She is not a glamorous star like her leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa once was. She is, what the Tamils would call, a ‘homely type’, perfectly suited to play the roles of a mother of teenage girls or a cantankerous mother-in-law. No specific film or teleserial comes to mind when one thinks of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) Pallavaram candidate CR Saraswathi. But her smiling face is inordinately familiar – having beamed at the electorate from their television screens for many years in supporting roles played in popular teleserials.
Saraswathi begins her hectic campaign schedule early. “Come to the election office sharp at 6.30 am otherwise it will be difficult for you to catch me,” she told this reporter over phone.
The Pallavaram AIADMK election office though was locked at 6.30 am. Wondering if she had already left for her campaign, I called her again. “Oh! You’ve already come? I am on my way. Will be there in 10 minutes,” she stated in her matter of fact manner.
Two rooms thatched with coconut fronds in the midst of a big playground consisted of her election office. Two big cut-outs of former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran and AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa were placed on either side of the office.
Two cars screeched to a halt at the office shortly. CR Saraswathi got out of one, a Toyota Innova, with folded hands and apologised profusely for the delay. “Sorry thambi (younger brother), on the way I had to meet with the Muslim leaders of a local mosque and that is why I am late,” she said. “Shall we have some coffee?” she asked, and without waiting for a reply she sent someone to get it. Sitting MLA of Pallavaram, Dhansingh, was also present. The time was 7 am.
“See, since today is Sunday there are not many people around, else by this time we would have been on our way for campaigning,” she explained. “Meanwhile, let us finish our interview before the others arrive.”
Saraswathi has not done very much except to act and indulge in the occasional social work, according to her own admission. In 1999, she joined the AIADMK – her familiar face helped her role as a star campaigner in the state. Saraswathi is also clearly in awe of her leader Jayalalithaa.
“From my acting days, I was interested in social service,” she said. “My admiration for MGR drew me towards the AIADMK and later the governance of Amma and her personality catapulted me into full time politics.”
Saraswathi has been given a ticket this time for her vehement and at times ludicrous defense of her leader and her party on television news debates in Tamil. She was appointed a spokesperson for the party in 2014 – the first time the AIADMK made such a move – and her obvious and shrill worship of her leader earned her the favour of the powers that be. Initially, Saraswathi was to contest the Thyagaraya Nagar seat in Chennai, an upper middle class urban locality. The AIADMK’s local unit protested vehemently at her candidature and Jayalalithaa shifted Saraswathi to Pallavaram instead, giving T Nagar to the party’s district secretary Sathyanarayana.
“Without any demur I did all that was asked of me by our leader,” she explained. “So, now she has introduced me as a candidate and given me a huge responsibility. I just need to mention the achievements of our party in the last five years to the people and that will be enough to get us victory,” she smiled.
This is the first ever time that Saraswathi will contest polls. She is banking on recognition, being a familiar face in Tamil TV dramas, to win votes. Amma, of course, is the star of the show.
Greeting residents near the Madras Institute of Technology, she obliges youngsters with selfies. She may not recognise her electorate but she knows they do. When she sees women she talks to them like she would to old friends. “Are you well?” she asks them. “If you want to continue your well being, you should vote for Amma. I know that you will vote for her, but I have to say my bit too, and that’s why I am saying,” she smiles winningly.
Saraswathi is not just a first time candidate but is also not from the area. She has not had the chance to work in the constituency before and she is candid about it. “I have shifted my house here itself,” she tells her prospective voters. “Don’t think that I live far away from you.” Saraswathi has moved from her home in Ashok Nagar to a place in Pozhichalur in Pallavaram since her candidature was announced.
In a state where cinema and politics are intertwined, actors have realised that a tango with politicians would more likely than not, destroy their film career. Case in point is comedian Vadivelu who campaigned vigorously for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2011 as a star campaigner. While he drew the crowds and the television ratings, the DMK lost miserably. Vadivelu became an untouchable in the film world, getting no offers and finally managing to land just one film, which too bombed at the box office.
More film stars have joined political parties this year. Actor Namitha who recently joined the AIADMK and ‘Power Star’ Srinivasan as well as actor Vijaykumar who joined the BJP, are expected to boost campaigns with their speeches and presence.
Tamil Nadu’s Chief Ministers, since CN Annadurai of the DMK, have all come from the film world. DMK Chief M Karunanidhi was a powerful screenplay writer for films, whose words catapulted his would-be rival and actor MG Ramachandran to fame. MGR subsequently went on to become Chief Minister, followed by his protégé and co-star Jayalalithaa. Since 1969, the chief minister’s seat has been held by these three leaders.
Saraswathi is trying hard to woo voters in an area alien to her. And to this end, she is willing to play her role of the approachable affectionate candidate to the hilt. As is evident from her public display of camaraderie even with a German Shepherd dog which was being taken for a walk while she was campaigning. Luckily he did not bite.