Commentary

The Dravidian School of Tamil Cinema

By DBS Jeyaraj

6 July 2000

Politics and cinema are intertwined in Tamil Nadu, where film stars have gone beyond the script, influencing regional and national politics
Jayalalitha in her avatar as politician. Flickr / Ramaswamy M

Jayalalitha in her avatar as politician. Flickr / Ramaswamy M

The 1999 Indian general elections were greatly enlivened by the active participation of movie stars. From Dilip Kumar in the north to yesteryear’s marquee queen Jayalalitha in the south, a galaxy of film stars are now visible on the electoral firmament — Shatrughan Sinha, Raj Babbar, Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Shabana Azmi, Pooja Batra, Nitish Bhardwaj, Vyjayanthimala, Jayapradha, Vijayshanthi, Chandrasekhar and Revathy.

The involvement of popular artists in Indian politics dates back to the Independence struggle. Back then, it was more a case of provincial singers, musicians and actors promoting messages (both implicit and explicit) that extolled the virtues of Mahatma Gandhi and independence. As the film industry blossomed, some films were perceived by the erstwhile British rulers as seditious. The authorities clamped down on some ‘objectionable’ films, a notable example being the Tamil film Thyaga Bhoomi (Land of Sacrifice) made in 1938. It was written originally for the screen by ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy and serialised in the Tamil journal Ananda Vikatan. The film, directed by K Subramanyam spoke eloquently against the oppression of women as well as British rule.

The early post-Independence years saw cinema and politics take different directions in North India. Though certain movies contained political content, there was no overt politicisation. Likewise, a few movie stars did get involved in politics but never played a pivotal role. In recent times many have become involved in election campaigns, but are essentially ornaments for their respective political parties.

The involvement of popular artists in Indian politics dates back to the Independence struggle.

However, in South India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema are intertwined in a big way. The larger-than-life image of actors like N S Krishnan, M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganeshan, N T Rama Rao, and Jayalalitha dominate the political scene. The (former) Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and his mentor C N Annadurai also came from careers in cinema, as screenplay and dialogue writers.

Unlike  in  the  north, Tamil film stars are often an integral component of their party. In most cases, they are the ‘stars’ around whom their parties revolve. Significantly, since 1967, every single Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has been a personality with connections to the silver screen.

 

Dramatis personae

With a population of 55 million (circa 2000), Tamil Nadu has one of the higher literacy rates in India. The state was also home to India’s original rationalist movement, started by E V Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar). Known as the Suyamariyaathai lyakkam, or Self-Respect Movement, it promoted political protest against caste oppression, superstition in religion, and the imposition of Hindi as the national language. Periyar also founded the Dravida Kazhagham, or Dravidian Party, in 1943, to which both today’s ruling party and chief opposition trace their lineage.

In spite of this ‘Dravidian’ heritage of rationalism, it is Tamil Nadu that has allowed film stars to exercise political hegemony like no other. In 1977, M G Ramachandran (MGR) became the first film star to take chief ministership of an Indian state. N T Rama Rao followed suit in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in 1982. In North India, film personalities were elected to Parliament, but never became Chief Ministers or Cabinet Ministers.

MGR was succeeded briefly by his wife Janaki Ramachandran who was herself a former film heroine. Then came Jayalalitha Jayaram, MGR’s leading lady with whom he had starred in 30 films. She ruled from 1991 to 1996 as Chief Minister and became a formidable opposition leader. As a Tamil WAG put it, “MGR is the only actor-Chief Minister who ensured that his actor-wife as well as actor-paramour succeed him as CM.”

Even the last parliamentary election campaign had a crop of film stars canvassing for parties in Tamil Nadu. Presently, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has Sarathkumar, Napoleon, Vijaykanth, Radhika, Thiyagu, Pandian and Chandrasekhar. The last mentioned was also a party candidate in Dindigul, while Sarathkumar contested for the present parliament, only to lose narrowly. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has Ramarajan, former Member of Parliament, as well as Thavakkalai, Kundu Kalyanam, Radharavi and S S Chandran. The Congress has Jayachitra and Maya, and the BJP stars Vijayshanthi, Gautami, Sowcar Janaki, and S V Shekhar, besides Vyjayanthimala who crossed over from the Congress recently.

In addition to this cast, there are others with film connections like the DMK chief Karunanidhi, who is a well-known stage actor and scriptwriter. His nephew and cabinet minister M K Maran is also a former scriptwriter. Karunanidhi’s son and Madras Mayor M.K. Stalin too has dabbled in acting, as the hero in a TV serial. State legislator and DMK propaganda secretary T Rajendar is an actor-director. Then there is the glamorous Jayalalitha who played a role on the national stage and brought down the BJP government in 1999.

 

A narrative arc

The role of cinema in the political history of Tamil Nadu provides insights into present-day developments. The politics of Tamil Nadu for the past 60 years has been pervaded by notions of the Aryan-Dravidian divide. This concept itself is not scientific and has been greatly mythologised. Nevertheless, this consciousness has helped politicise significant sections of the Tamil masses and has sustained whole political parties and movements.

Annadurai had once said that if it takes 10,000 political meetings to convey one message, it only takes one single ‘hit’ movie to deliver the same.

According to proponents of this theory, the original inhabitants of India were the Dravidians who were pushed south as a result of the invading Aryans to the north. The Aryans imposed their caste structure on the Dravidians, who had, until then, a classless society. This hierarchy placed the Brahmins on top. Dravidian ideologues maintained that Tamil Brahmins were not Tamil even though they spoke the language, but were alien Aryan relics. While its social reform platform was quite progressive, the Dravidian movement’s crude version of the Aryan-Dravidian interface and its venomous antipathy towards Tamil Brahmins left much to be desired.

Socio-historical factors had enabled the Brahmins to remain the ruling elite in the state. They were better educated and dominated most fields, including the professions. In addition there was the stamp of authority provided by orthodox Hinduism. The emerging non-Brahmin elites chose to adopt the Dravidian ideology to overthrow what they saw as Brahminic hegemony. The clearly perceived position of power that the numerically inferior Brahmins enjoyed made them vulnerable targets. The democratic process made easy the mobilisation of non-Brahmin caste groups on the basis of Dravidian ideology.

Dravidian languages are 19 in all, of which Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada are the most prominent. Interestingly, there were few takers for the ‘Dravidian’ ideology among the other South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. However, the ideology took firm root in Tamil Nadu. The original political demand of the Dravidian parties was a Dravidian state comprising present-day Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa. It later modified itself into a secessionist movement, focused on Tamil Nadu alone. It was only after the 1962 war with China that the DMK dropped its separatist demand in the interests of national unity and security. It now agitates for greater autonomy within the Indian union.

Periyar’s Dravidian movement was opposed to participation in politics. It was also very much under his autocratic control. A group of dissidents, including Karunanidhi, revolted under the leadership of Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai and formed the DMK in 1949. Starting out as a social reform movement, the DMK later decided that change was impossible without capturing political power through democratic means. In 1957 the DMK entered electoral politics and secured 15 seats in the State Assembly and two in Parliament. In 1962 the figure went up to 50 in the State Assembly and eight in Parliament. 1967 saw it capture power for the first time when it got 138 out of the 234 seats in the state. The DMK also won all 25 seats it contested for the Lok Sabha. In 1971, the party registered a landslide victory when it captured 184 seats in the State Assembly and 23 in Parliament. The party seemed invincible.

 

Screenplay and dialogue

But 1972 saw a major split. The DMK’s chief vote gatherer and screen idol MGR, broke away from the party and floated his own that year. He named it after Annadurai and called it Anna DMK. MGR’s party won three elections in succession, securing 125 seats in 1977, 130 in 1980 and 125 in 1984. Karunanidhi remained opposition leader for 11 years. When MGR died in December 1987, his wife Janaki succeeded him. But the government fell after one month as a result of Congress’ political manoeuvring. With MGR’s leading lady and then Propaganda Secretary Jayalalitha also staking her claim to party leadership, a split resulted. In 1989 a divided ADMK contested as two factions led by Janaki and Jayalalitha. The Janaki faction (one seat) was trounced by Jayalalitha (24 seats) though the DMK under Karunanidhi won in definitive fashion.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Jayalalitha-Congress alliance routed the DMK. Only its leader, Karunanidhi, managed to win. In 1996, the DMK was returned to power.

This brief account of the power struggle and its results within Tamil Nadu outlines the vicissitudes of the Dravidian parties in the past years. Of interest in all this is the role played by films and film personalities. It was the DMK that first attempted to use cinema for propaganda. Annadurai had once said that if it takes 10,000 political meetings to convey one message, it only takes one single ‘hit’ movie to deliver the same. He and Karunanidhi set out on that venture. Films scripted by Annadurai (like Velaikkaari and Oriravu) were well-received, and their political content made a great impact. But it was Karunanidhi who really hit it big as a scriptwriter.

Karunanidhi developed a style that was flowery and alliterative, and it soon became very popular. Courtroom scenes, inquiries in royal courts in historical movies, and short dramas introduced into films that had a modern setting, all provided ample scope for Karunanidhi’s captivating prose. His reputation had producers advertising their movies by proclaiming, “Story and Dialogue by Kalaignar (Artiste) M Karunanidhi”. When film titles were projected in cinema halls, his name would be shown ahead of the stars and greeted with applause. There were others to follow Karunanidhi in both content and style – Aasaithamby, Krishnaswamy, Maaran and Kannadasan.

It also spawned a school of actors who could effectively mouth the lines of the scriptwriters. One of the early greats was the comedian N S Krishnan, known as ‘Kalaivaanan’, who made the audience both laugh and think. Krishnan was followed by a host of ‘Dravidian School’ actors like K R Ramaswamy, M R Radha, T V Narayanaswamy, S S Rajendran and Sivaji Ganeshan. The last two in particular were able to deliver the fiery prose of Karunanidhi with great conviction and style. The Karunanidhi-Ganeshan combo was a great success, churning out money-spinners like Parasakthy, Thirumbi Paar, Manohara, Kuravanchi and Raja Rani, which ran solely on account of the dialogue and delivery. Personal differences arose between Ganeshan and Karunanidhi, and Ganeshan crossed over to the Congress. To make up for Ganeshan, Karunanidhi, whose dialogues were increasingly political, convinced an actor from Congress to join the DMK. This was M G Ramachandran, until then a popular hero playing swashbuckling action roles.

When the DMK began using actors for political propaganda, the Congress leader Kamaraj dismissed them derisively as koothaadigal (performers). Congress stalwarts argued that those wearing make-up should not enter politics. But the Congress had to soon reconsider and rely on people like Sivaji Ganeshan and Kannadasan who had crossed over from the DMK.

 

Reelpolitik

Even as film stars were used for political propaganda, they were using politics for their personal advancement. M G Ramachandran himself was constructing and consolidating a personal political base. Even when he starred in films not written by DMK idealogues, the lines he recited carried hidden political meaning. An example was the constant reference to the rising sun, the DMK symbol. In colour productions he would wear the party colours, black and red. Gradually, MGR’s screen persona started reflecting the DMK’s image. The difference between reality and make-believe blurred, while he continued to pull crowds. As Annadurai once said of MGR, “sollukku pathu latcham. Mugathukku muppathu latcham, one million votes for his speech. Three million for his face.” In his roles, MGR always represented the underdog, fighting oppression and injustice. He took special care to project a social message in most songs, and to act in different roles so that various segments of the population could relate to and identify with him. The movies in which he played lead roles include Padagotti (Boatman), Meenava Nanban (Fisherman Friend), Thoilaali (Worker), Vivasayee (Agriculturist), Rickshaivkaran (Rickshaw-walla) and so on. These occupational groups began treating MGR as one of their own.

So powerful and lasting has been the MGR legacy that, 12 years after his death, the crowd cheered madly when Sonia Gandhi merely mentioned his name at an election meeting in Tamil Nadu.

A unique feature of the relationship between the movie stars of South India and their fans was the proliferation of fan clubs. These clubs would hold special pujas in temples whenever a new movie featuring their idol was released. M G Ramachandran probably encouraged the phenomenon of fan clubs from the late 1940s onwards, and the clubs ended up as a well-knit federation that counted its membership in the millions. The clubs held annual conventions and also participated in social service projects. When MGR entered active politics, his fan clubs were in turn politicised and soon became an indispensable component of the DMK propaganda machine. Meanwhile, S S Rajendran’s fans were also involved in politics for the DMK, countered by Sivaji Ganeshan’s fan clubs which campaigned for the Congress. Both spheres mutually reinforced each other – film popularity providing political mileage and political positions strengthening film popularity.

It was not long before they were rewarded with political office. M G Ramachandran was made first an upper house member of the state legislature. Later he contested the State Assembly elections directly and won continuously until his death. S S Rajendran also contested the Assembly polls and won; he was later elected to the Rajya Sabha. Sivaji Ganeshan, too, was a Rajya Sabha member for the Congress party. By now, a host of film stars in Tamil Nadu were involved in politics during election time, but not wielding the same clout as the leading stars.

The popularity of MGR within the party and state caused major convulsions. In a bid to counteract the phenomenon, Karunanidhi encouraged his son M K Muthu to enter the film industry. The father, while in office as Chief Minister, wrote the story and dialogue for Muthu’s first film Pillaiyo Pillai (Oh, What a Son). Muthu Fan clubs were set up overnight, with father Karunanidhi’s backing.

Congress stalwarts argued that those wearing make-up should not enter politics. But the Congress had to soon reconsider.

MGR, realising what was in store, engineered a split within the party on the grounds of corruption charges against the incumbent regime. Incidentally, MGR did not have any problems in setting up new party structures – he merely converted his fan clubs into party branches.

The MGR phenomenon was no doubt unique, and his mystique continues its hold over the Tamil psyche even today. Before his death, he had come to personify the aspirations of the common people but as more than just a symbol. As a political leader, he was also seen as a vehicle for realising their dreams.

 

The all-India release

Jayalalitha symbolises the transition from the MGR-era to the present. It was MGR who had, as Chief Minister, introduced his former leading lady into politics. As Propaganda Secretary of the party, and Rajya Sabha member, she soon established her power base within the party and emerged as an extra-constitutional authority in the state.

Jayalalitha went on to become Chief Minister and ruled from 1991 to 1996. She too set up a fan club network called the Jayalalitha Peravai (Federation). Her reign was marked by unbridled corruption, abuse of power and a vulgar display of ill-gotten wealth. Her downfall came in 1996, when several cases of corruption were filed against her. But she was far from out, and in the previous general elections, the coalition led by Jayalalitha won handsomely in association with the BJP.

Jayalalitha thus emerged as a key player on the national scene and enjoyed immense power. Yet the events that followed were akin to a cheap masala movie where the vamp makes everybody dance to her tune.

Jayalalitha thus emerged as a key player on the national scene and enjoyed immense power. Yet the events that followed were akin to a cheap masala movie where the vamp makes everybody dance to her tune. In a bid to get the cases against her dismissed, Jayalalitha brought extreme pressure to bear on the BJP government at the centre by regularly throwing tantrums. Finally, in alliance with Sonia Gandhi, she brought down the very same BJP she had propped up earlier. She is now aligned with Sonia but there are signs of cracks in this alliance. Thus, the peculiar Tamil phenomenon of movie politics affected national politics as a whole. This may have been cinema’s high point, as far as political influence goes. Indeed, with the dilution of Dravidian politics over the years, there is some expectation that the presence of cinema in politics will get progressively weaker.

This possibility, however, may be offset by the increasing Rajnikanth hype in the state. The rationale for Rajni’s entry into politics is simply opposition to the politics of Jayalalitha (in a recent hit film, he even had a female character largely modelled on her). Rajnikanth is the reigning Tamil superstar, whose hold over the masses is reminiscent of MGR’s. He has a massive fan club, which is exerting enormous pressure on him to actively enter politics. Rajnikanth, though not actively involved, openly appealed to voters in 1996 and 1998 on behalf of the DMK alliance. At present, he has adopted a neutral stance because the original alliance between the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress broke up.

Unlike the earlier Dravidian film star politicians, Rajnikanth has a spiritual streak and takes his religion seriously. Analysts predict that if he enters the fray it may be on a Hindu nationalist platform, either in alliance with or as a part of the BJP.

Given Rajnikanth’s current popularity and the continuing scenario of film stars dominating election campaigns, in all likelihood Tamil cinema will continue to hold sway over the region’s political future. Rajnikanth, however, signifies more than a mere continuum. The bus conductor from Bangalore is a shining example of individual achievement. But when he enters politics, he should not be selling those tickets.

(Himal Southasian, July 2000)

D B S Jeyaraj is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a columnist for the Daily Mirror in Colombo, and runs his own blog at dbsjeyaraj.com.

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