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Tamil Nadu: More Stars than Ever

Part of the attraction of the election process in Tamil Nadu is the very large presence of film personalities, many of whom use or are invited to extend their "star power" to favour a particular political cause or party. However, as the recent state elections have shown, charisma by itself does not make a successful politician; the "traditional" requisites of a politician are equally necessary, i e, the ability to organise and reach out to the masses and a way with words.

Andipatty constituency. Inexplicably, he


could never get his act together and in spite of the famed lion symbol that thevar community identifies with, his 100-odd

More Stars than Ever candidates fared badly. He is now charged

with being inept and of failing to transform

Part of the attraction of the election process in Tamil Nadu is the very large presence of film personalities, many of whom use or are invited to extend their “star power” to favour a particular political cause or party. However, as the recent state elections have shown, charisma by itself does not make a successful politician; the “traditional” requisites of a politician are equally necessary, i e, the ability to organise and reach out to

the masses and a way with words.


week after the election in Tamil Nadu, Kalki, a Tamil weekly, published a two-page report on Sivaji, the Rajnikanth starrer in the making. The opening lines of the report suggested that Rajnikanth and the film escaped public attention for two months due to the elections and now that it is over, all eyes will be on the production of the film. The suggestion best captures the commonsensical notion that in Tamil Nadu, politics and cinema have merged to a large extent resulting in one uninterrupted carnivalesque spectacle. After all, the two lead contenders for power, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa are known for their association with cinema. Even the home-grown political analyst, Cho Ramaswamy, is an erstwhile comedian in cinema. Further, much of what happened in the 2006 state assembly election has added strength to the notion that cinema and politics are largely intertwined in the state, and the election seems to mark a new watershed in the “cinema-politics nexus”.


In terms of chronology, the most significant event relating to cinema’s incursions into politics in this election, was undoubtedly the launching of a new political party, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), by actor Vijaykanth in September 2005, eight months prior to the election. With no direct experience in politics and without politicians of stature joining him, Vijaykanth converted his network of fan clubs into a political party. On both these counts, his case is vastly different from that of M G Ramachandran (MGR), who launched the AIADMK in 1972 after being expelled from DMK. Moreover, Vijaykanth’s fan base is no match to the inimitable fan following of MGR, though Vijaykanth characterised himself as “darkskinned MGR” and used MGR’s own campaign vehicle. Naturally there was much scepticism about his venture apart from sharp criticism from several politicians, political observers and film personalities who dubbed his political aspirations as inappropriate. Vijaykanth has now more than silenced his critics. He incessantly toured the state before and after launching his party, succeeded in putting a structure in place, inspired local aspirants to spend for the party, nominated candidates in all but two constituencies and in the end, secured 8.4 per cent of the total votes polled in the state. There is much euphoria in the weeks after the election about this achievement. We shall return to Vijaykanth and consider his case more in detail later.

The next film star to burst into the scene is Karthik, a leading hero of the 1980s, and who for several years now has been sidelined in the industry. Karthik belongs to the thevar community that found its political mobilisation under Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar who was part of the All India Forward Bloc. Since the demise of the legendary leader in 1965, the party became faction ridden in Tamil Nadu and has progressively lost much of its base. The community’s votes migrated to AIADMK. Karthik inaugurated a service organisation in 2005, when members of the thevar community turned out in huge numbers ultimately leading to his becoming the state president of the Forward Bloc. After the repeated failure of his attempts to find a “respectable” place in both the DMK and AIADMK led alliances, Karthik struck a brave posture and even made noises about challenging Jayalalithaa in her his star persona into a political personality.

These two are followed by a long list of star campaigners consisting of those who have been in the two main camps (AIADMK and DMK) for long; others who switched alliances with much fanfare and also those who jumped into the fray at the last moment. On the DMK’s side there were two major star campaigners. One was actor-director Bagyaraj, who had once attempted to start his own party after the demise of MGR. The other was actordirector Vijaya T Rajendar, one time DMK propaganda secretary, who desperately tried to align with AIADMK till the last moment and switched sides after being humiliated. Both these stars are very articulate. While Bagyaraj regaled the audience with parables and fables, Rajendar amused them with his bizarre addiction to alliterative speech. In contrast, AIADMK put in circulation a group of actresses led by the highly glamorous Simran, who has withdrawn from acting some time back. Unfortunately, she could not speak in Tamil and disappointed the crowds by blurting out a few tutored lines. Several other smaller stars in the AIADMK camp tried hard to impress the audience without training in public speaking. As the polling day drew closer, all and sundry in filmdom made a beeline for AIADMK headquarters to join the party. Such an indiscriminate mobilisation of glitz appears to have proved counterproductive by showing the party as desperate in its bid for power.

The desperation in the AIADMK camp became even more evident in the alleged “purchase” of actor Sarathkumar and his actress wife Radhika hardly three weeks before the election. He is no longer a frontranking hero, though he continues to act regularly in films that achieve moderate success. His fan clubs are not known to be huge in numbers. He belongs to the nadar community, another community that is, like the thevar community, said to be in search of a popular leader. Sarathkumar was allegedly invited into AIADMK camp in the hope of attracting nadar community votes in the southern districts. This calculation seems not to have worked at all, instead it backfired by exposing the socalled “unprincipled” politics of Sarathkumar. He was a DMK Rajya Sabha MP

Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

till he switched sides and had declared not so long ago that he would die as a DMK party man. Sarathkumar’s volte-face heightened the speculations on more star purchases and M Karunanidhi alleged that one big star has been offered Rs 100 crore for joining the AIADMK. Rumours were rife whether it was Vijaykanth, Kamal Hasan or Rajnikanth who was offered the amount.

The fans of Rajnikanth caused a flutter by rebelling against his nonchalance. He had given them much political hopes by lending his “voice” to the DMK-TMC alliance against Jayalalithaa in 1996. In subsequent elections his hesitant endorsement of Vajpayee and injunction against the PMK did not evoke much response. His fans felt badly let down when they saw Vijaykanth’s fans happily working for the party’s first conference and in many places they just placed hoardings alongside those of Vijaykanth to show that they were around. Rajnikanth’s announcement that the fans were free to do what they wanted in this election frustrated them even further. In spite of the directives of the apex body of fan clubs many used the actor’s name to support local candidates. The AIADMK tried to woo Rajni fans en bloc since the PMK, which had openly insulted Rajnikanth, was in alliance with the DMK. The strategy did not succeed.

In addition to all this, a team from the film industry was constituted to campaign in Vridhachalam constituency against Vijaykanth. Actor-director Thangar Bachan, lyricist Arivumadhi and the film director Seeman addressed several meetings to alert the voters against the superficiality of Vijaykanth’s politics. They supported the PMK candidate in the constituency. Their rationale pitted struggles for rights like reservation, which the PMK undertook, against the politics of glitz and glamour. The results in the constituency show that Vijaykanth was more persuasive.

On the reverse direction, the DPI leader Tol Thirumavalavan decided to act in a film. One was suddenly greeted by vinyl boards with Thriumavalavan pointing a gun at passers-by in Chennai. Though the film was not released before the election, the dalit leader perhaps managed to add some gloss to his image after his decadeslong grassroot level toil.

Roots of the PopularRoots of the PopularRoots of the PopularRoots of the PopularRoots of the Popular

In the common sense prevailing among the educated middle class in India, there are things that are peculiar to cinema and politics in the country. There is a sense in which they are found defective in comparison to more civilised places. The adjective “popular” often marks such embarrassing peculiarities and sounds, which appears apologetic at times. Scholars and common folk alike assume that understanding the particularities of the Indian psyche can equally explain cinema and politics. If the popular elements that constitute cinema and politics are the same all over India, we will have to raise another question: why does cinema appear in Tamil Nadu to coalesce more with politics than anywhere else? We can hope to address the question only by a meticulous and painstaking case by case analysis.

Let us now focus attention on two of the film personalities in Tamil Nadu election. A short note on the differences between Karthik and Vijaykanth would go to show how each case demands a different explanation. Their film careers vary a great deal resulting in very different star images. With that convertibility of the star image into political leadership also varies. Vijaykanth plays roles of action hero consistently invincible, valorous and magnanimous. Karthik plays roles of romantic hero displaying many shades of character even showing vulnerability and weakness. Though he too plays the action hero, his roles are not consistent in their attributes. It needs to be borne in mind that the cumulative image is just the initial investment.

Vijaykanth has nurtured his fan clubs assiduously, creating a strong network all over the state. He formed district level committees before launching the party. He also created special cells within the party for people in different professions like lawyers in many places. Though the party structure is unlikely to have firmed up immediately, a semblance of organisation was put in place. While Vijaykanth’s party has gone through a period of incubation before birth, Karthik jumped into politics banking on his appeal to a leadership starved community. The former started a regional political party providing space for the political aspirations of his fans and followers, while Karthik joined a national party with a feeble network and poor cadre base in a restricted pocket of the state. Vijaykanth’s bid was for the post of the chief minister. Karthik bargained for a minor share in power. Vijaykanth was simple and direct in his articulation, while Karthik was inchoate. The differences can be listed on and on, but what needs to be noted is that there are very specific conditions in which a star metamorphoses to become a politician successfully. Further, the stagnation of the two political parties launched in the 1990s, PMK and MDMK, as eternal coalition partners of the two main contenders has lead to erosion in their vote base which has gravitated towards Vijaykanth, the third contender for power. It is a different question how long Vijaykanth can tread the lonely path refusing the security of a coalition arrangement.

As for the value of using film stars for campaign purposes, it is instructive to know that Bhagyaraj and Rajendar could build on celebrity attraction with their rhetorical skills. Even if the female stars like Simran can possibly attract more people, they appear to have only disappointed the crowds. After all, elections in Tamil Nadu have meant speeches and even MGR could not dispense with eloquence, even if this was not his particular strength. It should be recalled that in spite of his inimitable image cultivation through cinema, MGR’s political legacy rested on his claim to be the true heir of Anna (C N Annadurai). Anna not only developed rhetorical flourish as chief political weapon but inspired countless number of party workers to train themselves in the art of public speaking. In keeping with the tradition, a star in the DMK camp like Napolean, though he lost to co-star S Ve Sekar in the Mylapore constituency, is capable of making rousing speeches. Incidentally, S Ve Sekar is one actor in AIADMK who is very articulate with his instant humor. In fact, the defeat of Napolean in the star-locked constituency shows that there is more to victory than stardom and mere rhetoric.

Further while images can draw crowds, it is the actual interaction of the “star” person with people that converts them into votes. The characteristic hug MGR was known to give old women in the crowd emphasises the need for direct contact to sustain the image. He continuously interacted with people as part of the DMK’s, political campaigns for two decades before launching his own party. The clues to the successful metamorphoses of film stars into politicians emerge in such details. When all things are taken into account, a film star’s chance of becoming the chief minister may only be slightly more than that of a farmer, if the latter can practise the nearly forgotten art of politics – grassroot mobilisation.



Economic and Political Weekly June 17, 2006

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