Art & Entertainment

The Thalaiva Factor In Cine-Politics Of South India

At a time when Bollywood is churning out propagandist narratives, south cinema, too, has stories to tell

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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To the south of the Vindhyas, cinema and politics have enjoyed an intense symbiotic relationship with each other, often blurring the lines between reel and real life. It is not a surprise then that the silver screen has given four chief ministers—N T Rama Rao, M G Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi—and several political parties to the region.

The beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced back to the iconic Parasakthi (1952). Made three years after the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Parasakthi was written by Karunanidhi, and Sivaji Ganesan starred in the lead role. The film begins with a song sequence whose lyrics start with the line “long live Dravida Naadu” and goes on to extol the glory of the Dravidian heritage—both natural and cultural, including allusions to Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu.

Set in the 1940s during World War II, the narrative deals with the story of a middle-class family of three brothers who have migrated to Rangoon to earn a livelihood and a sister who lives with her father back in Madurai as they go through the struggles of life caused due to a series of tragic incidents. Within this family drama, the filmmakers pack strong political messaging, delivering all the pet themes of the DMK—social justice, rationalism, anti-religious order, anti-superstition, anti-north India and, most importantly, blaming the Congress party for the sad state of Tamil Nadu, which was once a part of the glorious “Dravida Naadu”.

The release of the film was not without controversies. The Congress party, led by the then chief minister C Rajagopalachari, encouraged by discontent expressed by the general audience, politicians, and activists alike, attempted to ban the film. Among many, the depiction of an attempted rape by the priest in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple in one scene and Ganesan’s character telling the priest that the idol is a “stone that cannot speak” in another created much uproar.

The huge commercial success of Parasakthi meant that this articulation of a “Tamil Nation” and Dravidian cultural nationalism became a recurrent theme in many Tamil language films in the subsequent decades. The use of red and black (the DMK party flag colours), featuring characters such as the vile Hindi-speaking North Indian man, and references to the party founders and ancient Tamil literature became a common feature in Tamil cinema.

This vociferous assertion of Dravidian cultural nationalism challenged the hegemonic idea of the post-colonial nation, which, at the time, was dominated by Nehruvian modernism, Hindi as the nation’s language, and one-sided narratives of the freedom struggle. Additionally, the re-imagination of the Tamil language in such films as an ancient language—with the invocation of ancient texts like Silappathikaram—and the foundation of the Tamil nation made linguistic nationalism the mainstay of politics in Tamil Nadu. The DMK’s strategic use of cinema as a vehicle of mobilisation contributed to the party’s growth, eventually leading to electoral success in 1967. Since then, no national party has come to power in Tamil Nadu on its own.

The DMK’s entry into cinema when other political parties dismissed it as not a serious art form can be attributed to the fact that the founder C N Annadurai himself was a playwright and Karunanidhi was a well-known poet and writer. Previous to forming a new party, many of the founding members were a part of the Dravida Kazhagam movement led by Periyar (E V Ramaswamy) whose influence on the DMK’s ideology is evident.

The trajectory of propagandist Tamil cinema reached new heights with the rise of M G Ramchandran as a star. MGR’s success was predictably used by the party to mobilise crowds during election campaigns. In the films though, an interesting shift began to occur; while earlier the narrative was used to communicate policies and ideologies of the party, now MGR’s presence—often wearing party-coloured costumes—and the role he played mattered more than the narrative messaging.

Typically, in his films such as Nadodi Mannan (1958), Adimai Penn (1969) and Namma Nadu (1969), MGR played the virtuous hero—whether as a king or as a farmer—who eventually succeeds in his idealistic missions despite numerous obstacles. This cinematic persona of MGR continued even after he split from the DMK to form the AIADMK. His immense popularity as a star among the Tamil audience was a critical factor in his success as a politician. MGR was honoured with the title Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) and went on to become the Tamil Nadu chief minister for three terms. After his death, his most successful co-star Jayalalithaa became the AIADMK chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister.

In the South, Cinema and politics have enjoyed an intense symbiotic relationship with each other.

While the direct involvement of Dravidian political parties in film production has diminished gradually over the decades, the ideals of social justice, equality and anti-caste rhetoric propagated by Periyar and the DMK are still popular tropes in Tamil cinema. The prevalence of star culture has led to the packaging of social messaging into a commercially viable vigilante format where the star saves the day and personally delivers justice.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of a new Tamil political cinema which consciously engages with Dalit politics —something which the earlier films did not. The flag bearer of this movement is director-producer Pa Ranjit. His films have engaged with particular Dalit histories—Madras (2014) and Sarpatta Paramburai (2021)—and foregrounded experiences of Dalit struggles in Tamil Nadu. Kaala (2018) and Kabali (2016), featuring superstar Rajnikanth, also work towards propagating ideas such as the brotherhood among the oppressed and standing up against caste discrimination. Pa Ranjit’s films are replete with Ambedkarite symbols and teachings.

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Director Mari Selvaraj is the other important voice. Both his films Pariyerum Perumal (2018) and Karnan (2021) feature stories of the struggle of protagonists from oppressed castes and weave Ambedkarite ideas into the narrative as the most effective weapons for emancipation. These new films with their preoccupation with the struggles of oppressed castes in Tamil Nadu have exposed the fault lines in caste relations which were hitherto ignored. On screen, red and black are slowly giving way to blue. However, packaging these political ideologies in a commercial framework has meant that on- screen violence is an important feature of these movies.

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This new chapter of Tamil cinema may not directly be linked to a political party’s ideology but is definitely a legacy of the founding ideals of the Dravidian movement. There is also a film like Ayothi (2023), which takes a more humanist approach to deal with the current communal polarisation in the country through the story of a Muslim Tamil man helping a north Indian Hindu family who faces tragedy on their pilgrimage to Rameshwaram and, in turn, ends up reforming the bigoted head of the family.

When Bollywood is churning out propagandist narratives of majoritarian politics, popular Tamil cinema’s engagement with the stories and politics of the marginalised, albeit with its many flaws, has emerged as the necessary counter-argument. Even though this large oeuvre of Tamil cinema can be categorised as propaganda cinema, the question to think about is: if a film is overtly committed to the ideals of social justice, albeit at the behest of a political movement or a party, and with all its cruel characterisations of the perpetrators, can it still be equated to another propaganda film which intends to deliver a divisive agenda?

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The incredible obsession of the audience with stardom can also be seen in Kannada and Telugu cinema. Invariably, actors like N T Rama Rao and Rajkumar, owing to the success of their films, became larger-than-life personalities who were seen as the face of Telugu and Kannada linguistic politics, respectively. Although their films directly did not propagate the ideology of a particular politics, their popularity meant that both of them played virtuous ideal men or portrayed a famous personality from their region in most of their films.

Probably due to this perception as representatives of their linguistic cultures, both NTR (barring a few films in Tamil) and Rajkumar (except for one Telugu remake of his film) did not act in other language cinema.  NTR benefitted from his cinematic popularity and forged a successful political career with the formation of the Telugu Desam Party. On the other hand, Rajkumar resisted all temptations to enter electoral politics but helped mobilise Kannada people during the Gokak agitation for the primacy of the Kannada language in schools in the 1980s. Although there has been a film or two recently in both Kannada and Telugu that have intended to engage with political ideologies, a sustained movement of political cinema is yet to arrive. 

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(This appeared in the print as 'The Thalaiva Factor')

Basav Biradar is a writer, researcher and documentary filmmaker

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