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!