In Tamil Nadu’s personality-cult dominated political landscape, image is everything and sometimes even imitations are accepted. For several decades, political parties have been hiring lookalike artists of actors and politicians during the campaign season. Dressed up like the stalwarts of the state’s political arena these artists sing and dance, deliver dialogues, imitate mannerisms, all for garnering votes.
With their make-up kits and tailored-to-perfection costumes, it just takes a few minutes for these artists to transform from their real to reel selves. As this is the first Assembly election in Tamil Nadu sans tall leaders Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, the artists representing these leaders are the most in demand.
“Lookalikes do have an impact on voters minds. This time, since the stalwarts are not with us, the lookalikes have a bigger role to play. It rekindles the memories of the old times among the senior voters” says Jitu a Madurai resident.
Working mostly in the evenings, these artists travel across the state and campaign for various parties, with some members even capable of donning multiple roles. However, the changing nature of politics itself and the digital campaigns, targeted advertising has significantly impacted their profession.
Cine Star Abinaya, a city-based troupe has about 20 artists, they play – MGR, Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Vijayakanth, Sathyaraj, Ajith, Vijay and many other personalities. There are even separate persons to represent the MGR in his trademark sunglass, white-cap Chief Minister avatar and also the funky-coloured costume wearing cine-star MGR.
During peak election season, an artist upto Rs.2000 per performance, but they say that work has become scarce these days, when compared to a decade ago. “Post election campaign some of us drive autos, some work as shopkeepers, but there are also a few of us who are fully time artists” says Saraa, who runs Cine Star Abinaya. He adds that many cannot sustain this profession after a certain age, as they have to go perform until late in the evenings and often have their meals well after midnight, thus affecting health.
Eswaran who plays Rajinikanth and MK Stalin is a full-time performer with no other source of income. “During non-campaign season I perform at temple festivals, I can also sing, so that’s an added advantage” he says.
When asked about their routine and fitness regimen, the artists say that they have to maintain diet control and walk a few minutes every day to maintain their physique and ensure that they continue to resemble their starry avatars.
Speaking of their livelihoods and families, the artists say that they are able to make ends meet during election season, but that isn’t so after election work dries up. Their lament is that, politicians and parties need them the most during poll-time, but neglect them thereafter. “When we wear those costumes and sing and dance on stage, while seeking votes, our woes disappear, but then the reel life ends and eventually we have to deal with real life” says Saraa.