Dravidian politics and Tamil cinema: The conjoined twins of the Tamil motherland

Apr18,2024


Cinema, in the form of documentaries, short films, feature films, and even animated cartoons, has long been used as a medium to shed light on major events or social conditions to inform and agitate the masses. Our Western counterparts have been utilising films since the days of World War 1; interestingly, before the war, French cinema had a big share of the world market and its collapse made way for Hollywood to establish its hegemony. In India, films on anti-British propaganda started the movement during British rule and to date, the medium has proved to be a formidable tool for spreading ideologies in the Dravidian states, especially in Tamil Nadu where the lines between the two fields crossover quite often.

For those new to this, two facts could probably comprehend the magnitude of the symbiotic relationship politics and cinema share in Tamil Nadu; the state has had five Chief Ministers from the world of cinema (excluding the current CM MK Stalin who gave a shot with acting in Ore Raththam in 1987), and O Panneerselvam – who took charge as the Chief Minister thrice – was the first without any link to the world of cinema to head the State government since 1967.

Architects of this assemblage

Fascinatingly, the current ruling party of Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the one that understood the power of stage plays and films after understanding how films like Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) and Mathru Bhoomi (1939) penetrated the minds of the masses before Independence. So much so that Indian National Congress leader K Kamaraj asked if actors can manage presiding over a state. After independence, four Congress leaders — including C Rajagopalachari and Kamaraj — ruled the state until 1967 when the administrative power went to the hands of Dravidian parties and CN Annadurai became the first leader from a Dravidian party to turn CM of TN (then Madras State).

A still from ‘Oru Iravu’

A still from ‘Oru Iravu’
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

An excellent orator and writer, Annadurai pushed his ideologies through his writing that were made into films like Velaikari (1949) which was inspired by the Alexandre Dumas novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, Nallathambi (1949) which was adapted from the Hollywood film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Ore Iravu (1951). The films focussed on tropes such as the disparity between the castes and classes and promoted social justice and education. Speaking of Velaikari and Ore Iravu, their lead actor KR Ramasamy, who previously staged both stories as plays, is said to be the first Tamil actor to dabble with politics. Not only was he a close follower and confidante of Anna, but his plays — which he continued after turning into a film star — doubled as fundraisers for the then-novice party, DMK.

Parallely, M Karunanidhi, who, as a high school student, created the Tamil Nadu Tamil Manavar Mandram (the Dravidian Movement’s first student wing), turned into a screenwriter with the MG Ramachandran-starrer Rajakumari (1947). For MGR, an emerging actor at that time who predominantly starred in romance and action films, it was Karunanidhi’s writing in films such as Maruthanaatu Ilavarasi (1950) and Manthiri Kumari (1950) that gave him a breakthrough.

 M.G. Ramachandran and V.N. Janaki in a still from ‘Maruthanaatu Ilavarasi’

M.G. Ramachandran and V.N. Janaki in a still from ‘Maruthanaatu Ilavarasi’
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Around the same time, a youngster joined a drama troupe and worked his way up to play the lead in the stage play ‘Shivaji Kanda Hindu Rajyam’ written by CN Annadurai in the 40s that was presided over by Periyar EV Ramasami, who was then leading the Dravidar Kazhagam and the Self-respect movement. It was he who christened this young man VC Ganesan… as Sivaji Ganesan.

When the actor made his film debut with Parasakthi (1952) — alongside another actor-politician SS Rajendran — which was penned by Karunanidhi, the film was so politically charged that the then-ruling State government even demanded the film be banned. But the film, which was anti-Brahminical, commented against the caste system, took a dig at Hindu customs and was even cited as a minor reason for DMK overthrowing the Congress party in Tamil Nadu, went on to acquire a cult status. The film also paved the way to stricter censorship for films and plays which the writers bypassed by using puns and ambiguous phrases. By then, many prolific actors such as NS Krishnan and MR Radha made sure their characters were an extension of their personal ideologies which aligned with the Dravidian movement. Similarly, KB Sundarambal, a prominent face of Congress in the state, was later inducted as a member of the legislative council. Another prominent member of the Dravidian Movement was poet Bharathidasan whose writings served as a catalyst for the growth of the Self-Respect Movement.

Sivaji Ganesan in a still from ‘Parasakthi’

Sivaji Ganesan in a still from ‘Parasakthi’
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

When the mothership bifurcated

MGR, in 1972, founded the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) as a breakaway faction from DMK after an altercation with Karunanidhi and stuck to the policy of socialism and secularism based on the principles of Anna. Unlike fellow actors from DMK, MGR’s persona from films starring him as a friend and saviour of the downtrodden mirrored his real-life actions where he carried out philanthropic services. This led to a landslide victory in the 1977 state elections and MGR ruled the state until his death in 1987.

In this 1986 file photo, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran greets the then propaganda secretary of the party, Jayalalithaa during an event in Madurai

In this 1986 file photo, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran greets the then propaganda secretary of the party, Jayalalithaa during an event in Madurai
| Photo Credit:
The Hindu Archives

Soon after his death, the party was split between his widow VN Janaki and Jayalalithaa, a leading actor from 1965 whom MGR had collaborated with multiple times. When Janaki retired from politics, Jayalalithaa joined the two factions and served six terms as the TN CM. Sivaji, who initially was a part of DMK, later joined the Tamil National Party which was eventually absorbed by Congress. When the AIADMK factions broke, Congress decided to ally with Jayalalitha’s fragment, a move that Sivaji Ganesan opposed. This prompted him to leave the party and start his own short-lived political party, Thamizhaga Munnetra Munnani.

The love-hate relationship between Tamil cinema and politics

The direct equation the two streams shared took a back seat after the death of MGR. The 90s, an important decade for the evolution of Tamil cinema, saw very little on the political front by those from the film industry. In the mid-90s, it was speculated that Rajinikanth might take the plunge into politics but the actor decided against it. He also supported DMK in the 1996 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election before which, he famously stated, “Even God cannot save the people if Jayalalitha comes back to power.” Though he would go on to announce his entry into politics in 2017, he eventually dissolved his organisation Rajini Makkal Mandram in 2021 and affirmed that he would not be entering politics.

Meanwhile, his peer and close friend Kamal Haasan formed the centrist party Makkal Needhi Maiam in 2018. His party failed to win a seat in the 2021 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election, and despite securing 2.62% of the votes, Kamal himself lost in the Coimbatore South constituency by a slender margin. He opted out of the 2024 Lok Sabha election and instead campaigned for the DMK-led alliance.

(L-R) Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth and M Karunandhi

(L-R) Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth and M Karunandhi
| Photo Credit:
R. Ragu

Over the last few decades, many more actors gave politics a shot albeit with comparatively lesser success. Multihyphenate T Rajendar, a long-time supporter of DMK launched his own party, All India Latchiya Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Vijayakanth formed the centre-left party Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam in 2005 and despite becoming the leader of the opposition in 2011, he could not undo the following slump. Post his death, his party seems to have gotten a new lease of life and was allotted five seats in the recent election.

Khushbu, who initially joined DMK and later Congress, is now a part of BJP. Sarathkumar established the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi and had previously served as a member of the Rajya Sabha and the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. He recently merged his party with the BJP, and his wife, actor Radhika is contesting as the BJP candidate from the Virudhunagar Lok Sabha constituency. Ramarajan was elected to the 12th Lok Sabha as an AIADMK candidate from the Thiruchendur Lok Sabha constituency in 1998. Actor Napoleon joined DMK and served as the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment from 2009 to 2013. Karthik heads the Akila India Naadalum Makkal Katchi. Veteran filmmaker K Bhagyaraj had a short-lived party named MGR Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam. Director Seeman started the social outfit Naam Tamilar Iyakkam during the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War which has turned into Naam Tamilar Katchi and is now fielding 39 candidates in the Lok Sabha elections.

When cinema reflected the world of politics

While many actors took the political plunge during and after their heyday within the film industry, there are a slew of actors/technicians who used the medium to reflect on the political situations of that particular era. Interestingly, most of them took the satirical route and their lines, which were often tagged as ‘sirikavum, sindhikavum’ (to laugh and contemplate). Cho Ramaswamy was one of the earliest political satirists who infused jabs at that period’s political moves and movers in the films he starred as a comedian, and it was also the underlying theme for his directorial Muhammad bin Tughluq (1971).

Cho Ramasamy in the Tamil film ‘Mohamed Bin Thuglak’

Cho Ramasamy in the Tamil film ‘Mohamed Bin Thuglak’

K Balanchander brought in a new wave of films which were centred on social themes and interpersonal relationships mostly with a woman protagonist. His film Achamillai Achamillai (1984) satirises the Indian political system and the toll it takes on small-time politicians while Thanneer Thanneer (1981) dealt with everyday problems caused by political corruption. Probably the most famous film in the genre which has become synonymous with political satires has to be Manivannan’s Amaidhi Padai(1994). With a strong political acumen, Manivannan’s directorial ventures — like Palaivana Rojakkal (1986) which was written by M Karunanidhi — as well as the supporting roles he played — like Thai Maaman (1994), Villadhi Villain (1995), Ellame En Pondattithaan (1998) and Mudhalvan (1999) were replete with political references delivered comically. Speaking of lacing regular film dialogues with political references, SS Chandran also made a name for himself with his witty lines. Sathyaraj also made his fair share of political satires like Maha Nadigan (2004) and Suyetchai MLA (2006) apart from the aforementioned Amaidhi Padai and Thai Maamani.

The late 90s and early 2000s saw a plethora of political films such as biopics on yesteryear political leaders as well as fictional takes such as Makkal Aatchi (1995) and a slew of Shankar films on social issues like Gentleman (1993), Indian (1996), Mudhalvan (1999), Anniyan (2005) and Sivaji: The Boss (2007).

Mohanlal and Prakash Raj in a still from ‘Iruvar’

Mohanlal and Prakash Raj in a still from ‘Iruvar’

Mani Ratnam, apart from making films like Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), Uyire (1998), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) and Aayutha Ezhuthu (2004) that have politics as a canvas on which the plots are mounted, also gave us Iruvar (1997) – inspired by the lives of Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa – which has become a textbook example for political dramas in Kollywood. In the contemporary Tamil film landscape, there have been a fair share of political satires such as Saguni (2012), Joker (2016), LKG (2019) and Tughlaq Durbar (2021) as well as commercial entertainers with a political backdrop like Ko (2011), Kodi (2016), Sarkar (2018), NOTA (2018), NGK (2019) and Kodiyil Oruvan (2021).

A new wave on the horizon

In the last decade, filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj (with films such as Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan and Maamannan) and Vetrimaaran (Visaranai, Asuran and Viduthalai) have introduced audiences to a new wave of socio-political films that talk about oppression, exploitation and lack of social justice, and have put anti-caste politics in the front and centre of Tamil cinema. Ranjith — whose directorials include politically charged films like Madras, Kaala and Natchathiram Nagargiradhu — apart from also producing such films, extends his social work in various forms like Neelam Cultural Center (that led to The Casteless Collective band), Vaanam Art Festival, Koogai Film Movement and the recently concluded PK Rosy Film Festival that’s named after the first Dalit actress.

Director Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth from the sets of ‘Kaala’

Director Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth from the sets of ‘Kaala’

Apart from them, works of filmmakers like Ram, Manikandan, Raju Murugan, Gopi Nainar and Lenin Bharathi and films like Uriyadi, Ka Pae Ranasingam and Nenjuku Needhi have held a mirror to the sociopolitical issues and how they plague the lives of commoners.

Looking ahead to the future on and off-screen

Despite a new breed of filmmakers making it full circle for Tamil cinema and bringing it back to propagate anti-caste concepts with films on inclusivity and anti-establishment, Kollywood’s tryst with its purveyors doubling it as a launch pad into politics shows no signs of stopping. The son of the state’s current CM Stalin, Udhayanidhi, who entered the film industry as a producer and distributor, and turned actor, contested and won in the Chepauk – Thiruvallikeni Assembly Constituency in the 2021 elections before being sworn in as minister in Youth Welfare and Sports Development, in his father’s cabinet.

Udhayanidhi Stalin and Vijay

Udhayanidhi Stalin and Vijay

Probably the biggest announcement concerning the topic in recent times came earlier this year when Vijay announced the launch of his political party, Tamilaga Vettri Kazhagam. The actor, who announced his foray into politics at the peak of his career, declared that his party would enter the electoral fray in the 2026 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections.

2024 marks the 80th year of Periyar starting the social movement called Dravidar Kazhagam which gave to the rise of parties that have ruled the state since 1967. Cinema and politics, in various degrees of intensity, have remained intertwined since then. Though a large section of the public might criticise the power those from the film industry wield in the world of politics, what the forefathers of Dravidian politics wrote as dialogues in films back in the 50s still sounds eerily relevant. Need an example? A line written by veteran Karunanidhi, personified by the legendary Sivaji in his debut film Parasakthi, goes, “Kovilile kuzhapam vilaivithen, kovil koodathu enbadharkaga alla, kovil kodiyavarin koodaram-ah irruka koodathu enbadharkaga.”

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