On 22 September 1921, Mahatma Gandhi was a changed man, sartorially. He discarded his Gujarati attire, including the turban, for a simple dhoti and shawl. Though he had engaged with the thought of doing so on earlier occasions, Gandhi finally made up his mind to do so during the train journey from Madras to Madurai (then called Madura).
File image of Kamal Haasan. PTI
That morning, Gandhi emerged out of the room on the first floor at 251A, West Masi Street, to proceed to Ramanathapuram, dressed in his 'new' clothes. The place in Madurai where the public saw him in his new loincloth attire is where a statue of Bapu stands today. Gandhi makes a mention of this episode in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
Cut to February 2018, where a man deeply influenced by the life and times of Gandhi will likewise travel from Chennai to Madurai. Like his idol, actor Kamal Haasan will discard his skin " this one full of glitz and glamour " to get into a politician's attire in Madurai. And following in the footsteps of Gandhi, Haasan would also travel to Ramanathapuram on 21 February.
This could well have been a poignant, well-layered scene from one of Haasan's movies. Not a surprise because as a creative person, Haasan knows the power of imagery and is certain to draw this parallel when he articulates his political party's ideology on Wednesday evening.
But Gandhi is not the sole inspiration for choosing Madurai as his launchpad. Though political power was seen as centered in Chennai " by virtue of being the capital of Tamil Nadu " the state was not seen as under the grip of powerful leaders unless Madurai region was under their control. It is significant that MGR, through his political career, contested from Assembly constituencies in and around Madurai.
In 1977, MGR emerged victorious from Aruppukkottai in neighbouring Virudhunagar district, while 1980 saw him shift to Madurai West. Four years later, from his hospital bed in the United States, MGR won from Andipatti in Theni district, a one-hour drive from Madurai city. J Jayalalithaa also chose Andipatti, considered one of the safest seats for the AIADMK, in the 2002 by-election and retained the constituency in 2006.
Vijaykanth, another popular actor-turned-politician in 2005, also started his new innings from Madurai. Looking to mine political capital from the MGR name, Vijaykanth, who is popularly known as Captain, styled himself as "Karuppu MGR" (black MGR). He also pointed out that the former chief minister was his "political guru'', revealing that Janaki Ramachandran gifted him MGR's campaign vehicle, which he was using.
Realising that Madurai and by extension, southern Tamil Nadu was slipping into the grip of the AIADMK, Karunanidhi positioned his elder son MK Alagiri in the city. Though it was also a ploy to ensure Alagiri and MK Stalin had different parts of Tamil Nadu to look after, politically, it resulted in the infamous Thirumangalam formula in a by-election in Madurai district in 2009, where money was openly used to buy votes for the DMK.
Haasan would be more than conscious of this blot when he takes to the mike in Madurai. On several occasions in the past, Haasan has made his displeasure with voters casting ballots for bribes known. Tamil Nadu elections have been notorious for voters having been bribed: Prominent blots include Thirumangalam by the DMK and RK Nagar in Chennai by the AIADMK in December 2017. Madurai, over the years, has also seen a culture of gangs who use the 'arivaal' (machette) to carry out political murders for a price. It will be interesting to watch how the crowd reacts to his call for clean politics.
Along with being seen as the political capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai's history and culture offers the perfect backdrop for anyone looking to make a mark. Madurai, more than Chennai, is seen as the land of the Tamizhan and Haasan can be expected to unleash the flourish of his oratory to impress the crowds in chaste Tamil.
Haasan is conscious of the criticism against him: That he is not a mass leader like Rajinikanth or MK Stalin and that he is considered too high-brow and a tad too intellectual for people in the countryside. Madurai offers him an opportunity to neutralise that impression. The city has been carefully chosen because this is Jallikattu territory, the land of the bull-taming sport. In his 2004 production, Kamal played the title role of Virumaandi, who tames the bull, and this makes him incredibly popular in these parts.
Also, when the Marina uprising took place in Chennai in January 2017 " demanding the lifting of the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu, Haasan was one of the first popular film stars to openly lend it support. He said: "If you ban Jallikattu, then ban biryani as well''. The combination of those who liked him as an actor and those who appreciated him for calling a spade a spade will give Haasan the opening he is looking for.
For the better part of 2017, Haasan was seen more as a Twitter warrior and someone more at ease facing TV cameras in Chennai or a small audience in Harvard. Madurai and the live crowd will, in that sense, be a reality check for the actor who is undoubtedly taking on the most difficult role of his career.