Lights, Camera, Captain! He May Not Have Tasted Power, But Vijayakanth Certainly Blazed the Trail

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The year is 2016, right before Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. The air is thick with fiery politics. Smaller non-Dravidian parties are bonding to form a third-front, a rare occurrence in the state. And they have a crown jewel at the head of the alliance – Vijayakanth.

I meet him at a hotel near Madurai and the campaign is a busy one, evidenced in his weather-beaten face and downcast brows. But he retains his rustic, earthly charm and candour, starting every sentence with a click of the tongue.

In hindsight, my question may have been a little too provocative. “You seem to be gaining a name for being aggressive, even abusive to everyone, including own party men…”

His response, preceded by a click of the tongue: “Not in the slightest. You are here. Have I shown you the slightest aggression?”

WATCH THE 2016 INTERVIEW HERE

Vijayakanth was the quintessential Madurai male – direct, quick to fire-and-ask-questions-later, big-hearted, lovable. For such a man to enter the murky field of politics was, in hindsight, a cruel turn of fate. And he stepped into the muddy waters because that is the inevitable path of larger-than-life Tamil cinema heroes.

But given Vijayakanth’s nature, it’s fitting that he entered the fray when both giants – M Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa – were active.

Born in a powerful intermediary caste in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai – his family was wealthy enough to run its own run mill – Vijayaraj Alagarwami moved to Madras to act in films. Dark-skinned, he was cast in the role of a villain in his first outing, Inikkum Ilamai. But Sattam Oru Iruttarai, a revenge saga, catapulted him to fame.

Growing into a highly bankable action hero who could handle comedy and emotional scenes with equal ease, Vijayakanth specialised in stunts, carving a niche for himself at a time when other actors would pass it off to stunt doubles. Vijayakanth found himself in hero-centric films where he was either an all-capable cop, special investigator, lawmaker or do-gooder vigilante.

By the turn of the millennium, Vijayakanth had huge fan clubs across towns and cities. Bands of admirers followed wherever he went. Unlike other actors who guest-starred in blood donation camps organised by their funded fan clubs, Vijayakanth was on the ground, doing social work himself. It was just who he was.

All his establishments, be it his residence in Chennai or in Madurai, ran community kitchens handing out meals each day to several hundred people from varied walks of life, from the hungry struggler in town for work to the poor, disabled and the homeless. He had to do good every day and passed the trait onto his followers.

With this temperament, passion and conviction, Vijayakanth entered politics in September 2005. He wanted to be an alternative force to the bipolarity of the AIADMK and DMK. He ran with this narrative in the 2006 Assembly elections, winning a strong 8% vote-share. He was elected to the Assembly from Virudhachalam. He recycled the pitch for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Much to his disagreement, he was advised to partner with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK in the 2011 Tamil Nadu elections and that eventually led him to become the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly after a break-up of the alliance (DMK was pushed to the third largest party in the state after the 2011 elections).

This where the tables began to turn. The actor-politician was easily riled in Assembly, leading to scenes of aggressive posturing that did not bode well for his image. He may have been provoked to erupt, but in politics, that’s a weak excuse. Politics is about balance.

More misjudgements followed the break-up of the alliance with Jayalalithaa. In 2016, he banded with smaller regional parties to stand up the Third Front, moving further away from power in Tamil Nadu. His salt-of-the-earth image did not match up to the people’s idea of what their leader should be.

In a campaign rally, he smacked his own candidate in the full glare of the public and news cameras. The sound of contact was picked by the microphones and broadcast to living rooms where voters debated on the short fuse of the actor-politician.

His suffering health meant Vijayakanth had essentially lost all opportunities to rise to power in Tamil Nadu.

But in death, the ‘Captain’, as he was popularly known after his 100th movie Captain Prabhakaran, proved why he was every bit as popular as politicians who had descended from the big screen. The honesty and innocence that proved to be his weaknesses in politics brought him immense love from the public.

Even in death, the ‘Captain’ leaves behind a message for Tamil Nadu – there exists a space in Tamil Nadu for a non-Dravidian leader who can become the Chief Minister. He may not have reached the destination, but Captain Vijayakanth certainly blazed the trail.

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