Monday, February 20, 2012

Politics in South Indian Cinema: A study of the use of films for political communication

Sajit M. Mathews
            As we are exposed to the realities regarding the South Indian Cinema and related political equations through the readings and class discussions, I think it would be a fruitful exercise to dwell upon the question, ‘why politics in South Indian Cinema?’ This question is important as long as we try to understand the phenomenon of South Indian film industry and South Indian Politics under the same head.
Political background
            India is a democratic republic nation where people decide who will rule when and whom. Under such democratic circumstances, almost all those who are interested in handling power will try to influence the masses using all the available means. This is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. This influence can be obvious when someone uses a speech to persuade people and not so obvious when someone already in power uses government machinery to please people and subtle when someone cleverly uses innovative means like the media to manipulate the masses. India gained independence from colonial rule in 1947. Much before that, political polarization started gaining momentum. The Congress Party had a well established network of activists all over the country, set up to struggle for freedom. And there were many other smaller factions of organized and unorganized set-ups which came to the lime light after the independence.
Filmy background
            Films came to India within a year of its invention- in July 1896. The new entertainment was received with mixed feelings at all quarters of the nation. Within a short time, Madras developed its own films. “The silent cinema, though it did not have any pretentions to ideological or political content, certainly had clear overtones of political consciousness.”[1] During freedom struggle, Gandhi gave emphasis to eradication of social evils, making social uplift part of political activism. Thus, films that contained social themes were clearly political in orientation. Madras films started ‘talking’ in 1931 when Kalidas was released. That marked the beginning of the production of an anthology of Tamil movies. In the beginning, all the movies were head-on shootings of the existing company drama performances. In that way, we can’t see much creativity entering studios. The first Tamil talkie with a contemporary theme was Menaka (1935). Slowly, social themes which had a special significance in the pre-independence Indian scenario gained in number, even under strict censorship of the British.[2] Cinema was seen as a danger to their power by the British and as a new opportunity to speak to the masses, by the freedom fighters.
Tamil cinema and the DMK
            DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam) was formed in 1949. The conscious use of films for political purpose began with C. N. Annadurai’s film ‘Velaikkari’ (1948). With this, the socio-political demands of the region began to be expressed through the medium of cinema. The films made by DMK had explicit atheistic and anarchic dialogues, criticizing existing religion, beliefs, political system and social evils. ‘Velaikkari’ and ‘Parasakthi’ are two of the best examples, scripted by Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi respectively.
            The DMK involvement with the film as a medium had two distinguishable phases, the first phase (1948-1957) dominated by the film scripts of Annadurai and Karunanidhi (note that it was in 1957 that DMK entered electoral politics) and a second one dominated by M.G. Ramachandran. [3] In the first phase, the oppressive character of both the society and the government was always highlighted. This was the time when villages were electrified. This paved the way for the spread of DMK ideology to every nook and corner of the state, through cinema.
            Madhava Prasad has an interesting argument regarding representation. Representation can be political and aesthetic. Political representation is a leader ‘represent’ing people in the parliament. Aesthetic or cultural representation is in the realm of discourse, texts and images, in which we ‘re-present’ our world. Such representations are within the frame of a variety of constraints and thus they neither provide direct access to reality nor are neutral. They always carry their own ideological biases and emphases.[4] Films fall under this kind of representation.
            There always existed a symbolic relationship between films and political parties in Tamil Nadu. Films were used in three ways by political parties: direct political propaganda, reference to party symbols, leaders etc and mixing of documentary footage with shots of actual film. Therefore, no wonder why actors were crowd pullers especially to party conferences.[5]      
Within films, there are subtle developments. The actors, who develop into stars govern another realm- fan following. Stars always exceed the narrative framework of the film as a story. The star exists apart from the film and depends only partially on the story. There are roles played and characters portrayed in a film. Star plays a role and portrays a character. In the end, star becomes a representation, above the role and the roles themselves begin to exceed the requirements of the characterization.[6]
            Considering what constituted the growth of MGR as an icon and idol in Tamil Nadu, we could very well say that films are much more than mere representations of social realities. MGR who believed that every man had to have an image, consciously and shrewdly drew up his own image based on the popular ballads, which appealed to the people. In his own words, “You put forward an image of yourself if you want to get anywhere.”[7] Therefore, using the popular images of heroes to reconstitute image that served elite interests, MGR reached every part of Tamil Nadu through films as a wish fulfilling hero of the masses. Adding to these, widespread popularization of him as an icon through biographies, newspapers, pamphlets and posters served in identifying the person of MGR to the images he put up on the screen.
Politicisation of films
            The article on Parasakthi tells us clearly that the film succeeded in its pro-DMK campaign. “Its anti-Congress and anti-religious postures went down well with the enthusiastic audience.”[8] People went to theatres to listen to the dialogues of M. Karunanidhi, rather than to watch the movie. Cinema hall almost fell apart with loud applause, whenever there were references to the politics of Annadurai. Particularly this film used many symbols to criticise the existing social system and government. There are references to idolatry, corrupt politicians, merchant, insincere religious, immoral society and the general degradation of once prosperous and highly moral Tamil Society (Nadu).
            Thus, a trend started with Velaikkari (1948) and Parasakthi (1952). The transition from a social movement to a political party, from DK to DMK is what Parasakthi helped in bringing about. We could see a lot of sharp criticism as well as ideological compromises, depicted cleverly in the film. These compromises were forerunners of the new political appearance of the Kazhakam. The film stood as a signboard in the historical course of the Dravidian Movement, pointing to the consensual politics DMK was destined to play in Tamil Nadu.[9]
            The political communication rendered by the DMK was political communication as persuasion, when they did not enjoy political power. This persuasion was to urge the hitherto stable masses to take a political stand in voting for the party- a kind of suggestive communication. by definition, feature films have two levels of meaning: one within the film and another in relation to the political reality of the day. DMK used the second level meaning in dramatic narrative films, without openly portraying oppresionist situations. These films had powerful psychological influence on the audience. They left cinemas with clear ideological realisations.
            These films revolutionised the structure and content of Tamil films by portraying the dynamism of the downtrodden through the fists of MGR and words of Karunanidhi. In other words, Karunanidhi gave arguments and MGR gave the ‘how’ of uplift of the downtrodden. These films, while criticising the social oppression and exploitation, also underscored the necessity to bring back those ancient virtues enshrined in Tamil culture. [10]
            In short, Tamil films stand as a historical image which used a popular medium for political communication. Political and literary genius acting together to influence the psyche of the masses! And the continued reign of DMK, ADMK and AIADMK tells us that this innovative method works and is very powerful. A long time film star reigned the state for over ten years. Still the memories of those subaltern heroes linger in the emotional and physical terrain of Tamil Nadu. Thus Tamil ideological front used film as an effective medium to communicate with masses.

1 Sivathamby, Karthigesu. The Tamil Film as a Medium of Political Communication. p: 6. New Century Book House Pvt. Ltd.; Madras, 1981.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, p:10.
[4] Prasad, Madhava. M. Cine-Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India, Journal of Moving Images, P: 51.
[5] Pandian, M.S.S. Culture and Subaltern Consciousness: An Aspect of MGR Phenomenon, Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 24, No. 30, July 29, 1989. P: 63.
[6] Prasad, Madhava. P: 51.
[7] Pandian, M.S.S. P: 64.
[8] Pandian, M.S.S. Parasakthi: Life and Times of  DMK Film, Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, P. 74.
[9] Ibid. P:93.
[10] Sivathamby, P: 10.