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Of movie stars and ministers


One notable difference between the Chennai movie industry and its counterpart in Mumbai is the influence of politics on Tamil films – an overlap that dates from the earliest days of regional cinema, when stories, stock themes and characters were derived from traditional folk ballads about low-caste heroes vanquishing high-caste villains. Already familiar to millions, such Robin Hood–style stereotypes were perfect propaganda vehicles for the nascent Tamil nationalist movement, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK. It is no coincidence that the party’s founding father, C.N. Annadurai, was a top screenplay and script writer. Like prominent Tamil Congress leaders and movie-makers of the 1930s and 1940s, he and his colleagues used the popular film genres of the time to convey their political ideas to the masses. From this politicization of the big screen were born the fan clubs, or rasigar manrams, that played such a key role in mobilizing support for the nationalist parties in elections.

The most influential fan club of all time was the one set up to support the superstar actor Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, known to millions simply as “MGR”. By carefully cultivating a political image to mirror the folk-hero roles he played in films, the maverick matinee idol generated fanatical grass-roots support in the state, especially among women, and rose to become chief minister in 1977. His eleven-year rule is still regarded by liberals as a dark age of chronic corruption, police brutality, political purges and rising organized crime. When he died in 1987, two million people attended his funeral and 31 grief-stricken devotees committed ritual suicide. Even today, MGR’s statue, sporting trademark sunglasses and lamb’s-wool hat, is revered at tens of thousands of wayside shrines across Tamil Nadu.

MGR’s political protégée, and eventual successor, was a teenage screen starlet called Jayalalitha, a convent-educated brahmin’s daughter whom he recruited to be both his leading lady and mistress, despite her being over 30 years younger. After 25 hit films together, Jayalalitha followed him into politics, becoming leader of the AIADMK, the party MGR set up after being expelled from the DMK in 1972. Larger than life in voluminous silver ponchos and heavy gold jewellery, the now portly Puratchi Thalavi (“Revolutionary Leader”) has taken her personality cult to extremes brazen even by Indian standards. Jayalalitha’s first spell as chief minister, however, was brought to an ignominious end at the 1996 elections, after allegations of fraud and corruption on an appropriately monumental scale. Despite being found guilty by the High Court, she nevertheless later ousted her arch-rival, M. Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, wresting back power for two more spells as Chief Minister in 2001 and from 2002 to 2006. One of her first acts was to exact revenge on Karunanidhi, throwing him and one thousand of his supporters into prison on corruption charges. Predictably, he returned to trump his rival in the state elections of 2006 and the DMK also secured the lion’s share of Tamil Nadu’s seats in the national elections of March 2009.

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