On a humid Sunday around 11am, it’s business as usual in Ukkadam, a Muslim-dominated area. In a locality that’s a mix of residential and commercial buildings, half the shops are yet to open.
Mohammed Khasim, a marketing executive, talks about voters’ secular choice of candidates in Coimbatore South. About 20 yards from where he stands, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam’s (DMK)-Congress election office, opened to campaign for the party’s ally, the Congress’ Mayura Jayakumar, stands deserted.
As Khasim speaks to the camera, his eyes move in a different direction where men wearing white shirts hold torches in hand and clear the area, asking people on the street to step aside to make way for 4X4 vehicles.
Within seconds, a white car emerges. About 8-10 bodyguards in safari suits surround the car. Moustachioed big-screen actor Kamal Haasan emerges with a smile on his face.
Haasan, who’s contesting from Coimbatore South, neither waves nor makes any speech. The young crowd cheers – “Kamal sir! Kamal sir!” – and tries to grab his attention. People run after the vehicle as it takes a detour from Chinna Palli Masjid towards Karivaradharaja Perumal Temple.
Haasan gets out of the car and a voter loudly airs his concerns. The actor, like the character in his award-winning silent movie Pesum Padam (Pushpaka Vimana), does not speak. He simply indicates that he understands the man’s problems.
Soon Haasan gets into the car again and closes the window, as the vehicle drives past the BJP’s office, which is campaigning for its candidate Vanathi Srinivasan, national president of BJP Mahila Morcha.
The actor heads to open Makkal Needhi Mayyam’s (MNM) election office in the locality, about 400 metres away from the Perumal temple. News reporters chase the vehicle, hoping he would make some political statement. The kids and a few young voters run along to catch a glimpse of Haasan.
Outsiders can barely see his face as bodyguards and his campaign workers surround the car. Two more white cars, a police vehicle, and three other Innovas, painted red with images of Haasan holding a torch, his party symbol, pass by.
The vehicles block the road as they enter the narrow lane in a wholesale rice market area. A voice: “At least now the actor can lower his car window to wave to people or get down and shake hands.” The voter cannot catch a glimpse of the actor and is angered as Haasan whips through the crowd to enter the party office even as drummers continue with dappan koothu (folk music).
A poster outside MNM’s office depicts Haasan with folded hands, saying: ‘Seeramaipom Tamizhagattai… Mattratai Nokki’ – We Will Drive Tamil Nadu Towards Change – and ‘Vaakkalipeer, Vetri Pera Chaiveer’ – You Will Vote and Help Us Succeed.
Haasan entered politics in the age of social media, and is businesslike. The voters, used to theatrics from other politicians, expect the same from him. The flamboyant appearance and the larger-than-life image of the actor appeal to the crowd more than the party’s ideology and manifesto promises. The voters can get the latter two anywhere; it is not often that they get to see the actor in person. They want to listen to him, talk to him, and interact – even if for a few seconds. In other constituencies Haasan happily glad-hands supporters. He visits the fish market, the flower market, takes auto rides, shakes hands. Here the voters feel let down.
Different voters perceive him differently. With a strong anti-incumbency feeling against the ruling AIADMK, voters are leaning towards other parties. Considering the BJP’s hold in the region, some voters declare their support for the saffron party. The shift, though, is largely towards ‘secular’ outfits – the Congress, the MNM and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).
Haasan is confident. The MNM vice president, R Mahendran, had put up a good show in the 2019 parliament election.
The actor tackles thorny issues head-on and speaks in favour of minorities. In the past Muslims have viewed him with suspicion. His film Vishwaroopam ran into trouble with Muslim organisations, which accused the actor of showing the community in poor light. That was in 2013. The matter went to court and Haasan agreed to delete certain scenes from the film.
But suspicions still linger. “We don’t know what he thinks. Maybe he is guarded as this is a locality with temples and mosques and party offices of DMK and BJP,” says Iqbal M, an iron trader. “Anything he says could provoke tensions.”
Young voters are not sure if they want another actor in Tamil Nadu politics. Some think he could divide the secular vote.
That said, middle-class professionals and women in the 30-50 age group support the actor. They say they are tired of both Dravidian parties and are looking for change.
“How long will we keep voting for the same old parties? This time we have an alternative. Let’s give newcomers a chance,” says Reema M, a shopkeeper in Sundarapuram.
Inside a temple, two retired municipal corporation workers express unhappiness with the ruling government. They plan to vote for the DMK, as Hassan has no political experience and has not done anything for the people.
“He’s a novice and hasn’t done much charitable work for the benefit of locals here. We’d rather choose the DMK (Congress) candidate,” says 70-year-old V Ramaraj.