Tamil Nadu in 2016 lives up to its well-earned if dubious reputation of being the place and point where the phenomenon of the interweaving of cinema and politics began. A screenwriter who has been Chief Minister five times makes his final bid against a former glamour actress who is the incumbent Chief Minister and seeks to be elected for the fourth time. Both are challenged by a former action star of more than a hundred films.
Congress leader K. Kamaraj sounded the warning about this aspect a few years before climacteric 1967 by warning people about the ‘hunter’ on the prowl (‘Vettaikkaaran’ being the title of M.G.Ramachandran’s successful 1964 film). Kamaraj then enunciated a question pointedly, ‘Can actors administer a state ?’
He brought up this issue at a time when actors were pejoratively called ‘koothadigal’ (street performers). His perception of the DMK was not just that of a party which used the popularity of actors and stars for its politics, not just a party with a preponderance of stars, actors, scriptwriters, directors and producers, but a party of actors per se.
It was Kamaraj’s political guru Satyamurthy, an amateur stage actor himself, who understood the value of reaching people through the stage and cinema. At his instance, K.B.Sundarambal enlivened Congress meetings singing patriotic songs in her stentorian voice and was later inducted to the Legislative Council. Other artistes too made the stage, as well as the mass medium of cinema, reflect the ferment of the mass movement for Independence.
E.V.Ramasami Periyar’s tirades against Brahminism and religion were not far behind. They were getting traction among actors in drama companies and were beginning to echo in films too. Jupiter’s Chandrakantha (1936), which narrated the story of a wayward pontiff occasioned derisive comments against Brahmins in the streets. Bharatidasan, who had emerged as the poet of the ‘self respect‘ movement, was employed as a writer by Modern Theatre’s T. R. Sundaram and gave the antagonists of Puranic stories the aura of Dravidian heroism. M.R.Radha brought an unbridled swagger and incredible gumption to his unconventional performances on stage, fighting pitched battles with the orthodox to mock and deride religious superstition and hypocrisy. N.S. Krishnan used humour and sarcasm to ridicule social prejudices.
In this background, C.N.Annadurai emerged as EVR’s chief lieutenant. An amateur actor and drama and cinema buff himself, he networked young actors and writers of the self-respect movement giving them a shoulder to boost their career or just to cry over. Even as a young actor called V.C.Ganesan was given the title ‘Sivaji’ by Periyar, N.S. Krishnan became ‘Kalaivaanar’, M.R. Radha ‘Nadigavel’, K.R.Ramasami ‘Nadippisai Pulavar’, D.V. Narayanasamy ‘Nadigamani’ and S.S. Rajendran ‘Ilatchiya Nadigar’. M.G.Ramachandran, who had first met Annadurai in 1944, joined the brigade charily in 1953. The future Puratchi Nadigar (Revolutionary Actor) would however worst every one of his histrionic rivals to emerge as the major face and force of the DMK that Annadurai formed in 1949 as a more inclusive, ambitious and flexible political force.
The film scripts of Annadurai (Velaikkaari, Nallathambi, Oar Iravu) and Karunanidhi (Mandhiri Kumari, Parasakthi, Manohara) were dovetailed versions of their eloquent and alliterative oratory on stage, with the difference being that the latter took his career as film writer and producer more seriously and could make monetary sense of it. When the chips were down a few years after the demise of Annadurai, the duel was however between the wily script writer turned administrator Karunanidhi and the do-gooder celluloid idol MGR.
Veteran stage and film professionals like T. K. Shanmugam and A.P.Nagarajan believed it was the end of the road for MGR as an actor and politician when he was thrown out of the party in 1972. Initially MGR too feared that he was finished. But the surge of mass support in the days that followed was only a sign that the larger-than-life image he had assiduously fashioned for himself was indeed more spectacular than life itself! In the event, Karunanidhi’s attempted projection of his own son Muthu as a young hero, as well as his cooption of actor Jaishankar pitifully fell by the wayside.
Comedian N.S. Krishnan had been a role model for MGR in public munificence and in the complete control he exercised over his cinematic elements – story, dialogue, shots, lyrics, tunes and choice of supporting artistes. But if NSK in real life seemed to be playing to a death-wish script, MGR’s script was working itself to apotheosis. Rather than being a mere conduit of the messages of the party, MGR towered over them as the messiah. Puratchi Nadigar therefore had an easy makeover as Puratchi Thalaivar – a delayed answer of sorts to Kamaraj’s question on actors and government.
The seamless sync of MGR’s private, public and cinematic images left no room for doubt in the public’s mind who the real hero was in the dramatic clash between Karunanidhi and MGR. Even before MGR named Karunanidhi as the Theeya Sakthi, manifold supporters of the party were certain who the villain in the drama of the party schism was. MGR had all along been subordinate only to the all-enveloping charisma of Anna, whom he invoked again and again in his films and who ultimately occupied pride of place in the name of his new party as well as its flag.
That MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran, herself a former actress was made Chief Minister after his demise, and that Jayalalitha, his leading lady in the most number of films in his career, categorically proved she is his political heir –underscore the fact that Tamil Nadu’s political fabric under the Kazhagams is impenetrably interwoven with cinema. It is a phenomenon inaugurated by Annadurai and pursued by Karunanidhi, taken to its height by MGR and continued successfully by Jayalalitha. It has peaked and won’t be easy to replicate.
(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and an author of several books on Tamil cinema)