MGR, Rajinikanth to Kamal Haasan: Matinee idols and Tamil Nadu politics
After completing class 10, Mohammed Rabik in 1978 joined one of the earliest fan clubs formed for actor veteran Tamil actor Rajinikanth in Madurai. As a teenager, he joined the club after watching Rajinikanth’s Aayiram Jenmangal (a thousand births) that had released the same year.
“I have been waiting for more than three decades for him to enter politics,” says 59-year-old Rabik whose day job is in real estate. “I’m busy with booth-committee work now as we are gearing up for the party’s launch.” Rabik is one of the district secretaries of Rajini Makkal Mandram (RMM), a political extension of the star’s fan club.
For actors and aspiring politicians like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, the support base largely comes from people like Rabik who see film heroes as natural choices for political leadership in Tamil Nadu which has pioneered in infusing cinema and theatre with politics. The state has elected five chief ministers linked to Tamil cinema including three actors. And the most successful amongst them who straddled acting and politicking was Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran popularly known by his initials MGR.
Every time a tinsel town celebrity enters the political fray, the debate begins on whether they would taste success like MGR or would fail like his contemporary and veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan in his tryst with politics. Latest entrants Rajinikanth and Haasan have not just revived this comparison but all contenders of the 2021 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are vying for the legacy MGR left behind.
The matinee idol who first became chief minister in 1977 continued to occupy the chair until his death in 1987. MGR was suspended from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1972 when M Karunanidhi was the chief minister. MGR formed the breakaway faction the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) which was later renamed as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Except for MGR’s protege and successor J Jayalalithaa, several actors who made the switch haven’t been able to translate their silver screen success into votes.
Former co-stars Rajinikanth and Haasan, like their predecessors, have converted their enormous cult following into foot soldiers for their political journey. However, the scenario of MGR’s political shaping and rise is vastly different from the route taken by other actors in trying to replicate his success. “In contemporary politics, it is difficult to align cinema, image and politics in ways that worked for MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa,” says S Anandhi, professor, Madras Institute of Developmental Studies.
“Within the political economy of films, MGR sustained more than 40 films to build a subaltern image and propagate the DMK’s ideology. At that time they were affiliated to political parties as members, activists and leaders and integrated cinema dialogues and songs to their everyday political activism. MGR’s level of image building of a protector and provider isn’t possible for Rajinikanth or Kamal. It seems more like a departure from one career to the next.”
Rajinikanth is currently in Hyderabad shooting for his next film, ‘Annathe’ produced by Karunanidhi’s grandnephew Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Pictures. On New Year’s eve, the star will announce a date for the launch of his party. Haasan has had a head start having launched Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) in 2018 in Madurai and fought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with a vote share of 3.7 per cent. Haasan is in the second leg of his campaign before he heads to shoot a film in January.
“MGR remains a record-setter so the comparisons are inevitable,” says R Kannan, author of two books on Dravidian politics. “His career was always buoyed by different circumstances, for instance, Indira Gandhi’s death and his own illness. He is not like NT Rama Rao who faced defeat, ignominy, and his son-in-law pulled the rug from under his feet which is why NTR isn’t considered a stellar comparison for actors.” NTR founded the Telugu Desam party in Hyderabad in 1982 to wipe out the Congress using Telugu nationalism and was three-time chief minister. His son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu staged a revolt to take control of the party and became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1995.
Actor Vijayakanth who played multiple roles as saviour in Tamil films from the early 1980s launched Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in 2005. Vijayakanth who was referred to as ‘karuppu MGR’ (dark-complexioned MGR) by his supporters was acknowledged for his donations and generosity before he made the political plunge. He positioned himself as an alternative to the DMK-AIADMK and became the opposition leader in 2011 with an 8 per cent vote share when he was with the AIADMK which formed the government but he has had a steep fall. “Rajinikanth would probably start-off where Vijayakanth peaked,” says Kannan.
Vijayakanth parted ways with Jayalalithaa and for the 2016 assembly polls, he joined hands with the left and smaller parties but drew a blank. In 2019, the DMKD joined the National Democratic Alliance for the Lok Sabha polls but its vote share dropped to 2.1 per cent. It is presently an ally of the AIADMK-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine. In recent years, Vijayakanth has been inactive due to his ailing health and his wife Premalatha emerged as the party’s face campaigning fiercely on his behalf.
Beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu, other than NTR, the political foray has been short-lived for actors like Chiranjeevi and Prakash Raj. Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan took a break from acting and won from Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket but resigned after three years.
While Haasan will make his electoral debut in the upcoming 2021 polls as the chief ministerial candidate, Rajinikanth has been vocal that he will only be the party chief and doesn’t desire the chief minister’s post. His party advisors are trying to persuade him to contest. Rajinikanth first announced his political foray in 2017 but didn’t do much to build the party.
The Covid-19 pandemic made his political ambition doubtful as doctors had advised the actor that his immunity could be compromised as he had undergone a kidney transplant in 2016. “Rajinikanth’s reluctance, in one way, can be compared to MGR’s reluctance,” says Kannan. “Except that MGR had acute public and political consciousness from the very beginning. He had a generous streak about him. Some of it was probably calculated but some of it was organic.”
A senior AIADMK leader and MGR loyalist who did not wish to be named recalls the series of events after the DMK suspended MGR in October 1972. “It was like a freedom struggle on the streets of Tamil Nadu. We didn’t have to mobilise anyone,” the leader said. “Fans and DMK cadre urged him to float a political party. MGR was reluctant. But he was the true heir of Anna (DMK’s founder leader CN Annadurai). Even the party’s name was registered by Anakapathur Ramalingam (from his fans association), not MGR. On October 17, a flag was raised and the party was launched.”
The fledgeling parties of Rajinikanth and Kamal will be fighting the Dravidian rivals who have formed successive governments in the state - the DMK, the AIADMK and their national partners the Congress and the (Bharatiya Janata Party) BJP respectively. It’s also the first state election after the deaths of Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi. “Kamal and Rajinikanth have an advantage because there is no charismatic leader in the state, no talented writers or orators whereas MGR was up against veteran leaders of the DMK and the Congress,” the AIADMK leader said.
The AIADMK has come down strongly on Haasan and Rajinikanth for their speeches linking their closeness to MGR. While Rajinikanth said that there cannot be another MGR, he vowed to bring his rule while Haasan said he grew up in MGR’s lap. The AIADMK is also unhappy that their ally BJP usurped MGR for the promotional content of their vetrivel yatra (victorious spear march) and the saffron party has often likened Prime Minister Narendra Modi to MGR.
Rajinikanth’s first politically loaded statement was during the 1996 assembly elections when he said that even God can’t save Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa is elected to power. His remark is often seen as a reason why the DMK-led Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) alliance swept the assembly polls. Karunanidhi became the chief minister for the fourth time. The BJP, which is trying to make inroads in the Dravidian state, has attempted to gain support through his star power. Rajinikanth too maintains friendly ties with the BJP leadership and auditor S Gurumurthy, a troubleshooter for the RSS and the BJP, is one of his advisors. On the contrary, Haasan has been a critic of the Modi-led BJP government.
Rajinikanth and Haasan are on the same page that they will bring change to Tamil Nadu, positioning themselves as an alternative. From a posse of ex-bureaucrats and activists joining the MNM, it is evident that Haasan is building a party outside the traditional political system. MNM’s poll plank has been anti-corruption, employment and environmental concerns. Rajinikanth has only made it clear that he will offer transparent and spiritual politics that is free of corruption, caste and religion. “Corruption is a complex subject in Tamil Nadu,” says Anandhi. “Welfare schemes associated with both DMK and AIADMK are entrenched and that matters more to people who are used to patronage politics, beyond allegations of corruption. Kamal and Rajinikanth’s reach on welfare politics seems to be limited to their fan clubs.”
No familiar face or seasoned politician has been roped in by the two actors for their parties so far. “Fans aren’t enough to programmatically run a party and win elections,” says another party leader and MGR loyalist on condition of anonymity. “MGR had stalwarts like RM Veerappan, KA Krishnaswamy, Nanjil Manoharan who helped him structure the party. And he also had strong field-level workers who were aware of specific details like the caste constituted in every area.”
In the upcoming election, the ruling AIADMK is seeking a third consecutive term against a resurgent DMK which has been out of power for ten years. “Rajinikanth’s and Kamal’s entry will push other established parties to field good candidates,” says Kannan.