BY PULARI MEERA BASKAR
How the heroes on-screen impact politics off-screen in Tamil Nadu
Politics in India since the time of the national movement have often used films and film stars to promote their own agendas. Movie stars hold sway over their fan following and can play a role in shaping their political beliefs, by sharing their opinions/beliefs on social media and in interviews. However, despite the efforts made by some Bollywood stars to directly take up serious political positions, they have not been as successful as film stars in South India, especially Tamil Nadu.
How MGR’s Reputation in Films Fuelled His Political Image
M.G. Ramachandran, more popularly known as MGR, had a film career that spanned over four decades. Before and after his split from the DMK (Dravida Munnetrra Kazhagam) party, his films echoed the principles and ideology of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. His movies featured songs with powerful lyrics carrying social messages. Though he only became an MLA in 1967, the masses had already begun to perceive him as an uplifter of the downtrodden, because he played several characters across films that portrayed and reinforced that persona.
The people’s devotion to MGR did not stem from any drastic improvement in the material lives and conditions of subaltern classes. MGR’s 11-year political rule pushed the lower-income marginalized groups of Tamil Nadu state into a period of economic stagnancy (if not decline), while private profiteer enterprises and politicians belonging to his party prospered. Under his term as chief minister, the state frequently resorted to police brutality. Despite his lack of action in emancipating the struggles of the people, contrarily, MGR grew more popular with time.
M.G. Ramachandran during an election campaign
How then, did MGR manage to have a relatively stable rule with increasing popularity? Social scientist M.S.S Pandian answers, “The material conditions of the subaltern classes do not produce an immediate consciousness of their existence, since this consciousness can be effectively mediated by the elite” (“The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics”, 1992). This is how governments who have failed to provide sufficient improvement to the working classes have continued to win elections. In MGR’s case, though his political rule had several failings, his image as the champion of underdogs had already been ingrained in the people’s minds through his films.
Today, long after MGR’s demise, we see another filmstar from Tamil Nadu trying to break into politics. Superstar Rajnikanth can be paralleled with MGR in terms of popularity, and since his rise to fame, has been cast in several saviour roles. On 31st December 2017, he confirmed that he intended to contest in the 2021 state elections. Rajni Makkal Mandram (Rajni People’s Foundation) was converted into his political party from an informal fan-base.
Superstar Rajnikanth during the launch of his political party
Over the last two years, Rajni has sided with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) stances on Kashmir’s special status and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. He publicly depraved Periyar by bringing up an alleged claim that the former social reformer and leader of the Dravidian movement (which critiqued regressive aspects of Hinduism regarding women and caste) had displayed nude images of Hindu gods during a rally in the 1970s. When he faced a backlash from both DMK and AIADMK, BJP backed Rajni’s claims in order to paint the DMK as an anti-Hindu party, a strategy we have seen the BJP adopt before to dismiss their opponents.
Politics is not a mere game of conflicting intentions, but as Churchill once said, it is a business. And for a business to succeed, it requires strategy and influence. Tamil Nadu is one of the last states in the country which the BJP hasn’t managed to secure an electoral majority in. Using a figure as popular as Rajni is likely to play to their advantage. To guarantee support and a powerful ally for himself, Rajni would be inclined to accept the BJP’s extended hand. BJP is after all, presently the ruling party in the country. Siding with the BJP would also create an image of independence from Tamil Nadu’s most prominent political parties, DMK and AIADMK that have both been tarnished over the years.
Rajni is not the only popular film star who is making an entry into Tamil Nadu politics- though he is the only one who appeared in roles similar to and has had a career as long as MGR’s, therefore wielding significant influence over the population. Given the revelations on the actual nature of MGR’s rule and the improved standards/rates of education, a potential for greater awareness among the people for separating ground realities from socio-political propaganda has been created. Only time will tell if this potential is sufficient to translate into a more sceptical approach to the actions of popular film stars who dip their toes into the realm of politics. But the first step to questioning the intentions of those in and entering politics is to distinguish between ideology and tactic.