Cinema and Politics in South India

The association of cinema and politics has got a long history in Southern India. The political landscape of southern states (especially Tamilnadu and Andra Pradesh) has been significantly altered by actors turned politicians. The Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi joined the league yesterday by launching his political party ‘Praja Rajyam’ from Thirupathi. Almost all the major news channels covered the party launch. He literally swept the media by storm with attractive statements about various issues faced by people of Andra Pradesh. Nothing new — yet another film star joining the party!
Cut to 1970s! The Tamilnadu state was primarily governed by Congress party, which was systematically toppled by the Dravidian moment. It was a significant change for the people of Tamil Nadu, which provided a platform for film stars enter into main stream politics. Primarily the Dravidian moment was launched by Periyar in 1925 to restore ‘self respect’ among lower caste, which formed the lower portion of the society. A powerful yet simple medium was required to reach these uneducated, rural and poor people to proliferate the Dravidian ideology. Initially it was people like Karunanithi, who fueled the Dravidian ideology by writing revolutionary thoughts in form of movie dialogues. Even today nobody can forget movies like ‘parasakti’ (first movie of the legend Sivaji Ganesan) which planted these thoughts among common people. However these dialogues always acted as a ‘back-end’ and needed a powerful front end to mobilize the mass.

That front-end came in the form of M G Ramachandran, who was popularly known as “MGR”. These “three letters” literally became a chanting mantra of every poor in Tamilnadu. After becoming a popular hero, he became the primary vehicle to promote Dravidian ideologies. It was sent to a common man in multiple forms including dialogues, songs, jokes packed with his own “MGR” style. He was the first person successfully tied the cinema with politics in a very significant way. In almost all movies he played role of “savior-of-poor”, who helped them to fight against a Zameendhar for their basic rights, thereby raising their self esteem and self respect of the poor. During pre-independence times multiple forms of dramas (puppet-shows, street plays etc…) were used as a medium to communicate the need of independence. It was very critical because not everybody understood the deep ideologies of Gandhi and his Satyagraha. An illiterate farmer living in a village can connect to these dramas much better rather than listening to radio or reading a newspaper, which was too “high-fi” for these folks. They needed a very a simple form, which they can connect with and internalize the message.I call it as “version 1.0″ of media playing significant role in altering the political landscape the country. Then the “version 2.0” came in form of the movies, to communicate the self-respect Dravidian ideology, mentioned above. Whatever may be the future, one cannot rule out the impact of these movies among people of Tamilnadu. It has caused such a deep impact that the Dravidian parties are ruling the state for the past 40 years. It was a well planned act by Dravidian politicians to reach out the people.

On the other side, not everybody really understood the real ideology behind the dialogues delivered by the hero (read it is MGR). They started seeing MGR as their “savior” who will lift them from the miserable life they was leading. He was admired as an undisputed super-hero. This image gave him the much required popularity, to mobilize the people, attract them and make them vote for his party. He was so powerful that, in spite of splitting from his parent party DMK, people voted for him just because it was “MGR’s party”. He remained in power for 10 years (from 1977-1987) till he died. I can draw similar lines with N T Rama Rao (NTR), who was the popular “Krishna” among the people of Andra Pradesh. Upon moved by the question “Sir, we have treated you like a God but what have you done for us?” by one of the audience, he started his Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Similar to MGR, NTR was seen as their savior. The lord Krishna image gave him a huge leverage.

Now, why am I talking about MGR and NTR in 2008? The reason is simple — Even today uneducated, rural, poor people see movie stars as their “saviors”. It’s nothing but “version 3.0” of the South Indian cinema! If it was MGR and NTR in ’70s and ’80s it is Rajinikath, Vijayakanth, Chiranjeevi in 2008. Nothing else changed except time. The educated, urban, middle-class gets ruled out in this whole saga mainly because they won’t vote. No amount of globalization, urbanization, economic policies, media, and Internet has changed the basic psyche.

If Rajinikath can become rich by selling milk in the movie ‘Annamalai’ people still believe that he can do the same in real life; If Vijayakanth fights and kills many militants in Kashmir (that’s what he does in most of his movies) people believe that he can provide solution to the long-debated Kashmir issue; If Chiranjeevi can play the role of a professor, who fights against corruption in the movie ‘Tagore’, people still believe that he can cleanup the whole political system; Even today people believe that cinema and real life are same. They are living in their own world, which is far different from what the media projects as “modern India”.

I have high regard for Version 2.0 politicians of Tamilnadu, because they had a strong ideology behind them. Their moment was very powerful, mainly fight against societal backwardness. They played significant roles in various Dravidian parties apart from cinema. What do these 3.0 actors, turned politicians have done? Nothing! What ideology, policy or societal ground work they have done? Nothing! All they have done is very simple — played modern day super hero roles and created a fan following.

The launch of ‘Praja Rajyam’ by Chiranjeevi and the support he received shows that the vote bank has not changed in the past 62 years of independence. Instead of taking individual responsibilities, everybody wants their “super-hero” to come the save their lives like he does in the movies. And the system we have built up is having such a fundamental flaw that it has still not provided the basic knowledge and education to an average citizen. Generations have changed, years have gone by — but many of us still live in a “dream” world not even knowing the basic difference between cinema and reality. All we have is big dreams, but no actions!

Hey Ram

On Independence Day, one of the TV channels aired Kamal Haasan’s ‘Hey Ram’. I have a long, transformational and emotional journey with that movie. Way back in 2000 I watched it during my college days along with one of my friends, upon his compulsion. I felt it was a total junk, where I commented that Kamal put together multiple documentaries to form of a movie. I hardly understood the movie and cursed my friend for wasting my time and money. After all, spending 14 rupees for a movie ticket along with 6 rupees for the transportation (share-auto) was a big deal in 2000.
Cut to Bangalore. It was the year 2005 (Oct 2nd, Gandhi Jayanthi to be precise) and the same movie was shown in Sony channel. I was alone at my home as my room-mate had gone to office to fix a customer facing issue. As no other movie was aired during the same time, I started watching the movie with more concentration. By 2005 I was mature enough to understand the world better and read few chapters from Gandhi’s ‘My experiments with truth’. I was able to connect to the movie much better this time and watched each and every scene with full attention. By the end it, the message of the movie hit me very hardly. I am not a very sentimental person, but tears started rolling out of my eyes without even me realizing it. Vow! What a wonderful movie about a great person.

For people who are not aware about Hey Ram here is a brief about the movie. It is basically a fictional story made by Kamal Hassan which revolves around India-Pakistan partition, violence that shook the country during partition, plot behind Gandhi’s assassination and raise of Hindutva ideology promoted by Veer Savarkar. Kamal plays the role of an Archeologist (Saket Ram Iyengar) who’s Bengali wife Aparna (Rani Mukerjee) was raped and killed by their Muslim servant. Upon disappointment and anger, Saket starts killing every other Muslim in the neighborhood. In the bloody, violence hit Calcutta streets; he meets a Hindutva activitist Shriram Abhayankar (Atul Kulkarni) who plants Hindu fanatical thoughts in Saket’s mind. Abhyankar also tells that Gandhi is the whole reason for Muslims getting undue advantage in a country, where Hindus form 85% of the population. Then the movie takes multiple turns where Abyankar and Saket were chosen to kill Gandhi. Due to an unexpected accident, Abyankar becomes bed ridden and Saket moves to Delhi to do the job. The main turning point happens in Delhi, where Saket meets his old Muslim friend Amjad Ali Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) in a communally tensed area. The series of incidents and Khan’s death transforms Saket and confronts that blood-for-blood is an incorrect ideology. There on Saket becomes a Gandhi follower and lives reminder of his life by following Gandhi’s principles. The last 45 minutes of the movie (transformation of Saket) is really a wonderful piece to watch.

Even after 62 years, many Indians feel that Gandhi’s ideology and non-violent way of getting independence to India is incorrect. Many still believe that he played significant role in making Indians as cowards, by not making them fight against the British face to face. They also believe martyrs like Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekar Azad did the correct thing by killing some British folks. Especially after ‘Rang De Basanti’ these martyrs have become superstars among young Indians. While I am not discounting the sacrifice made by these great martyrs, I feel Gandhian way is the most appropriate way to get independence for India. Here are the some of the reasons.

First, India is the most diverse country in the world. There are multiple languages, customs, religions and rituals are followed in various parts of the country. It’s impossible to unite them in the name of language or religion (which was in case in other revolutions happened in the world) other than Nationality and non-violence. If not for that method, Gandhi would have failed to unite the whole country. Taking the rebellious path and shooting somebody would have resulted in short term benefits but it would not have resulted in a democratic India. Every other country which got independence with the help of the gun couldn’t sustain them beyond certain point.

Second, India was ruled by a lot of kings in the past. The country was divided into many pieces during different rulers. The colonial approach of the British once again kept the country under their rule for more than 200 years. From there India matured into a powerful, vibrant, constitution based democracy today. According to me, this change is really huge which required a properly planned transition. If not for non-violent approach, it would not have been possible. During the same time, Pakistan took the dictatorship approach and everyone knows the pathetic political situation even today. Even a country based on Muslim religion couldn’t sustain itself with dictatorship, let alone diversified country India. It would have been torn into pieces, which would have resulted in a civil war. Gandhi’s non-violence sowed seeds for a mature approach.

Third, Gandhi’s approach was inclusive. It included women, who were not accepted in the society for centuries together. By making them participate into nation’s independent movement Gandhi, made them realize their self worth and esteem. Apart from women, he also brought the downtrodden Harijans, who were treated like animals by denying basic rights for thousands of years. If not for this inclusive approach, we would have still not given basic voting rights to women and continue ill-treating Harijans even today. I am not saying all the problems against women and Harijans are addressed, but Gandhi’s thought process set stage for reforms and changes to be brought to address every other sectors of the society.

For me understanding Gandhi is a continuous journey. From debunking Hey Ram in 2000 to adoring the same in 2008, I have come a long way. Looking him and his ideologies at periphery might not make sense but deep thoughts do clear many things about him. It is his leadership and non-violent movement made India what it is today. Movies like Hey Ram play a significant role to pass on the message of Gandhi to future generations.