A feature of Dravidian politics since the 50s is the extraordinary influence that movies and film stars wield. Even though other states have elected movie stars to power, the consistent stream of movie stars that articulate and follow through on political ambitions is a unique feature of Tamil Nadu and their coastal cousins to the North, the Telugus.
This was not so at its inception. In fact, the earlier avatar of the Dravidian movement, the Justice Party, were upper-class social conservatives who looked down upon entertainers and the industry as infra dig.
That same conservatism was reflected in ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy’s attitude towards the movie industry people that formed the propaganda arm of the DMK. He frequently called them ‘koothadis’ – a Tamil term that can only be translated into Hindi as ‘nachaniya’.
How did movies and actors become so closely intertwined with the politics of the State? To understand that, we must take a little tour across time and space that begins with Europe of the 30s.
Movies as mass propaganda
The November 1932 German federal election was a disappointment to the Nazi Party, which lost 34 seats, 4% of vote share and could not form a Government on its own. After talks with Gregor Strasser to form a coalition with a breakaway faction of the Nazis failed, Chancellor Strasser made a deal to form a coalition with Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. In end-February, the Reichstag was set fire by arsonists and snap elections were announced within days. The Nazi stormtroopers by now ruled the streets and were able to steal the elections by massive violence against Communists, Centre-Right Conservatives and the Social Democratic Party.
This was an experience that Hitler was determined never to repeat. He and the Nazi Party then hit upon the formula of using the emerging medium of movies as a tool of propaganda. It was at the same time that a brilliant young woman called Leni Riefensthal began to make movies.
The Nazis won the popular vote and formed the Government in March 1933. Within weeks, Hitler passed an act giving himself dictatorial powers and also banned all other parties.
In August and September, the Nazis began the first of their grand rallies in Nuremberg. Rather than simple party conferences, these were brilliantly choreographed spectacles, modelled on the pomp and pageantry of ancient Rome. Leni had a full reign of affairs and made a movie ‘Der Sieg des Glaubens’ – The Victory of Faith – which showed the party conference and took great pains in highlighting the leaders of the movement as heroic figures.
She followed it up with the classic ‘Triumph des Willens’ which was a record of the 1935 Nuremberg Rally. The intricate choreography and the combination of heroic themes from Wagner and the camera shots turned the Fuhrer Hitler into something of a mythic figure.
Other Powers were quick to take note. Hollywood followed up with high-quality war propaganda films in the 40s. The Soviets also took note. The Soviet propaganda news reels of the Second World War and the post-War eulogizing of Stalin were impressive in their effectiveness.
Tamil Movies as Propaganda
Tamil talkies began to be produced in the 1930s. There were several factors that shaped the industry in its early years – the usage of actors, scripts, themes and directors from the stage industry and the taste of the general public. In order to dodge criticisms of being entertainment of poor virtue, these movies mostly had Puranic themes. A few social movies were made, but due to heavy censorship, political themes were few and far between.
Into this environment, a young man from a Vishwakarma (goldsmith) family, Mayavaram Krishnamurthy Thiyagarajan, stepped in with a movie called Pavalakkodi, in 1934. His singing voice and suave looks made him the first Tamil superstar. Between P.U. Chinnappa, T R Mahalingam and M K Radha, it was MKT or Thyagaraja Bhagavatar as he was known by then, who stood head and shoulders above the rest.
At the same time, N S Krishnan was a comedic genius and the first comic star of Tamil movies. With his wife, T A Mathuram they made a comic pair that worked very successfully. He himself made a few films that were spoofs of ancient Puranic stories and folklore. In one of his movies, Chandrahari, a reversal of the name Harishchandra, he played a king who refused to speak a single word of truth. These films were quite successful and there was a mild element of lampooning Hindu beliefs and an undercurrent of anti-Brahminism in his films.
Towards the beginning of the war, many of the senior artists in the movie industry were influenced by Congress principles and the freedom movement. K B Sundarambal, MS Subbulakshmi were among the leading nationalist stars. They sang about Gandhi ji, Prohibition, homespun khadar, the charka and acted in nationalist themed films that spoke for widow re-marriage, against untouchability and so on. These social themes were the platform for the Congress brand of nationalism and thus drew people into the nationalist cause.
MS Subbulakshmi’s husband ‘Kalki’ Sadasivam was a Congressman and between him, the leading producers K Subramanyam and SS Vasan, the movie business was influenced with a nationalistic fervour as yet unseen elsewhere in India.
Seva Sadanam, Thyaga Bhoomi were blockbusters. Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) had visuals of Gandhi ji spinning the charka and Congress volunteers courting arrest.
The Justice Party had banned a few nationalist movies when it was in power, but once the Congress took power in Madras Presidency in 1937, there was little hindrance from the authorities as long as no direct negative references were made to the Crown or the British. Clearly, the Congress and the nationalist movement were winning at this propaganda game.
C N Lakshmikanthan was an ex-convict who had completed a 7-year sentence in 1939. He started a magazine called Cine Thoothu (Cine Courier). It had to be shut down on orders for poor quality journalism in the form of unverified rumours. He started Hindu Nesan (Hindu Nationalist), which was in the same mould. His stock-in-trade was gossip about prominent people in society, mostly related to their sex lives. The identity of people was very thinly veiled and put in a way that it would be unmistakable. He made a living by blackmailing people to stop publication of their stories in his magazine.
Lakshmikanthan was an ex-convict with good contacts among the roughnecks of Madras of the day. He just shrugged off the threats and in one instance, himself beat up the thug who had been sent to threaten him!
In 1944, he was stabbed by a group of men in the evening and succumbed to injuries the next day.
Both Thyagaraja Bhagavatar and NS Krishnan were among the accused. They were convicted and sentenced to jail on counts of conspiracy to murder. The two appealed in the Privy Council in London, which referred the case back to the Madras High Court. By the time the appeal was heard and acquittal issued, 30 months had passed by and the year was 1947. India got Independence a few months later. AVM Studio’s movie Naam Iruvar came out, which was probably the last nationalist/Congress themed movie for a while.
After their release, MKT and NSK’s careers and lives took different trajectories but still continued with themes of loss and difficulties.
MKT tried producing movies for himself, but he continued with the old Puranic themes. He continued to be avowedly apolitical and refused to renounce or hide his faith in the Gods and in the Hindu religion. He was shunned by the music sabhas and his movies didn’t do well. After his release, he only made 4 films, none of which did well, before his death in 1959.
NSK, however, made a comeback and got roles as a comedian in movies. He home production, Nallathambi of 1949, introduced C N Annadurai as the script writer.
Randor Guy, the Tamil movie historian, recounts in his 1997 book ‘Starlight, Starbright’ that popular opinion held that both the major stars implicated in the case were innocent and had been framed. He also says that when he tried to investigate this in the 1970s, he was politely warned to stay off the story.
The same year that he made his debut in the movies, Annadurai broke away from the parent Dravidar Kazhagam to form the political outfit Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which, till date, is the primary electoral and political vehicle of the Dravidian movement. Nallathambi released in February and the DMK was formed in September.
Another young member of the DMK, M Karunanidhi, began his career as a staff scriptwriter in 1946 in Coimbatore’s Jupiter Pictures. His breakout hit Manthirikumari in 1950, also was the breakout movie for a young actor called M G Ramachandran.
Ramachandran, who was a khadar-wearing Congressman, came under the influence of Annadurai and joined the DMK in 1953.
Karunanidhi’s major hit with dialogues, 1952’s Parasakthi, also launched the other Tamil super star of the 60s, Sivaji Ganesan.
Sivaji managed to balance his religious faith with the career-boosting atheism-themed movies for some time. However, his popularity and his refusal to toe the party line made him a target. A smear campaign was run against him when he visited the temple at Tirupati. He broke away from the Dravidian movement then.
Strangely, the Congress in Tamil Nadu never thought much of using the medium of cinema to the same extent that the DMK did.
From 1967 onwards, until the death of Jayalalitha in 2016, for 49 years, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was always someone from the film industry or their proxy.
The impact of this case was far reaching. The dominance of Dravidian ideology would have taken a much longer time since the popularity of Thyagaraja Bhagavatar was at its peak. His last film before he was jailed – Bhakta Haridas – had the distinction of staying in theatres for three Deepavalis.
The sudden exit of these two stalwarts and the full co-option of NS Krishnan gave the Dravidian movement it’s springboard into the Tamil movie industry
Hispanic Popular Culture in the Americas
Such cultural mass extinction events have happened twice elsewhere – in the Mexican film industry and the plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and JP Richardson, which slowed down the commercial success of Spanish language rock and roll.
The Mexican film industry went through a very successful period in the 1940s. There was a possibility of the industry going on to dominate the Spanish speaking world, which at that time was close to the English-speaking audience in numbers, though not in revenue.
In 1953, the star Jorge Negrete died of cirrhosis after a trip to Los Angeles, at the age of 49. His contemporary Pedro Infante died in a plane crash at the age of 40, in 1957. Their successor Javier Solis, died at 35 in 1966.
Between these deaths, the entry of television in the 1950s and lack of funds sent the industry into a long period of decline from the 1960s to 1990s. During the same period, English language films went on to attract the best funds, technology and auteurs and dominate the cultural landscape of the world.
The post-World War II Baby Boomer generation of America was the first that made popular music a cultural commodity that could drive attitudes, trends and viewpoints. Before this generation came of age, in the 1950s, the foundation for the popular music of the next few decades were being laid in rock-and-roll acts. White American artistes took the tunes and chords of black blues and soul music and creating the new popular sound.
A 16-year-old Hispanic artiste – Richie Valens – made a dramatic entry in 1957. His 1958 hit single, ‘La Bamba’ was one of the earliest Spanish-language rock-and-roll numbers that made it to the Billboard charts. An America-wide Spanish-language rock-and-roll market remained still born after Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash in 1959, in which the other stars of the era – Buddy Holly and JP Richardson – also died.
To this day, Spanish language music and Spanish movies continue to play second fiddle to English movies and music acts.
In the same way, after the removal of the major stars, Tamil movies took a direction that has not changed to this day.