A new entrant to American High School, Madurai, the bastion of Tamil culture in the early 1950s, I was not prepared for the passionate outpouring of filmi dialogue of my classmates, most of whom were extremely poor. They quoted alluring, alliterative dialogues from the film Velaikari: “Sattam oru iruttarai, aathil vakeelin vadham oru vilaku. Aanal adhu ezhaikku ettada vilakku” (Law is a dark room where the lawyer’s argument is a lamp. But it is not accessible to the poor). My classmates had seen the film more than once and when not quoting lines from it, were busy writing its reviews and reading them out to others.
This was the impact on Tamil youth by scholar, orator and budding DMK stalwart, C.N. Annadurai (Anna) who was to become the Chief Minister and establish Dravidian supremacy in Tamil Nadu. Much of this impact was made through the medium of films, theatre and journalism . As Dravidian politics ruled in Tamil Nadu from 1967, all its chief ministers belonged to the world of cinema and were propagators of Dravidian culture: Anna and M. Karunanidhi (writers and orators), M. G. Ramachandran, V. N. Janaki and Jayalalithaa (actors). For the first time in the world, a political ideology was successfully propagated through cinema.
Now, as Tamil cinema celebrates its platinum jubilee starting with film festivals in Singapore and the staging of Tamil classics all over the state, one continues to wonder how in a state with comparatively literacy, the make-believe world of cinema could wield such high political influence. Former actor and Republican Ronald Reagan did become president of the US but Hollywood did not propagate the Republican party ideology and retain the White House for long periods. While relying on his charisma as an actor, Reagan won because of his diehard conservatism and promises to keep government out of everyday American life. The Tamil Nadu scenario was more complex.
The first Tamil films like Kalidas and Raja Rani, released in 1931, were mythological films, historical dramas or song-laden Ruritarian romances. They only entertained the masses. But parallely, a nascent Dravidian movement was growing, spearheaded by ‘Periyar’, E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker. This was a social cause, aimed to check the supremacy of the upper castes and Brahmins, eradicate superstition and caste conflicts and restore the glory of Tamils. EVR started the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), recommended black shirts and dhotis for his followers and indulged in a lot of tradition bashing. Soon the movement had a large following but kept away from politics.
The Dravidian movement really caught on from the mid-1940s. Tamil cinema which was crippled by the shortage of film stock and British censorship began to come into its own. The focus once again was on mythology but soon it could not ignore the powerful signals from a rejuvenated Dravidian movement. The DK had split into the DMK which had the backing of Tamil scholars, writers and intellectuals like Anna and Karunanidhi. Cashing in on the Tamilian love for their glorious past and the beauty of their language, the DMK focused on theatre, film and journalism to spread its message. The era of propaganda films had begun.
Rustic looking scholar Annadurai was the pioneering force of the movement. His plays sizzled with passion, dealing with attacks on feudalism, idol worship and the glory of the Tamil language. His plays and screen stories focused on atheism and did not spare holy cows. This was a heady mixture for the masses.
Anna’s disciple, Karunanidhi, was not far behind. At 14 he headed the DMK’s youth wing and advised by mentor Anna, joined the world of cinema to make a living writing songs, screenplays and stories. He edited the party mouthpiece, Kudi Arasu and his dialogues sizzled with anti-North Indian, anti-Hindi and pro-Tamil sentiments in films like Manthiri Kumari and Marudhanatu Ilavarasi, both of which starred the young and dynamic MGR.
Another memorable hit film was Parasakthi where actor Sivaji Ganesan fought injustice. Karunanidhi also turned producer and turned out hits like Manohara. The DMK had an additional advantage because it could feature MGR in these films. He was the ideal Dravidian youth, without vices, devoted to his mother and promoting the party’s ideals.
Unlike the DK, the DMK entered politics. In 1957, Karunanidhi and Anna became MLAs, ten years later the DMK was in power in the state. Anna was the Chief Minister and Karunanidhi a cabinet minister; he succeeded Anna on the latter’s death. The political message continued. When the DMK split and MGR emerged as the leader of the new AIADMK and captured power in the state, it did not affect the Dravidian influence over Tamil Nadu.
Temporarily, the DMK and Karunanidhi were eclipsed by MGR’s star power. The people saw in MGR the Chief Minister the same idealistic qualities they had seen in MGR the screen hero. Tamil Nadu witnessed a dirty, unwholesome power struggle after MGR’s death and the leadership issue was tossed among MGR’s widow Jamaki, his confidante, Jayalalithaa, and the DMK stalwart.
With Tamil cinema celebrating its diamond jubilee, filmmakers are aware of the unique contribution of their art to state politics. Today, Jaya is out of power, Karunanidhi is at the end of his career (but going strong) and the question is will the silver screen soon yield another superstar to handle the affairs of the state? Meanwhile, national parties like the Congress and the BJP can only watch from the sidelines. For a brief period, another great star of Tamil cinema, Sivaji Ganesan, flirted with the Congress and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He finally started a party of his own. The main problem with Sivaji was that, unlike MGR and Karunanidhi, he did not carry the all-important Dravidian stamp.
V Gangadhar is a senior journalist