A reporter’s account of covering ‘Naalai Namadhe’ – Kamal Haasan’s political rally that took place on February 21
On the morning of February 2o, when two photographers and I decided to trail actor Kamal Haasan on his political tour across districts, there was a sore lack of dosais at breakfast. The small dine-in along National Highway 45 at Tindivanam had run out of dosai batter at 10 am, and only served up pooris, the kind that comes with a side of potatoes and onions. That didn’t quite make up for dosais, of course, but held us in good stead till lunch – a meal of rice and succulent naatu kozhi [chicken] curry (Rs 180 per person, cheaper than the fare in Chennai) cooked in a clay pot at a tiny restaurant in Karaikudi. And that was where – apart from the 1,000 jannal veedu [quite simply, a house with 1,000 windows built by the native Nattukottai Chettiars in 1941] – we chanced upon an essential something that a politician needed to announce himself: A lone poster featuring Kamal Haasan on the arm of Queen Elizabeth II (shot during the launch of Marudhanayagam in 1997), accompanied by flowery prose – the Prince who was adored by the Queen of England herself! Naalai Namathe! Forever in support…
It seemed that Kamal Haasan had arrived – in the world of posters, at least. From Trichy onward – as we advanced slowly owing to multiple stops to document the tour – there was a steady trickle of banners; some featuring Rajinikanth, some featuring Kamal, until Ramanathapuram. There, after an unsuccessful attempt at meeting the Raja of the palace (Raja Kumaran Sethupathi of the Ramnad Zamindari, descendants of the chieftains of the region) – we needed an appointment, apparently – we drove to Rameswaram where we met with many Kamal fans, some of whom had come all the way from Bengaluru. While Saravanan, a carpenter from Bengaluru quoted lines from “Unnal Mudiyum Thambi” at us, another supporter, Kuppuswamy, who works as a security guard, equated Kamal to MGR. There were barely any women, and a few that we managed to spot refused to talk to us. Learning that the actor-politician was to spend the night at Hyatt Place in Rameswaram, we came upon the hotel on the Madurai-Dhanushkodi National Highway; Haasan, after a brief wave to supporters, disappeared within, only to emerge the next morning to visit the ‘House of Kalam’.
We chose to stay at the Amman Residency, a new establishment right opposite the Hyatt Place. The amenities were pretty basic, with a rent of Rs 1,600 per night.
On February 21, the day when Kamal Haasan was to begin his tour at the ‘House of Kalam’, reporters and fans thronged the place, tea kadais did brisk business, and Shahul Ameer, a tea stall owner in Rameswaram had plastered a poster of Kamal and Kalam over the green walls of his house. And for us, in a turn of fortunes when compared to the previous day, all we could afford to eat over the course of the rushed tour was a meal of tea and biscuits.
Soon after breaking his fast with Kalam’s family, Kamal left to meet the fishermen at Ganesh Mahal, briefly stopping outside Kalam’s school where he was denied entry by the Tamil Nadu government so as to not politicise an institution. At Ganesh Mahal, we heard unhappy murmurs as the actor couldn’t make time for the number of fishermen who had come armed with petitions. He quickly made amends at the press meet that took place a while later, turning over the podium to a representative of the fisherfolk, who now gaily referred to Haasan as the “log that would save a drowning person”. After brief stops at the Abdul Kalam memorial and Ramanathapuram palace, we trailed the actor as he almost sped past Paramakudi with an apology, coming back to the podium erected for him – for a brief while – after seeing the surge of people awaiting his arrival. There was no hint of the actor arriving in Manamadurai; “I have to receive Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in Madurai; I will come back soon,” we heard him telling a few women supporters in Paramakudi. Rajendran, a bajji seller in Paramakudi, wasn’t all that enamoured with the new politician’s arrival. Turning vazhakkai bajjis [raw plantain fritters] in hot oil, he told us: “Kamal hasn’t done anything for the place he grew up in. He’s coming here after 15 years, and that too, only after entering politics.”
The Othakadai ground in Madurai where Kamal was set to announce the name of his party and hoist the flag had several logistical issues. The premises, which had the capacity to seat around 20,000, teemed with more people than it could accommodate, half of them drunk and harassing reporters who were about their business. Around 60 bouncers made a human-chain around the podium, holding back photographers who leaned in for a shot. But the policemen were friendly with the press, and a section of the ground was cordoned off, with tight security for women patrons. Politicians aside, we met some really interesting people, like the 35-year-old Sundarapandian who sold homemade sukkumalli kaapi [an infusion of dried ginger and coriander] at thiruvizhas and political rallies. Originally from Theni, he tours across the state, and sometimes to Kerala to sell his stuff – at Rs 10 a cup. “I would support anyone who would let us do our business in peace everywhere,” he told us, “the police in Kerala are uncooperative sometimes.”
When it seemed that every chair had been filled, and every space – however tiny – had been occupied, there was complete lock-down. Bouncers guarded the exit, preventing attendees from getting out till the event was over. The good news? There were toilet facilities within the ground, speakers spoke to the point, and the meeting was wrapped up at the designated time. And even as Konar Mess in Simmakkal – known for its delicious kari dosai, mutton varuval [fry] and nalli [bone marrow of lamb] roast – had shut shop for the day, there was still time enough for a meal of hot idlis and chicken curry at a kaiendhi bhavan [roadside eatery], and mugs of beer later, at Hotel Annamalai International.
Watch a video of our experiences here: