The Dravidian School of Tamil Cinema

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

Politics and cinema live off each other in Tamil Nadu where temples have been erected to marquee stars. Here stars have gone beyond the script and influenced the nature of politics at the regional and national level. A fan club may as well be a party office.

The last election campaign in India was greatly enlivened by the active participation of movie stars. From the spian Dilip Kumar in the north to yesteryear's marquee-queen Jayalalitha in the south, a galaxy of filmstars are now visible on the electoral firmament — Shatrughan Sinha, Raj Babbar, Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Shabana Azmi, Pooja Batra, Nitish Bhardwaj, Vyjayanthi-mala, Jayapradha, Vijayshanthi, Chandrasekhar and Revathy.

This involvement of popular artistes in Indian politics dates back to the struggle for Indian independence. Back then it was more a case of singers, musicians and drama artistes involving themselves at a provincial level, where explicit and implicit messages extolling the virtues of Mahatma Gandhi and independence were conveyed to the audience. As the film industry bloomed, some films were perceived by the erstwhile British rulers as possessing seditious content. 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 oppression of women as well as against British rule.

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

However, in South India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema are inextricably 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 now Jayalalitha, dominated the political scene. Political leaders like the present Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his mentor C.N. Annadurai also came in from careers in cinema, as screenplay and dialogue writers.

Unlike  in  the  north Tamil film stars served as integral component of their parties. In most cases, they were the 'stars' around whom their parties revolved.    Significantly, from 1967, every single chief minister in Tamil Nadu has been a personality with connections to the silver screen.

Dramatis personae

With a population of 55 million (only five million of them non-Tamilian), Tamil Nadu has the third highest literacy rate among the states of India. The state is 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 healthy political protest against caste oppression, the imposition of Hindi as national language and superstition in religion. 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 and self-respect, it is Tamil Nadu that has allowed film stars to exercise political hegemony like no other. In 1977, M.G. Ramachandran became the first film star to take up chief ministership of an Indian state. N.T. Rama Rao followed suit in adjoining Andhra Pradesh in 1982. In North India, film personalities were elected to Parliament, but never became chief ministers or cabinet ministers.

In Tamil Nadu, 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 is now 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 whole crop of film stars canvassing for parties in Tamil Nadu. Presently, the DMK has Sarathkumar, Napoleon, Vijay-kanth, Radhika, Thiyagu, Pandian and Chandra-sekhar. The last mentioned was also a party candidate in Dindigul, while Sarathkumar contested for the present parliament, only to lose narrowly. The AIADMK has Ramarajan, former Member of Parliament, as also 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 film script writer. His nephew and cabinet minister M.K. Maran is also a former film script writer. Karunanidhi's son and Madras Mayor M.K. Stalin too has dabbled in acting, as hero of 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 last year.

History as storyline
The role of cinema in the political history of Tamil Nadu provides interesting 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 very 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.

According to its proponents, the original inhabitants of India were the Dravidians and it was the invading Aryans who took over the north and pushed the Dravidians southward. In addition, the Aryans also 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 Dravi-dian movement's crude version of the Aryan-Dravidian interface and its venomous antipathy towards Tamil Brahmins left much to be desired.

Socio-historical reasons 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 the 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 (Telugu), Kerala (Malayalam) and Karnataka (Kannada). However, it 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 decided to enter 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 the seats (25) it contested for the Lok Sabha. In 1971, the party registered a landslide victory when it captured 184 seats in the state and 23 in Parliament. The party seemed invincible.

Screenplay and dialogue
But 1972 saw a major split. The DMK's chief vote gatherer and matinee idol Maruthoor Gopalamenon Ramachandran, or 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 had to remain content as opposition leader for 11 years. When MGR died in 1987 December, his wife Janaki succeeded him. But the government fell after one month due to Congress machinations. 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) but the DMK under Karunanidhi romped home the winner. After Rajiv Gandhi's death, the? Jayalalitha-Congress combine routed the DMK. Only its leader, Karunanidhi, managed to win. In 1996, the DMK was returned to power and still retains it.

The 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 his discipline Karunanidhi set out on that venture. Films scripted by Annadurai like Velaikkaari and Oriravu were well-received, and its political content made great impact. But it was Karunanidhi who really hit it big as script-writer.

Karunanidhi developed a writing 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, provided ample scope for Karunanidhi's captivating prose. His reputation had producers advertising their movies by proclaiming, "Story and Dialogue by Kalaingar (Artiste) M. Karunanidhi". When film titles were projected in the 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 script-writers. 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 (SSR) 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 getting political, weaned an actor from the Congress camp into the DMK fold. 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 dimissed them derisively as Koothaadigal (performers). Congress stalwarts argued that those wearing make-up should not enter politics. But the Congress had to soon change roles and rely on people like Sivaji Ganeshan and Kannadasan who had crossed over from the DMK.

Even as filmstars 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 got 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 took up for the underdog, fighting oppression and injustice. He took special care to project a social message in most songs, and took care to act in different roles so that different segments of the population could relate to and identify with him. The movies, titled simply but astutely, in which he played lead roles include Padagotti (Boatman), Meenava Nanban (Fisherman Friend), Thoilaali (Worker), Vivasayee (Agriculturist), Rickshaivkaran (Rick-shawalla) 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 the Indian south and their fans was the proliferation of fan clubs. These clubs would hold special pujas in temples whenever a new movie of their matinee idol was released. M.G. Ramachandran probably encouraged the phenomenon of fan clubs from 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 too were involved in politics for the DMK, and were 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 movies. 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.

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 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 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 Rajy a 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. 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 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 politics goes. But with the dilution of Dravidian politics over the years, there is some expectation that the dominance 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 Jayalalitha.) Rajnkanth is the reigning Tamil superstar, whose hold over the masses is reminiscent of MGR's. He has a massive fan club behind him, which is exerting enormous pressure on him to enter active politics. Though not actively involved in politics, Rajnikanth 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 TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress) broke up.

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

Given Rajnikanth's current popularity and the continuing scenario of filmstars dominating election campaigns, there is every likelihood that Tamil cinema will continue to hold sway over the region's political future. Rajnikanth, however, signifies more than a mere con tinuum. The bus conductor from Bangalore is a shining example of individual achievement. Only that when he enters politics, he should not be selling those tickets.

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