Once crowd-pullers, actor lookalikes living hand to mouth in film-crazy Tamil Nadu

For many decades, cinema has been a part of life in Tamil Nadu, a state where people have built temples for actors and elected them to power. The hero-worship culture is deeply rooted in the state; From the legendary MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to MG Ramachandran to Sivaji Ganesan to Rajinikanth to Kamal Haasan to Vijay, it has continued with generation after generation of actors.

This adulation for superstars, sometimes bordering on fanaticism, has helped a few people other than the actors—people who have been blessed with features similar to those of the celluloid demigods.

Meet Somasundaram (47), popularly known as Rajini Somu, a diehard fan of superstar Rajinikanth. He lives in Dindigul with his wife and two children. He speaks and walks like thalaivar. He says his admiration for Rajinikanth started at the age of 12, when he watched Aarilirunthu Aruvathu Varai.

Rajini Somu and Kathir Kamal.

Somu decided to become an autorickshaw driver early in his adulthood under the influence of Rajinikanth, whose blockbuster Baasha—in which the actor drove an autorickshaw—is etched in the memory of every thalivar fan.

After he became a full-time artist, Somu says, he had a tough time finding a bride. “They used to call me koothadi (a derogatory term for artists) and refused to marry off daughters to artists.”

Every Rajinikanth film release is a festival for him; he dresses up like the superstar and reaches the theater before the first show to see his demigod on screen.

Somu says he cannot stand it if anyone talks ill about Rajinikanth. He had got into trouble on a couple of occasions when the superstar made statements that angered cadres of political parties.

For a living, Somu anchors and participates in stage programmes, acts in television serials in small roles and teaches dance.

When asked how he survived during the pandemic, Somu says he was offered a lead role in a movie and that the producer also promised to provide him a monthly income, but the project got shelled. “It was a tough period and somehow I managed it. I kept myself busy by uploading my acts on social media. It got me fans from across the world. The social media presence helped me generate some revenue. Now, after the government relaxed the restrictions, we are getting shows,” he said.

Vijayakanth Kumar.

Somu’s only wish is to meet his idol.”I have tried to meet him on a couple of occasions but was not successful. But I am sure I will meet him in person one day,” he says.

Just as Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are known to be close friends, Somu’s good friend is Kathir, a lookalike of Kamal.

Born as Kathir Vel (47), a resident of Erode, Kathir Kamal is an ardent fan of the actor. He resembles Kamal from the 1980s and 1990s.

“Since childhood, I have been his fan. At the age of 19, I first climbed up the stage and performed like him. I used to dance on the floor during temple festivals and other events in our village. Seeing my interest, friends and others started asking me why I could not do something similar on stage. I was gifted with the looks of Kamal Haasan and this pushed my love for cinema further. The first movie I saw in a theater was Nayagan. My family was against my wish to perform on stage. They thought I would pick up bad habits if I joined cultural troupes and performed in other towns, but I told them to trust me and I have had their trust in me so far,” he said.

Kathir’s family had a spare parts manufacturing factory. Though he was involved with the factory work earlier, Kathir was more interested in applying makeup, appearing on stage, entertaining audiences and earning applause.

Kathir, who has been a performer for 30 years, says that at the beginning, there were several looks for Rajinikanth and MGR but only a few for Kamal Haasan, a factor that helped him establish himself as a performer.

“On various occasions, I would be in various states. During Onam I would be in Kerala, for Dussehra I would be in Karnataka, and on the rest of the days in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and other areas,” he says.

After the pandemic struck, Kathir says, he faced both difficulty and “humiliation”; the need for money made him push a vegetable cart. “I was not smart like other performers to have a part-time business. As the Covid-19 forced a blanket ban on all events, I had no work. There was money just enough to have three meals a day. I took up a vegetable cart and began selling fruit and vegetables around our town. Imagine a person looking like Kamal Haasan selling vegetables at your doorstep. It was ‘humiliating’ but I had no other option. I said to myself that I was not cheating or doing anything wrong and that I was just doing a job. But somehow, by God’s grace, that dark period is now over and we are starting to get shows again,” he said.

Kathir campaigned for Kamal’s Makkal Needhi Maiam party in the recent elections and says he had met his idol on a couple of occasions but did not get an opportunity to speak to him.

Asked if he ever felt he had been living the life of another person and not his, Kathir replies in the negative. “People say we are wasting our lives and we are just a shadow of the stars. I know I am not Kamal Haasan, but I have been doing this for 30 years and I cannot come out of this. I will be happy if people remember me as Kathir Kamal rather than Kathir Vel,” he said.

It has been a similar case for Vijayakanth Kumar (50). Born as Venkatachalam in Namakkal, he became Vijayakanth Kumar because of his resemblance to actor Vijayakanth.

“It has been more than 25 years since I started performing as Vijayakanth. Temple festivals and other cultural programs are my main source of income. I am the only earning member in my family. Though other professions somehow managed the economic crisis during the pandemic, our profession was completely affected by the lockdown. My family had only two proper meals a day. For income, I worked as a helper in ration shops for Rs 200–Rs 250 per day, but only for 10-15 days. On the rest of the days, I was jobless,” he says.

Earlier, his income improved after he started participating in television shows. Further, after Vijayakanth floated his party in 2005, Kumar started to attend political campaigns to entertain crowds. “In 2011, when Captain’s DMDK (Dravida Murpoku Desiya Kazhagam) contested polls in alliance with the AIADMK, I attended many political campaigns. During one such occasion in Namakkal, when Captain (Vijayakanth) came to campaign, I was there. As it took time for him to reach the place, the organisers asked me to entertain the crowd. When I was walking down a street, people thought I was the real Captain and started bursting crackers. It was an occasion I can never forget. I have had such good memories, but now, due to the pandemic, we are having a tough time,” he said.

“I used to get Rs 4,500- Rs 5,000 per show. Now, I get around Rs 2,500. Further, they ask us to bear the bus fare, which will come around to Rs 600. For Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000, we are traveling to faraway places because we desperately need the money to manage our expenses,” he adds.

Many other performers we spoke to shared similar experiences. Many said that the lack of regular income had taken a toll on their physiques—their primary source of income. They urged the government and artist association in the state to help them with the loss they suffered during the pandemic.

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