Kabaddi with Kamal

There is a new news-beat in Chennai journalism these days, and it is called: Chasing Kamal Haasan.

We in the media are covering Kamal 24/7 and the actor cannot step out without clumsily tripping on microphones and camera tripods as an Arupathimuvar utsavam-level crowd of reporters seem to be constantly camped in front of his house every morning. We in the media will willingly hire anyone as reporter if he or she has the requisite journalistic skill of climbing the drainpipe into Kamal’s bedroom. (‘Our reporter just found out that the sewage line in Kamal’s house is clogged, and the Edapaddi government has plenty to answer’.)

And we more or less have an entire editorial desk to monitor whatever Kamal tweets. We look for inner meanings and hidden messages in whatever he says. It also doesn’t help matters that Kamal is that sort of guy who, when you ask what day is today, replies yesterday was not Monday. So even if his tweet just says, ‘Good Morning’, we have people who decipher it as ‘typical Kamal sarcasm’ and take it to be a pointed dig at the State government on some omission or commission.

But why are we chasing him like he is some kind of elusive Scarlet Pimpernel? The reason is — it is not for nothing that some see the Press as the fourth pillar of democracy  — we don’t know. I am not kidding. Every reporter is maniacally running after Kamal because he or she feels because every other reporter will run after Kamal  Admittedly, Kamal is dropping juicy words against the government, but they are, for the most part, random barbs, and don’t merit even half the coverage that we give him.

To understand this phenomenon of reporters pursuing Kamal I decided to pursue the reporters. So I went to a press conference in the city where Kamal and some minor celebrities, for whom the media does not have much time, were present. The minor celebrities list also included a gent named Sachin Tendulkar.

Here is my objective, and totally irresponsible, diary from the event, which was got up for the announcement of a Kabaddi team:

The invite said that the function will begin at 3 p.m. A colleague and I arrive at the swanky hotel by around 2.45 p.m. and we find roughly 250 video cameras already in position right at the back of the hall. 250 more were to arrive later. We occupy the seats right at the front near the dais so that when the dignitaries arrive we can, in the true spirit of hardened professional journalists, corner them for quick selfies.

It is 4 p.m. and they are still not done with laying the chairs. At this moment, I would want to pass on a vital of piece advice to all young journalism students who want to pursue a career in media: If ever you are assigned to cover an event involving sportspersons and film personalities, you would do well to start for the event a good two hours after the scheduled time. There is no recorded history of any event featuring a film personality starting on time.

By around 4.15 p.m, the two MCs for the event show up. The lady is assigned to speak in English, while the man (a well known and senior TV debate host) is to cover the base in Tamil. He ends up anchoring the show mostly in butchered English.

At around 4.30 p.m. Sachin, Telugu actors Ramcharan Teja, Allu Arjun, among others, are ceremoniously ushered on to the dais. And lastly, Kamal is called upon to the stage and he looks smart as he is suitably attired in — this being a show for kabaddi, which is an ancient traditional sport of Tamils, and Kamal is known for capturing the essence of the occasion  — blue jeans and black shirt.

Camerapersons relentlessly shoot pics of Kamal and others. One member of the press corps, however, stands out for his efforts: He is seen trying to get Kamal and himself in the same frame for a selfie. The only niggle here is: Kamal is up on the raised dais while he is down below on the floor.

Soon, they air an audio-visual on the hoary status of kabaddi and its significance to Tamil culture, which is well explained by the team’s captain in — why not? — rustic Hindi. Kamal himself talks about the origins of kabaddi in a heavy voice that he generally uses to convey heft and emotion, but sometimes comes off conveying constipation.

As the evening progresses, the press persons get restless. The show’s emcees ramble in faux chatty style, ask the most inane of questions to the assembled gathering. They keep the conversation on out of sheer politeness. Every one looks disinterested. Then, on cue, Kamal drops a sly line that could be taken to be a dig at his political adversaries. It lasts, at best, four or five seconds. The line, of course, in typical Kamal style, is also cryptic and indirect. But journos present are already wetting their pants in collective excitement. They think they have got the story they have come for.  Okay, what they have got is actually just five or six words of some vague meaning. But  that is good enough for them to make an elaborate report.

The function ends. Sachin, Kamal and co exit the hall. Colleague and I also slowly make our way back. Guess what the TV journalists are doing? Well, they are back to chasing Kamal again. Seriously, Kamal has gotten off the stage after speaking, and TV journos are already shoving mike into his face for a few more ‘bytes’. Left to themselves, TV persons would have Kamal 24 hours in their channels.

Seeing the mad scramble of reporters, the bouncers shepherd Kamal to the back gate of the hotel, where, not surprisingly, an even bigger army of journos await him. The security people somehow bundle Kamal into his BMW and it quickly speeds off driven expertly by — we cannot rule this out — a TV journo masquerading as his driver.