Tamil cinema still entwined with politics

Published Oct 27, 2014, 9:42 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
Entry of Karunanidhi into Tamil filmdom marked the beginning of grip over TN politics
M Karunanidhi. (Photo: DC/File)
 M Karunanidhi. (Photo: DC/File)
Chennai: The past week was witness to two incidents that reflect the past and present of Tamil cinema, and probably its future. One of the few remaining actor-politicians who propelled Dravidian movement in the state, S.S. Rajendran, passed away, and one of the most awaited films of this season, Vijay-starrer Kaththi, was embroiled in yet another political controversy resulting in minor violence outside a popular movie theatre.
When the iconic 1952-movie Parasakthi, known for its anti-Brahmin and anti-theist stand, became a huge success, it did not just launch the careers of Sivaji Ganesan and S.S. Rajendran but also ushered in a new movement that made cinema the most powerful medium down south.
According to octogenarian journalist ‘Film news’ Anandan, Parasakthi was one of the few movies of the time that was completely driven by theatre artistes. “Until then, it was difficult for theatre artistes to get a foothold in Tamil cinema. Even Sivaji Ganesan was initially rejected for the role of ‘Gunasekaran’ in the film as he was considered too impoverished for a movie star. It was only after DMK founder C.N. Annadurai convinced the producers and personally ensured that Ganesan gained enough weight and the looks of a star, was he cast in the role,” recalls Anandan.
When Annadurai split from Periyar and formed the DMK, K.R. Ramaswamy, Sivaji Ganesan and S.S. Rajendran were among the few actors who joined his camp. “But later on, Sivaji had to part ways with the party when he accepted to play the lead role in a mythological film against the rationalist principles of the party. Ironically, S.S. Rajendran, who was also offered a key role in the film, rejected the offer as it was against his Dravidian principles,” the veteran journalist recalls.
Most major actors of the time, including founder of AIADMK and former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran, aggressively promoted their political agenda through films and they were accepted wholeheartedly by the public as is evident in the last 40 years of domination of Dravidian parties in state politics.
The tango of political consciousness and films in Tamil Nadu has for decades now been the hot topic for researchers on the power of celluloid screen to influence politics. Even way back in 1975, scholarly studies were taken up by researchers across the world on the topic.
In January 1975, an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly following a survey conducted among 500 urban and 500 rural residents of the state, concluded that films have been a major vehicle of the Dravidian movement and the spectacular electoral success of the DMK, and that the influence of cinema was highest among urban men and rural women.
Noted writer and theatre artiste Gnani points out that while the entanglement of politics and Tamil cinema continues, the situation has completely reversed now.
“While actors and politicians had pushed their politics through cinema in the past, politicians and major parties are now controlling the business of cinema. Today, unless a filmmaker has the patronage of the ruling party, he or she cannot get their film released. 
All political parties have heavily invested in the business of cinema and completely control its financial aspect,” he says.
“It is clearly evident every time the film fraternity endorses political developments in the state as it happened recently with Kollywood protesting against the imprisonment AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa.”
According to Gnani, while there is definitely a social need and scope for a new political outfit to storm into state politics as the DMK had done back in the ’50s and ’60s, cinema will no longer be a vehicle for such a change. “Today, so many alternative avenues are available for politicians to reach out to the public,” says Gnani.
With the dominant political parties only interested in the business end of cinema, fringe groups such as the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam and other ideological groups are holding the medium to ransom. From Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam, the release of which was stalled briefly by minority groups to the most recent Kaththi, which was released after the protesting groups and the producers came to an agreement, movies are now a medium for political and other groups to twist the arm of the multi-crore entertainment industry for petty gains.
Movie industry insiders point out that even big stars succumb to pressures from these groups and play softball to ensure that their financiers and investors are not affected. It is in this light that the death of S.S. Rajendran marks the end of an era. After all, he is one of the few politicians to have rejected a major role as it conflicted with his politics.