can help further their - ahem - film career.
Sarath Kumar would have fallen by the wayside as an actor if he had not kept himself in circulation through politics. Now, he is back as a character and villain actor.
This career extension has been possible because politics kept him visible even when his films were floundering.
Somebody like Kamal Haasan seems to have come to a creative crossroads after his Vishwaroopam 2 proved to be a box-office disaster.
The diversion of hosting the Big Boss reality show on television also seemed to sap his energies for films. In the event, his political dive proved to be a much needed diversion.
With his political career not going anywhere, Kamal, who had made bold to say that he was giving up films for good, chose to go back on his words and did Vikram, which proved to be a major hit.
Now his film plate is crowded with new ventures and politics is now a part-time hobby, useful to hobnob with the mighty and powerful — a typical kink when one gets old.
Anyway, is Vijay ready for the long haul or he wants to enter politics to further his agenda, whatever it may be? It is difficult to tell. But what seems clear is that his focus is not immediate but some distant future, say, the 2032 Assembly elections.
That is why he is targeting school and college students now — the ones who will be a prime voting segment in the 2030s. In that sense, Vijay's potential rivals are Udayanidhi Stalin, Annamalai and Seeman, all of who potentially have political careers in the next decade.
Political parties and leaders have reacted with typical restraint on Vijay's possible entry into politics. But all hell will break loose, when he makes his plans clear. As of now everyone is in the mode (to borrow one of Vijay's famous words in Thuppakki): "I am waiting".
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