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The message from the Mersal affair

Any party seeking inroads in Tamil Nadu must prepare to be lampooned in films, because the state has a long history of irreverent political cinema

india Updated: Oct 28, 2017 21:29 IST
Sudha G Tilak
Sudha G Tilak
Hindustan Times
A rally in support of the film Mersal that was targeted because it was critical of some government schemes.
A rally in support of the film Mersal that was targeted because it was critical of some government schemes.(HT Photo)

What’s the matter with Mersal, you ask?

Nothing new for people in Dravidanadu. Cinema and politics have always been intertwined in Tamil Nadu. Commercial popular art has been the vehicle for social and political expression then and now. The BJP’s objection to a film and call for its silence have only exposed a disconnect with the culture of a state where art and politics have always been a happy mix. Community discourse, satire, cheekiness, puns and propaganda are part of the lexicon of Tamil cinema.

Before theatre became an organised form of entertainment, Tamils had monodramatic public performances (open-mic, you say today?) that reached out to intimate audiences in villages, towns and cities alike. Folk theatre conventions like villu paatu (a musical narrative performance where the artist could make a social comment or two as part of his singing) or katha kalakshepam (a monodrama or solo narration that used mythological stories that also spewed truisms) were also popular forms of talking with the community at large.

A still from the film Mersal.

These factors of engagement are part of its continuing heritage in modern times. Today theatre, movies or Twitter all are rightful vehicles and creative vocabularies for popular debates or comments.

While the general opinion of commercial Tamil cinema is relegated to bling, braggadocio and bombast, its meaning was never unclear for those who could see beyond the overwrought trappings, the disturbing misogyny, hero worship and personality cults.

What’s your colour?

When MG Ramachandran smacked his lips in a song dressed like a matador in Kudiiruntha Kovil (1968), the audience didn’t note the anachronism as much as the black-and-red costumes that reinforced the DMK’s party colours. When he switched sides in the 1970s and founded his own ADMK, his songs and gestures reinforced the ADMK’s two leaves symbol.

The political rivalry and jousts between Karunanidhi and MGR played out openly in the movie business. Robert L Hardgrave in his ‘Politics and the Film in Tamil Nadu’ says Karunanidhi tried to curb MGR’s rising popularity by introducing his son, M K Muthu (who imitated MGR’s wig and mannerisms) in the 1970s. Muthu’s imitation of MGR only led to a quick celluloid demise. In 1972 MGR left the DMK to float his own party, the ADMK, as the rivalry mounted between him and Karunanidhi.

The strangeness of Tamil cinema’s hero worship could also have been born from the deep-rooted admiration of the disempowered and voiceless for the fiery speeches, hyperbole and muscular articulation of these political stalwarts

If nationalism remained the mainstay of protest in pre-independent India, especially north of the Vindhyas, regionalism, identity politics and anti-Brahminism was at the core of public discourse in south India, led by strong voices from Tamil Nadu. This, Tamil cinema owes to its founding contributors of writers, poets and lyricists whose writing set the tone for its political inputs.

The strangeness of Tamil cinema’s hero worship could also have been born from the deep-rooted admiration of the disempowered and voiceless for the fiery speeches, hyperbole and muscular articulation of these political stalwarts.MGR did not have the acting chops of Sivaji Ganesan. But while Ganesan failed as a politician, MGR rose to fame as a star and politician and it is said it was due to cultivating his image on screen as a benefactor.

Rajinikanth’s “punch dialogues” or loaded comments today are pale imitations of the political oratory of a Karunandihi, Veeramani or a Vai Gopalaswamy. A Tamil man was a hero as long as he was not afraid to comment, be it roars before the cameras or swag before the crowd at a podium. Rajinikanth’s TV speech against Jayalalithaa in 1996 (“If Jayalalithaa is voted back to power, even God cannot save Tamil Nadu”) joins the canon of his “punch dialogues” in movies like Mannan (1992), Muthu (1995) and Padayappa (1999) that trolled Jayalalitha as an authoritarian figure.

In the 1930s, Tamil cinema witnessed the towering rise of NS Krishnan (NSK), called the Chaplin of Tamil cinema, a close associate of DMK chief CN Annadurai. He inspired a cult following, much like the Shakespearean tradition of the clever fool, and his comic routines commented on religion, social inequities and politics of the day, Russia among others. Congress leaders would clamp censorship but the comedian found ways to slip in puns supporting the DMK in his films.

In NSK’s tradition, Tamil comedy actors have for long had a special track in films and many of them have used wit and sarcasm to make social comments. In recent times comedian Vivek has mocked superstitions and taboos in his films.

The record books have never matched the political fiery combination in 1952 in Parasakthi. M Karunanidhi’s blistering dialogues that matched the intensity of Sivaji Ganesan’s delivery was a watershed in Tamil cinema. The film battled the censorship of the day to join the canons of cinema today. The film, about a displaced family from Rangoon and their tribulations in Tamil Nadu during World War II, attacked caste and social inequities.

And so it went that in the 1990s a Tamil filmmaker used the commercial format to talk about terrorism (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se). From the Kashmir conflict, Bombay riots to unrest in the Northeast or the Eelam question in Kannathil Muthamital (2002), Mani Ratnam’s movies have married the personal to the political. Nothing compares to that brilliant Ratnam biopic Iruvar (1997), a masterpiece on the three important political figures of Tamil Nadu thus far: Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa.

Show Of Support

Film actors in Tamil Nadu have been open about their political affiliations. Satyaraj (Kattappa from Bahubali) has been an interesting star who has worked in films that have taken on political corruption (Amaidhi Padai, 1994), police atrocities (Kadamai, Kanniyam, Kattupadu, 1987) and even played the eponymous role in Periyar (based on Dravida Kazhagam founder Periyar) even as he espoused his fanboy status of MGR.

Director S. Shankar’s films have been mounted on spectacular canvases but they have been a heady mix of political vendetta and vigilantism taking on corruption and politics in films like Mudalvan, Indian, Anniyan.

Social issues and women’s struggles formed a strong core of thespian K Balachander. His Achamilai Achamilai brought gender and politics closer home with the honest wife taking on her corrupt politician husband. K Balachander’s two films Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1998) and Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) dealt with a Carnatic musician’s role in making music accessible and humane and also breaking language barriers in Carnatic music.

Kamal Haasan, openly left-leaning and votary of Dravidian party ideals, has made movies that led to censorship and controversies. His earlier movies took on political and social issues (Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu, Indian), Tamil Nadu’s twin troubles of caste and violence (Thevar Magan, Virumandi). Haasan has been talking movies on religion and fundamentalism in recent times. He got Bollywood’s badshah Shah Rukh Khan to discuss the tricky subject of Hindu nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism in Hey Ram. Anbe Sivam called for humanism not religion, Vishwaroopam has him play a RAW agent who hunts down terrorists. When he announced his political intentions, the state’s chatterati’s concerns were only -- can he bring in the votes? The star as a politician is after all a familiar figure.

The recent Twitter war #ModivsMersal only proved that the Tamil hero will play Rambo in politics. Take him on for sure, but ready yourself for his troll army of fans too.