Last night when the harried and hounded southern superstar Kamal Haasan sat in front of TV cameras, India witnessed an extraordinary spectacle: the entire country standing by the actor in absolute solidarity.
I cannot recollect another incident in the recent past when the creme of national media went out of their way to tell an artist, who refused to cow down to the demands of fundamentalists and the establishment, in such resolute terms that they were with him.
That the country was with him.
It was unequivocal, unconditional and extremely reassuring for people who believe in free speech and those who are not cozy with the establishment. After his dramatic Wednesday morning threat of self-exile, the reply by the nation through prime time TV on Thursday night summarised the story of a promising urban India.
Kamal, who confessed that he felt lonely in this battle sitting at home on Wednesday, looked visibly moved and energised. He repeated that “applause” was a succor that artists like him cannot live without as he sat through interviews with one national anchor after another.
My favourite of the four that I watched, was Sonia Singh of NDTV. She was respect and refinement personified.
Whether it was her decision or the channel management’s, it was clear right from the beginning that NDTV was rooting for him. During her conversation with the actor, she played clippings of his fans in Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh vouching for him in theatres, where the movie was running, with a smile that seemed to anticipate signs of fulfillment in the actor.
The way she framed her questions, without interrogating and pushing him into further stress with the state government or Muslim groups, and sought to send out a message to his detractors was extremely refined. The show, perhaps, was the best unpaid PR shot for Kamal.
On Times Now, an otherwise boisterous brand Arnab looked tender, caring and completely in awe of Kamal even as the latter returned some compliments. Arnab kept referring to his personal experience of watching Ek Duje Ke Liye (EDK) as a young boy. Besides the controversy and associated issues, he also nudged Kamal into talking some lighter stuff and narrating anecdotes, such as the actor’s visit to a jail and how another movie Punnagaimannan was conceived to make up for the tragic climax of EDK.
The closing line of Arnab’s interview was dramatic - he told the actor that if ever he felt his Wednesday blues again, he could come to his channel.
Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN too deviated from his regular style to be hospitable to the actor. Without going completely soft or staying away from touching the controversy, Rajdeep’s show also reiterated that the country’s media and people stood by him.
Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today, the youngest of the lot, too was all respect and adulation for the actor. His show connected Kamal with his colleagues and fans, to obviously impress upon the actor, and the audience, that he was not alone. Kamal looked overwhelmed and happy.
It was surprising indeed that a south Indian actor, who has made just a handful of movies in Hindi, was given such a national ovation when he was in trouble. All the anchors directly, or indirectly, told Kamal that he was a national treasure and the country wouldn’t let go of him.
A few days ago, veteran south Indian singer S Janaki declined her Padmabhushan not only because it came too late, but also because such awards failed to recognise south Indian talent. On Wednesday, the national media showed that our national icons transcend borders and nothing divides the spirit of the country.
Going by the adulation and awe that Kamal evoked in national media, I guess it’s safe to assume that people across India are aware of his body of work, although most of it is in Tamil or southern languages.
For me, it was overwhelming because ever since I saw Vishwaroopam in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, since the movie was not released in Chennai, and saw trouble accelerating in Tamil Nadu, I felt sad for this endearing maverick. I felt bad that even a person with such a legacy was helpless against man-made odds in a democratic republic.
Off-putting the establishment had been part of his oeuvre and it’s public knowledge that Vishwaroopam is not the first time that he is running into trouble with the authorities. This film was different because the Tamil Nadu government chose to take a stand that was threatening to muffle him and bankrupt him.
But, many of us remember that Unarchigal, his first ever movie as a hero in Tamil, had run into trouble with the censors in 1972 and was shelved for about four years. At 20, in the beginning of his career, he had no qualms acting as a sexually deviant teenager who contracts a sexually transmitted disease.
Those days, it was sensational and outrageously progressive. I still remember, watching the young Kamal Haasan in Unarchigal as a teenager and getting my first ever lessons on sex-literature and STDs.
Even after the Vishwaroopam trauma, this man will continue to be the enfant terrible of popular cinema. It’s part of his DNA. In fact, he told one of the anchors that he would not change, but would be cautious. I am sure ultimately he will throw caution to the wind.
It’s the obsessive, compulsive, megalomaniacal and opinionated Kamal Haasan that we have been endeared to. He just cannot change. He is not a low budget indie or an art-house apostle.
He is a man of big screen spectacle who loves to wow, shock and get appreciated. We need more of him.
(Firstpost is part of the Network 18 group, which is also includes CNN-IBN that is in competition with other English television news channels)