My heart is touched when the world wakes up at the sight of the rising sun
and I get reminded of the days when King Chera’s flag flew high on the Himalayan peaks
– Lyrics from Anbe Vaa (1966)
I wasn’t around in 1966, but as a child growing up in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, I have watched Anbe Vaa (Come Darling) many, many times. And like thousands of my generation, and the generation before, I enjoyed it immensely.
I just could not figure out though why the hero, the unparalleled M Gopalan Ramachandran, was singing such a song in a romantic comedy. True the film was set in Simla, so there was cause to look to the Himalayas. But why was he interested so much in the rising sun? And why on earth was he wearing that red-and-black striped jacket all the time?
It was much later that I came to understand that MGR was the face of Tamil Nadu’s major political party, the Dravida Munettra Kazhagam. The rising sun was its party symbol, and its flag had red-and-black stripes. And MGR made sure all his films carried signs of his political stance. He propagated the philosophy of C N Annadurai, the founder of DMK, through his films. MGR was the DMK’s face till he left the party to start the Anna Dravida Munettra Kazhagam in the 1970s.
Coming from a family of ardent MGR fans, I grew up watching pretty much all MGR movies. More to the point, I got to witness the kind of sway he held over his followers. My grandfather, who became spellbound when MGR appeared on the silver screen, was one among the millions of die-hard MGR followers, and he remained a loyal ADMK man to his death.
Such was the charisma of MGR. He used his immense popularity as a movie star to ascend the political ladder and become chief minister of the movie-crazy Tamil Nadu. That action was not without consequence. It led many Tamil actors to attempt the same feat, with varying levels of success, to the point that Tamil politics and films are inexorably intertwined in a way seldom seen elsewhere.
But wait, was it MGR who used films for political gains? Or was it politics that used MGR to mobilise masses?
And why is that the Tamils are so susceptible to charm of the movie stars?
Arts and drama have always been part of the Tamil culture. For instance, the therukoothu, the street theatre that depicted stories from the Indian epics, is a way of life for the Tamils, dating back to the Sangam period of 3rd and 4th century AD. Cinema replaces such ancient art forms, and the Tamils, who have always enjoyed such entertainment immensely, have transferred their adulation from the heroes of old to the heroes of the silver screen.
The DMK was one of the first parties to realise the potential movies held for politics, and act on it in a significant manner through MGR and his films. It was the DMK, under the leadership of Annadurai, that took film seriously as a vehicle of political mobilisation.
An excellent orator, writer and a theatre artist, Annadurai himself was part of the film fraternity. He debuted as a screen writer in 1948 with the film Nallathambi. The film was against the Zamindari system, and Annadurai went on to script many films such as Vellaikari, Rangoon Radha, and Or Iravu, all of which had the ideas of self-respect, women’s rights, and anti-Braminism. There were other movie stars — S S Rajendran and Shivaji Ganesan, to name two — who believed in Annadurai’s ideas and joined him.
“Their films introduced symbols and references to the DMK, and the party rode the rising popularity of cinema,” writes Professor Robert L Hardgrave in his paper Politics and the film in Tamil Nadu. “Film artists brought glamour and electoral support to the DMK, and actors graced the platforms of party rallies.”
The strategy attracted scorn from other mainstream politicians initially. Erik Barnouw and S Krishnawamy write in their book Indian Film how K Kamaraj, who was then president of the Congress Party, scoffed at the idea: “How can there be government by actors?”
Unfortunately for Kamaraj, there did come about government — governments, actually — by actors. Shivaji Ganesan was the first to rise to fame and become the face of DMK. But he did not stay with the party for long. He went on to join the Congress, and always preferred to keep his movies and politics separate.
It was then that MGR became the face of DMK. All his films propagated DMK ideas. Dialogue and songs were carefully crafted to hint at the political stance of the actor and promote the party among the masses. In Vivasayi (Farmer) 1967, for example, MGR sings: ‘There might be many flags of many parties in the country, but the only flag that can fly high is the flag of prosperity’. When he sings about the flag of prosperity, the DMK flag is shown in the background.
Aroor Das, who penned scripts for many MGR films, has written about how particular the actor was that all his movies was pro-DMK and nothing his character did hurt the sentiments of the party. And this is evident in movies such as Neethikku Thalain Vangu, Sirithu Vazha Vendum, Meenava Nanban, and Maduraiyay Meeta Sundarapandi.
MGR, S S Rajendran and Shivaji Ganesan were all actors who rose to fame with the support of DMK. DMK used films intelligently to reach the masses. This set an example to the future generation of actors. People of Tamil Nadu have been tuned to watch films as a part of political propaganda. Today we have a number of actors-turned-politicians. Vijayakanth, Sarathkumar and Karthik are good examples.
News of actors joining politics is common in Tamil newspapers. It seems to have become a tradition of the state. Recently Nirmala, a contemporary of J Jayalalithaa, the present chief minister who herself has donned the female lead in more than 20 MGR movies, joined the All India Anna Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam. Actors like Kushboo, Vadivelu, and Radhika have campaigned for different parties.
Tamil Nadu has seen a total of 10 chief ministers since Independence. Of the 10, five have been from the film industry: C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, MGR, V N Annadurai and J Jayalalithaa.
Politics and films are two branches of the same tree in Tamil Nadu. Years of enculturation have primed the masses to identify an actor who wants to be the future leader of the state from the dialogue he or she delivers in films. Elsewhere in India, there are film stars like Jaya Bachchan, Jayaprada, and Shatrughan Sinha who are active in politics. But the number of stars who enter politics in Tamil Nadu is higher. That is the tradition the Dravidian parties have created.
Kamaraj was wrong. This is the state where you can have government by actors.
Manolakshmi Pandiarajan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Madras, Chennai.
Illustration: Safa Tharib