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Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan in politics: What a new book on MGR says about TN politics

Not everyone can take to politics and be as successful as MG Ramachandran was. MGR: A Life by R. Kannan talks about this in detail.

books Updated: Aug 13, 2017 12:21 IST
Kavitha Muralidharan
The cover of MGR: A Life (L) and MGR addressing a rally (Right)
The cover of MGR: A Life (L) and MGR addressing a rally (Right)

If the crowds at the sprawling Kalaivanar Arangam in Chennai for the launch of MGR: A Life by R. Kannan on July 8 was anything to go by, MG Ramachandran’s superstardom remains intact. So intact that it could reignite the hopes of several superstars-in-waiting.

But veteran journalist N Ram, who spoke at the event, debunked the essential myth: That any Tamil superstar can become MGR. “The idea that anyone can jump into politics because you are a superstar in films, in cricket or whatever, is a myth. MGR grew as part of the Dravidian movement. He was ideologically committed to a large extent… Anyone who thinks a superstar — and I am not referring to any individual here — can descend from skies to overcome all your problems, bypassing the dominant parties is living in a fool’s paradise.”

For outsiders, Tamil Nadu might look like an inherently contradictory state. If it progressed in various fronts under the Dravidian movement, it has also been accused of encouraging hero worship. The 450-plus-page book MGR: A Life, published by Penguin offers an up-close view of MGR, his formative years, his struggle in films and his political career till his death. For the first time perhaps, the book brings new material for a new generation of readers for whom MGR remains a mystery.

What about Jayalalithaa then? If MG Ramachandran can hold an unassailable sway over his voters for 10 years until his death, enjoying a godlike status, J Jayalalithaa boasted of an almost dizzy fan following. From crowds vying to get a glimpse of the ‘fair-skinned woman’, to party colleagues who would bend before her, Jayalalithaa enjoyed a cult status, though not as big as MGR’s. But observers and the new book argue that neither MGR nor Jayalalithaa banked solely on their star status to achieve their stupendous political successes.

J Jayalalithaa. (HT File Photo)

MGR’s protégé Jayalalithaa worked very hard to win votes and hearts. “I don’t think Jayalalithaa was successful because of her star status. It was her association with MGR that made her a favourite among the people,” says writer Vaasanthi, author of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s Journey From Movie Star to Political Queen. “She did work hard enough to be accepted. She deliberately deglamourised [herself] and put on the mantle of Amma, the benevolent. It was a well thought out strategy that worked. Even after the indictment, people were able to ignore it and think that she was blameless.”

There were other heroines of MGR who had tried their luck with politics, but were not as successful as Jayalalithaa. When MGR attempted to make another heroine, Vennira Aadai Nirmala, a member of the legislative council (which has since been made defunct) to boost her political career, the nomination was rejected as she had filed insolvency. If her first try was unsuccessful and not because of lack of political charisma, her second in 1989, against Jayalalithaa in the Assembly elections as a representative of VN Janaki’s (MGR’s wife) faction of the AIADMK was no better either. She ended up fourth.

In the 1970s, MGR reportedly asked Latha, a heroine who had acted with him in the later years of his film career, to join the AIADMK. While Latha had campaigned for the party and raised funds before it came to power, she stayed away from the party according to an interview she gave to the Rediff.com in 1997. The same year she decided to join the new party floated by senior leader S Thirunavukkarasu (currently heading the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee) after he was thrown out of the AIADMK in 1990 by Jayalalithaa. But Latha’s political career too never took off. Saroja Devi, one of the most popular heroines to be paired with MGR, has repeatedly said that she was also asked by MGR to join politics but she did not entertain the idea. But none of them could be as successful as Jayalalithaa who had worked hard enough that it became tough even for MGR during his last years to undo her political image. For the record, Jayalalithaa has acted in the most number of films with MGR and had enjoyed an edge over other actors in terms of ‘acceptability from the masses’.

“He walked the talk,” says S Vijayan, Editor of Ithayakkani, a monthly magazine dedicated to MGR. “Several actors entertain political aspirations. But unlike MGR they were not able to deliver in real life what was promised on screen. If someone wants to use their screen image to boost their political career, they have to live up to it.”

But MGR’s was an experiment that no other actor could emulate, says Vaasanthi. “He was successful because he combined party politics with his cinema success. It was a total synthesis that no other star has been able to do.”

MGR’s bête noire M Karunanidhi, began his political career at the age of 14 and started writing scripts when he turned 20. Despite being a popular politician, he had a penchant for films and had worked as a scriptwriter for almost 40 movies. Using his script and dialogues as propaganda vehicles for the Dravidian movement, Karunanidhi, who once wrote film scripts for Sivaji Ganesan, used scripts against MGR, promoting his son Mu Ka Muthu first (which turned out to be a failure) and later, actor Jai Shankar. But he never did capture MGR’s do-gooder image and popularity.

Another famous actor and MGR’s peer in movies, Sivaji Ganesan too tried his luck in politics, but with little success. Observers say unlike MGR, Sivaji spent more time on doing performance-oriented roles — the kind that earned him the moniker ‘Nadigar Thilagam’ (the pride of actors) but failed to establish him as someone close to the masses.

“He walked the talk,” says S Vijayan, Editor of Ithayakkani, a monthly magazine dedicated to MGR. “Several actors entertain political aspirations. But unlike MGR they were not able to deliver in real life what was promised on screen. If someone wants to use their screen image to boost their political career, they have to live up to it.”

In his seminal essay Image Trap, eminent social scientist MSS Pandiyan argues how MGR had carefully constructed a subaltern narrative in his films that made it possible for the audiences to identify themselves with the hero. Also building his argument on the premise of food, the ‘central concern in the everyday struggle of the poor’, Pandiyan lists out a number of films where MGR would build his relationship with the audience by way of food. “In Thozhilali (1964), MGR as a manual worker, drinks gruel from an earthen pot, and licks pickle from off his fingers. In Kanavan (1968), he asks for ‘neerakaram’ (water in which the previous day’s cooked rice has been soaked) in his wealthy wife’s house. In Ninaithathai Mudippavan (1975), he eats ragi dosai, drinks sukku kaapi (a hot concoction made of dry ginger, jaggery and water) and expresses his desire to have cold rice, and cooked low-grade cereal. MGR films endow these food items with a specific semiotic significance. All these food items are normally consumed by the poor and are often taboo for the rich. Thus, what is being presented here is a food sharing structure that integrates MGR, the hero with the subaltern masses/audience,” the essay argues.

This is something that Madurai-based Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam would readily concur with. “MGR had a very specific Dalit fan following. It is believed that Arunthathiyars [a subsect of Dalits] began supporting him after he acted as ‘Madurai veeran’ in a film with the same title. Madurai Veeran was a Dalit leader. I am not sure if any other actor would so carefully and consciously do roles that would so immediately strike a chord with the subaltern. You may be curious about Rajinikanth’s Kabali where he does play a subaltern hero, but I feel the audiences can see through to the role of director Pa Ranjith in doing so.”

So while it is the failure of other actors to effectively marry their film careers to their political aspirations, observers also say that star success in politics is passé. “MGR’s was an aura shrouded in mystery. He had a larger than life image because he was not easily accessible. There were no cameras that would chase him to airport if he was flying anywhere. Things are different now. In the kind of world we live in today, everything is under surveillance. With the arrival of social media, an actor like Rajinikanth no longer enjoys the aura of mystery. If he talks about political entry, social media mercilessly trolls him. Something you cannot have imagined in the days of MGR,” says KS Radhakrishnan, senior DMK leader.

The power of social media was perhaps best illustrated in the pro-jallikattu protests at Marina Beach in Chennai, which saw lakhs of youngsters converge for days together. Representing a different set of aspirations, the youngsters are not just looking at the star value to lead them. Several of them have in fact been critical of Rajinikanth for his perennial confusion in taking the political plunge.

“Rajinikanth is a political-illiterate. Being famous is not a qualification to rule people. To become a people’s leader one should know them, should have a clear vision, mission and manifesto to improve the lives of the people. To enter politics in a progressive state like Tamil Nadu, one should have a basic understanding about equality, regional aspirations and social justice struggles. It is very evident that youth activism and youth participation in social issues is increasing in TN. Soon, the existing corrupt politicians and those with regressive ideologies will be thrown out of politics and Rajinikanth is no exception,” says student activist V Prabhakaran.

Vaasanthi perhaps puts it best when she says actors without a clear-cut message for progress cannot win the hearts of the people in the ‘changed economic structure’. Simply put, it no longer matters if they are actors (or not), if they don’t have a vision, years of planning or work, they really can’t make it in TN politics.

Published in arrangement with GRIST Media

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