There is a sense of balance to politics in Tamil Nadu, which boasts as many film stars-turned-politicians as it does government freebies. The balance goes haywire only when a film hero decides to denigrate the state’s largesse on screen merely to garner more applause from his fans. The moment he becomes a ‘thalaivar’ (leader), the same freebies will be at the top of his manifesto—and the balance will be restored.
So, it was easy for actor Vijay, 44—undoubtedly the number one Tamil hero box office-wise—to characterise the free household gadgets given to poor voters as bribes for their votes, and even as alms thrown at them, in his latest hit film Sarkar. To add insult to this injury, the director, A.R. Murugadoss, is fleetingly shown dumping the free mixers and table fans given out by the Jayalalitha government into a bonfire as a rejection of populism.
No wonder the ruling AIADMK was incensed by this assault on Jayalalitha’s successful outreach, which helped get her elected in both 2011 and 2016. As ministers mouthed warnings and party cadres laid siege to theatres screening the film, and tore its banners, the film’s producer, Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Pictures, was compelled to snip off the offending scene, and to mute dialogues considered derisive of Jayalalitha.
The protests were also a nervous reaction to yet another popular hero donning political colours through a film that depicts an elected government being unsettled by a technicality of electoral law. The film’s scenario of using section 49P of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, in response to someone else fraudulently voting in one’s name is unlikely to play out in reality. But Vijay’s use of the storyline to project himself as a political alternative by challenging the incumbent chief minister has enthused his fans about his imminent entry into politics.
Even in the past, Vijay’s political flirtations invited speedy retribution from both the DMK and the AIADMK. Ahead of the 2011 assembly elections when he unsuccessfully attempted to share a public platform with Rahul Gandhi, the ruling DMK put spokes in the release of his film Kaavalan. The film hit the theatres only after he assured DMK leaders that he had no political ambitions. In 2013, his film Thalaivaa, with the tag line ‘Born to Lead’, so annoyed CM Jayalalitha that the movie could not be released until the line was removed from all publicity material.
Last year, Vijay’s Mersal—an otherwise ordinary movie—would have sunk but for the furore created by hypersensitive local BJP leaders loudly objecting to his passing poke at GST. “While political leaders want to hog the headlines by targeting movies and their stars, the resulting publicity only leads to a larger audience at the theatres. When Muslim groups jumped to conclusions about Kamalahaasan’s Vishwaroopam even before its release in 2013, the controversy only increased viewer interest in the film. When its sequel came out this year without any such polemics, the film flopped,” observes a cinema PRO.
But even anointed Vijay fans found it difficult to digest the denunciation of freebies when many of their own households had benefitted from such. And as Prabhu, an auto driver and ardent Vijay fan, points out, “The freebie culture itself was kick-started by the DMK’s free colour TV scheme in 2006, and was the brainchild of Dayanidhi Maran, brother of the producer of Sarkar.” Nevertheless, a few diehard fans posted videos showing the annihilation of free mixers and grinders as a display of their loyalty to the star.
“The freebies cannot be viewed as mere handouts by the government. They are part of the government’s social duty towards the deprived. Free bicycles and free bus passes for school children saw a proportionate increase in the student intake in high schools. Similarly, laptops for plus-two students opened up a new world of knowledge to them, and eased the process of applying to professional colleges. The mixers and grinders gave more time for poor women to focus on other income-generating work, while the free TVs made their dreary evenings more colourful,” argues sociology professor P.K. Saravanan.
Ever since MGR cashed in his silver-screen popularity at the ballot box, and his heroine Jayalalitha succeeded him as his political heir, cinema and politics in the state have remained virtually inseparable. Subsequently, many film heroes have waded in and out of politics; barring Vijayakanth, few left any imprint. And even the latter faded away after three elections.
The lure of control over the film industry even saw the DMK’s first family—Kalanithi Maran, Stalin’s son Udayanidhi Stalin and Alagiri’s son Durai Dayanidhi—entering film production and distribution. Udayanidhi and another of Karunanidhi’s grandsons, Arulnithi, even entered the film world as heroes, underscoring the nexus between the two fields. “Cinema provides a convenient launch pad for any budding politician, as the public will already be familiar with his face. In Tamil Nadu a few political leaders have even acted in films, hoping to expand their reach, but without much success. Stars might pull the crowds to their public meetings, but they need a greater level of acceptability to be trusted with votes,” explains political analyst Raveenthiran Thuraiswamy.
Vijay, who now seems to have been promoted from his old nickname of ‘Ilaya Thalapathi’ (young general) to full ‘Thalapathi’ (general)—a rank rivalling that of M.K. Stalin—might not immediately throw his hat in the political ring as he’s still young. At a sprightly 60 movies old, he might like a few more hits under his belt before testing the political waters. He might also watch how the political journeys of debutant star-politicians like Kamalahaasan and Rajnikanth pan out, and then chart his own flight plan. Many younger filmgoers, already rooting for him in the theatres, would form his happy hunting ground in politics as well. “He definitely wants to enter politICS to repay the love that has been showered on him by the Tamil people—but certainly not as a retirement plan like Rajnikanth or Kamalahaasan,” asserts Pala Karuppiah, a former AIADMK MLA, who incidentally plays the villainous chief minister in Sarkar.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai