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Rajinikanth Enters Politics – Power & Cinema in Tamil Nadu

Anon January 27, 2018
Tamil Nadu has historically been a very unique political setup in India, with Cinema playing an important role in shaping our government. From M.Karunanidhi (an acclaimed screenwriter), MGR (perhaps the biggest star of 20th century Tamil cinema) to J.Jayalalithaa (a hugely popular actress during her time), the most influential figures in the political space have all been silver screen stars too. So does it really come as any surprise that Thalaivar has gone down this route as well?

The Early Days

At the time of independence, the Congress party which engineered India’s independence movement was also the force to be reckoned with in Tamil Nadu, under the leadership of Kamaraj and Rajagopalachari. However Periyar & Annadurai did not like what they perceived to be the bureaucracy, elitism and “north favoring” politics of the Congress. Hence they pursued the ideologies of socialism, rights for the oppressed classes and various Tamil-first policies under the Dravidar Kazhagam party banner. Ultimately, Periyar and Annadurai would have a fallout and Annadurai went on to form the fledgling DMK in 1949.

Success was limited however during the early days, and the Dravidian parties had very limited traction with the masses in the face of a dominant Congress. This is when Cinema became a crucial propaganda tool to educate people about social inequality and further the party’s own views. Parasakthi (1952), the movie that introduced Sivaji Ganesan and penned by a young M.Karunanidhi full of political fire and reformist ideas turned the political scene upside down at the time. The movie met with much controversy and even a temporary ban due its revolutionary content, but ultimately won the hearts of the Tamil people. With genius dialogues laced with social commentary, underlying themes of political dissatisfaction, and an intense performance from Sivaji who put his heart and soul into his debut – Parasakthi single-handedly brought the DMK movement closer to the masses. The DMK would go on to win their first state elections in 1967, truly kick starting the era of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu.

Who can forget this legendary monologue from the movie?

The Rise of MGR & ADMK

The 60’s and 70’s also saw the meteoric rise of MGR who was becoming a household name in Tamil cinema. During his early years, MGR chose to stay closely allied with the DMK and even worked as the party’s treasurer for a period. Through his movies and dialogues, MGR portrayed characteristics of benevolence, honesty and deep concern for the poor which were indistinguishable from his real life persona for the masses. Given his political importance, the actor took great care to avoid negative roles and even went the extra mile to show his respect for the elderly and love of young children through his movies. Tensions inside the DMK meanwhile continued to rise as egos of actors of politicians started to collide – in no time MGR announced his resignation from the DMK and started the ADMK in 1972. The actor was so wildly popular that the very next year the ADMK won the Dindigul parliamentary by-elections and swept to power in the 1977 state elections as well. MGR was sworn in as the 7th Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the rest is history – he continued to dominate the political scene and won 3 consecutive elections in 1977, 1980 & 1984 (even while he was hospitalized) until his untimely death in 1987.

The Legacy of the 1990’s & 2000’s

The death of MGR left the ADMK in disarray which allowed the DMK to grab power again, but not for long. J.Jayalalitha, who had often starred opposite MGR in some of his most notable works and had been working on the sidelines of the party started to consolidate power and burst onto the political scene with a landslide victory in the 1991 elections. With her untimely death last year, and M.Karunanidhi’s retirement from politics, it is clear that there is a power vacuum in Tamil Nadu which has left the field open for actors like Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan to step forward. Whether or not they will be successful in an era of social media where every speech, action or misstep gets turned into memes and videos remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it clear that to this day cinema continues to play a critical role in deciding the power structures in Tamil Nadu. More than 50 years later, we are yet to see a national party take power here in what has been a direct legacy of the cinematic revolution that started in 1952 with Parasakthi.
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