Hello Mr Ethirkatchi…
Of Acting Politicians and Political Actors
Disclaimer Clause: It might be in bad taste to mix the discourse of cinema with political commentary but in Tamil Nadu, this phenomenon has been part and parcel of local pop culture and voting habits for more than 64 years. I, therefore, permit myself to write on the politics of star performers who became governmental representatives. Opinions: My own. Political endorsements: None.
Tamil Nadu, Poes Garden and Political Cinema
Tamil Nadu is the only state in India where a continuous tradition of actors turning politicians exists since 1953. Baradwaj Rangan, in his recent review of the movie Mersal, noted that it might not be long before scholars decide to undertake Vijay’s movie hints on politics as a research case study. Tamil Nadu has in the past been graced, some may argue disgraced, by actors such as MGR, Karunanidhi, and Jayalalitha. The current environment suggests that 80s and 90s Tamil movie icons like Kamal Hasan and Rajinikanth may enter the territory in near future. Public opinion videos in Chennai voice a mixed reaction to whether actor Kamal should move from his natural terrain of acting into the confused and corrupt world of Poes Garden politics. His personal life and fashion are now under greater scrutiny than ever (Kamal wearing a kurta rather than a veshti in recent interview notably hurt Tamil sentiments). This being Fully Filmy however, let us avoid the political what-when-where-how questions and focus on the reasons Tamils, in particular, like and accept(ed) actors from reel life to enact greater responsibilities in real life.
Source: Asianet Newsable
The Missing Dravidian Leader
Mighty maritime and territorial Tamil leaders such as Raja Raja Cholan and Velu Nachiyar are long gone. Tamil Nadu is missing a spokesperson who can lead confidently hitherto not arrogantly. Perhaps this is why the public readily accepted an actor who has been a hero and conqueror on-screen on a different platform such as politics and inter-state diplomacy. Mass movies and masala movies (there is a difference!) are vehicles for big stars to throw cues that ‘they’ represent the people – the people of Tamil Nadu. Their songs promise that they will care for children and mothers, protect sisters and women and lead their fellow men (in this case hundreds of background dancers) assertively into freedom from oppression and ridicule. The politically driven mass hero verse promises boldness – may that come in the presence of opposing northern Aryan or further southern Sinhala-majority supremacy. It is hoped for that Tamil fans turn into voters – from ticket buyers to vote donators. In both instances, they stand in line, buy or cast their vote on a movie or candidate and wait eagerly to watch a spectacle based on nothing but promising teasers and a concealed gut feeling. The chances of being disappointed or ‘FullyFilmy’ satisfied remain the same. The decision to watch it online or offline remains the spectator’s choice. The consequences of voting or not voting for a movie are comparably minuscule and shorter-term than comparing the impact when a more definitive political vote has been cast.
Source: Google Images/ Rediff
The Fluently Multilingual Ambassador
Despite mass hero songs hinting that Rajinikanth or Vijay ‘may or may not’ enter politics, their off-screen persona (or enactment) renders it hard to believe that quiet artists will orate their political opinions strongly enough when the time comes. Rajinikanth’s cryptic speeches have been confusing and frustrating for some segments of society and one may opinion that patience is slowly but surely running out. The current political climate in Tamil Nadu, one that invites almost anybody to lead, thus allows and welcomes for the entry of third-party players – whether they are common men or women, or established celebrities. The hopes pinned on actor Kamal Hasan are seemingly real, his teaser-entry was quick and his apt responses filled with equal portions of wit, sarcasm and sense. A spokesperson whose retorts in both English and Tamil have taken critical journalists and media conglomerates aback. More than anything else, the announcements have come as fresh air for Tamils who have wanted an assertive leader to the likes of Jayalalitha. Kamal the star, the poet and the critic being a person of Tamil origin (PTO?) is, of course, a bonus. Southern brand ambassador, Sashi Tharoor often speaks about the soft power of India overseas while barely realising, that at present, he is Kerala’s greatest soft power icon within India. Thanks to the international box office power of Tamil movies, its stars have shared a prevailing role in keeping Tamil soft power afloat in an incredibly robust and trendy under-researched mechanism in the form of Tamil Cinema both within and outside India.
There are many we could image to fit the ‘role’ of a politician. It was entertaining to watch Dhanush and Trisha in a statesman’s role in Kodi but one would find it hard to accept an entry-song subtitled with light political innuendoes coming from them. We like him as artists and Chennai’s Twitter VIP. There are others however, who have tried their share bit to allude future political ambitions – Vijay and Vishal being examples. Is it possible to image Nayanthara in politics? Possibly - especially after Aram. Is it possible to imagine comedians and villains in politics? No - we do not want to be mocked and conned by them in real life too. Baahubali worked magic for the revival of Satyaraj’s and Ramya Krishnan’s image onscreen. We could perhaps imagine them in politics but it is a gamble few would bother to spend time reflecting on. Raadan Network’s Radhika or the original Magalir Mattrum ladies Revathy-Rohini-Urvashi perhaps? Possibly yes - as their strong roles in movies and other platforms would have us believe that they enjoy strong societal network-influence to materialise any such plans if they existed.
Lights, Camera, Ratnam-Action: Iruvar and Ayutha Ezhuthu
Mani Ratnam gave us plenty of food for through two masterpieces set in a political context. Iruvar looked at the journey of national and personal ambitions of two friends and their alliances – Mohanlal as MGR, Prakash Raj as Karunanidhi and Aishwarya as Jayalalitha. It remains a masterpiece that can be revisited repeatedly for its brilliance in showcasing many facets of collective contexts and its influences on persons – in this case, three highly popular movie stars in Tamil Nadu. Ayutha Ezhuthu shed light on a character called Michael enacted by Surya. The role was based on a real life student leader George Reddy and narrated his inability to comprehend and accede why universities served as virgin platforms for political ideologies. This, in turn led him to a mission of cleaning campuses of cast and politics driven divide and conquer practices. This real-life Osmania University ‘Michael’ was murdered in April 1972.
Source: Google Images/ Cinema Chaat
The Fan: The Voter
There may be many reasons why Tamils accept actors as politicians. They may include views raised above or may be marked by simpler aspects such as ease of accepting a recognised face. It may also include the culture of believing a hero’s promise to a State, which has throughout times been assertive enough in the midst of other political forces. Perhaps it simply reflects a Tamil passion for cinema and the trust in stars who personify cultural pride and promise hope in their formulaic intro songs. Admittedly, one did not have to have a political nerve to feel goosebumps when hearing Alaporan Thamizhan.
Reality check …
But let’s not forget, an Actors primary job is to perform. Actors act.
Conversely, actors are also common men and women who happen to have the privilege of being idolised by thousands of fans. In essence then, voting-in actor carries a similar, if not same, risk as electing-in anybody else. Voters today, much like movie reviewers, have an incredibly perceptible voice and large social media platform, which facilitates the fundamental right to question roles, word, actions and political promises. The rest of the world would raise eyebrows about Actor-Politicians and stars donning functions with greater societal impact. That’s the world – but in Tamil Nadu the boundary between reel and real is slender and today slimmer than ever.
A movie buff will watch a bad movie when no good movie is playing – it’s an optimistic attempt to decode cinema by understanding ‘why’ a movie is bad. In a very awkward sense, the stake with Tamil actors as Tamil politicians is much the same.
With a series of unwarranted sequels coming out, Tamil politics, much like Tamil cinema, is in a state of larger-than-life limbo; with audiences forced to tolerate cliff-hanger endings and tolerate unfinished business. The multitude of questions, plenty of actors and several creative scripts swarm the scene. The remaining question in Vairamuthu’s words then;
Kaathu Kathu Naalaachu
Written by - D Arachi