In Tamil Nadu, Can There be Politics Without Cinema?

Cinema has always influenced Tamil politics, notably by turning actors into popular politicians, but Jayalalithaa's iconic stature will be hard to outdo.

A woman walks past a portrait of J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai March 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Babu/Files

A woman walks past a portrait of J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai March 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Babu/Files

The major features of Dravidian politics are centred on linguistic, ethnic and cultural identity. Questions of caste discrimination, particularly those concerned with the dominance of Brahmin culture in both civil and political society, as well as those pertaining to the language debate and regional autonomy formed the region’s core political concerns. 

Unlike any other Indian state, in Tamil Nadu, these political concerns were effectively and efficiently mobilised through various media, especially cinema. Theatre and cinema became the key vehicles for promoting a Dravidian politics centred on Tamil identity and language. 

This marked the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between Tamil cinema and politics. Notably, most of the prominent members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) were associated with the film world. Strong visual and aural elements influenced politicians’ public performances. C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were both scriptwriters who produced powerful dialogues and went on to become chief ministers, Kannadasan and Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram wrote compelling lyrics, M.G. Ramachandran (another chief minister) was known for his strong screen presence, and a host of others including S. S. Rajendran played an integral role in transforming political communication in Tamil politics. 

The DMK’s emphasis on cinema once prompted K. Kamaraj, a former chief minister, to slyly comment, ‘‘How can there be government by actors?’’

The cinema-politics link meant that the silver screen became the ideal venue for asserting Tamil nationalism. Movies became the space where a new political imaginary was constructed. This phenomenon spilt over to platform speeches and songs, and, as observed by the late anthropologist Bernard Bate, a new idiom of ‘Tamil oratory and Dravidian aesthetic’ was performed in politics.

As a mode of speech, the Tamil used in films was not like the everyday language used by people, however, it still influenced the construction of a Tamil cultural identity. And so, Tamil cinema intensified the articulation and of Dravidian identity and Tamil nationalism by glorifying them through movie dialogues and song lyrics.

Jayalalithaa’s rise from cinematic figure to deified politician

Given this history, where does the late Jayalalithaa feature in the relationship between Tamil politics and cinema? As a young star, Jayalalithaa had the most number of fan clubs, a form of association intrinsic to the cult-driven Tamil politics pioneered by MGR, whose fan clubs literally became extensions of his newly founded political party. Jayalalithaa had the opportunity to become MGR’s favourite heroine and starred in a whopping 23 films – most of them hits – with the actor-turned-politician.   

In the highly masculinised world of Tamil cinema, the ideals of honour and valour chastised by Dravidian politics meant the female figure was modelled on notions of purity, much like the Tamil language. The male protagonist in this realm was an emblem of masculinity, a valorous figure, who would protect the chastity of both Tamil women and language. Jayalalithaa was simply perceived as MGR’s heroine and the film world did not provide her with much scope to grow beyond the male protagonist’s shadow, particularly the domineering influence and charisma of MGR.  

However, Jayalalithaa’s association with films – and her status as MGR’s favourite – was indeed the launchpad for her political career. After her proximity to MGR earned her a Rajya Sabha nomination there was no looking back. Her eloquence and personality got her the chance to get a good look at national politics as well. Jayalalithaa carefully stage-managed herself, creating an image of herself as MGR’s anointed successor over the course of various occasions, aided along by her reel image. Following MGR’s death in 1987 and the loss of the 1989 election, Jayalalithaa wrested control of the party from MGR’s widow, V.N. Janaki, and became his political heir.   

The DMK’s return to power proved to be short-lived as the government was dismissed following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, following which the AIADMK rose to power with Jayalalithaa being elected Tamil Nadu’s chief minister. This period was marked by Jayalalithaa consciously constructing a new image for herself, one that was independent of both MGR and her past as a film star. She disavowed her cinematic image in favour of that of a strong female politician through what Preminda Jacob calls ‘charismatic populism’.

Larger than life cutouts of Jayalalithaa became a prominent feature of her first regime and people began to address her as Puratchi Thalaivi (Revolutionary Leader). She also succeeded in creating a motherly political persona for herself by holding a public fast to demand Cauvery water for her state and so ensure the welfare of Tamil Nadu’s residents. Dravidian politics by then had nurtured a politics of symbolism and hero-worship, ably put to work through the cinema-politics relationship. This helped Jayalalitha transcend her image as a film star – usually objectified as a symbol of eroticism – to attain the status of a divine figure, a family deity or one who protects the weak and the marginalised. Like her mentor MGR, Jayalalithaa shaped herself into a symbol of hope for the poor in South India. At the end of her first regime and by the 2000s, Jayalalitha was more or less completely distanced from MGR and the cinematic world. She encouraged party members to address her as Amma (mother), and was well on her way to creating an independent political image and large public following.

What lies ahead for Tamil cinema and politics

Unlike Annadurai, Karunanidhi or MGR, being a female lead in a highly masculinised environment, Jayalalitha had little space to be perceived as anything other than MGR’s Aasai Nayagi (desired heroine). It was a conscious de-eroticisation that marked her transition from a movie actor to a public figure who inspired political devotion and was rendered as a mother goddess. What does the future hold for Tamil politics, with Karunanidhi in his nineties and Jayalalithaa gone? Vijaykanth has become a pale shadow of himself and has started to step away from active politics after the people of Tami Nadu rejected his dream of becoming chief minister. Could the BJP’s pushy efforts to rope in Tamil superstar Rajnikanth yield any results or is it the end of the closely bound connection between Tamil cinema and politics that has ruled the state for almost half a century now? 

One factor responsible for MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa’s political success was the way in which they established themselves as members of the Dravidian movement and participated in its politics, thus rising to be powerful leaders and sailing through with the inertia of the movement. There were colossal failures like Sivaji Ganesan – an equally popular film star of the MGR era – who flirted with DMK, later joined the Tamil Nationalist Party led by E. V. K. Sampath, then supported Congress and finally tried his hand at launching his own political party, the Tamizhaga Munnetra Munnani (Front for the Progress of Tamil Nadu).  

However, a close look at the Tamil film industry’s current generation of stars suggests they do harbour aspirations to become leading political figures. This tells us that in the Tamil context, the disappearance of cinema from politics would be the disappearance of politics itself.