Pioneers who pushed cinema into politics


MADRAS, India — When Indian Telugu film star K. Chiranjeevi entered politics recently in the south Indian state of Andhra, it merely affirmed a widely held belief that cinema and public affairs are firmly linked to each other. Chiranjeevi, who has acted in 138 movies, said it was the former state chief minister and highly popular Telugu actor, the late N.T. Rama Rao, who had inspired him to look beyond the glitzy world of make-believe.

Rama Rao was extraordinarily charismatic. On the screen, he invariably played Hindu gods, destroying evil and helping the innocent and righteous. When he was not a god, he was a Good Samaritan fighting for the poor and downtrodden masses. However, it was not just his film persona or the halo around his head that catapulted him from the greenroom to the high office of chief minister.

Rama Rao established his Telugu Desam Party in March 1982 with one soul-stirring pledge: to restore the self-respect for over 60 million Andhras. The electorate gave him a thumping victory in December of that year.

Did he win because he was an actor? No. He triumphed in the elections largely because he had a powerful political manifesto that conveyed deep empathy for the common man. Rama Rao’s star allure was only a point of contact for the people. It gave him an identity that helped him build a rapport with the electorate.

The lack of a convincing political agenda is a big reason why some actors in northern India, such as Dharmendra or Govinda or Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan, have not succeeded the way their southern counterparts have.

In the south, the Dravidian political parties understood this early on. They realized that cinema could roll beyond entertainment and serve as a political tool. So they used this medium as their political platform.

There, the non-Brahminical lower caste groups had suffered years of humiliation, and the Dravidian philosophy (which went as far as hurling abuses against Hindu gods) promised them a life of dignity. New Delhi’s imposition of the Hindi language in the 1960s came in handy for these parties, which sought to restore self-respect for Tamils with regard to the Hindiwallahs by giving importance to the Tamil language.

It took a genius like the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai to link films to Dravidian ideology. Two remarkable men helped him: the current Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, known for captivating movie scripts like “Parasakthi” (1952), and M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), an extremely charismatic actor. MGR became the face of Dravidian politics while Karunanidhi and Annadurai penned some of the greatest lines that Tamil cinema has ever known.

Annadurai won the 1967 Tamil Nadu state elections on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) plank, neatly translating what was until then a social movement — introduced by egalitarian activist E.V. Ramaswamy — into a powerful political party.

The administrative dominance of upper-caste Hindus helped Annadurai strengthen his movement by winning over chauvinistic Tamils and neglected segments in the lower echelons of the Hindu-caste hierarchy.

By the time Annadurai died in 1969, the DMK had been firmly established, and Karunanidhi stepped in as chief minister with MGR as party treasurer. Both worked on correcting caste-based social injustice, ensuring greater dignity and self-respect for groups other than Brahmins. They used the Tamil language for such empowerment.

However, the two most important men in the Tamil Nadu politics later split. MGR, by then a very popular matinee idol, formed his own party, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972. It took him just five years to sweep the Tamils off their feet and take over Madras’ Fort St. George.

MGR’s mesmeric screen roles often came with honey-coated messages propagating his party’s achievements and aims. He never lost an election. Upon his death in 1987, his screen heroine and confidante J. Jayalalithaa took over the AIADMK mantle.

Since then, the tussle in Tamil Nadu has been between Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa — between an erstwhile spirited script writer and a once seductive screen siren, both using cinema to reach out to the masses.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Madras-based journalist who writes for several newspapers across the world.