The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian
“This is the face which would fetch me three lakh votes”, said CN Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu just before the 1967 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.
Of course, the scholar that he is, he took the cue from Christopher Marlowe’s lines from his tragedy, ‘Doctor Faustus’ (the 1604 play): “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” wherein he refers to the timeless beauty, Helen of Troy.
The face that he identified belonged to a hugely popular cine actor MG Ramachandran, or MGR as he came to be popularly called later. And MGR’s face did work magic and DMK was swept to power, unseating the grand old Congress party led by stalwarts like Kamaraj. That same year, another actor MR Radha tried to kill him. The attempt on 12 January 1967 shook Tamil Nadu, and almost every single youth felt he himself had been attacked.
Within hours of the shooting, some 50,000 fans had gathered at the hospital where MGR had been taken. People cried in the streets. For six weeks, he lay in the hospital as fans awaited each report of his health. He was visited by a steady stream of commoners and luminaries of the film industry, polity and bureaucracy. From his hospital bed, he campaigned for the Assembly elections.
Such was MGR’s charisma and mass draw that he sent out posters with his bandages on and said, he could not come for the campaigning but voters must not disappoint him. The party swept the polls.
In a way it signalled the beginning of a new trend. Persons associated with the film industry have dominated the Tamil Nadu political scene for the last 60 years. Annadurai as chief minister did not rule for long. Cancer took his life after a couple of years as chief minister.
Since then, Tamil Nadu, until last year, has seen only three chief ministers, and all of them have had their roots in the film industry. The persons who succeeded Anna was M Karunanidhi,(a popular script and screenplay writer and a theatre actor), MGR the multi-faceted hero of the celluloid world, and Jayalalitha, a popular heroine who paired with MGR in the largest number of films as his heroine.
MGR was chief minister for 10 years between 1977 and 1987. He is regarded as one of the most influential actors of the Tamil film industry. In his younger days, MGR and his elder brother MG Chakrapani became members of a drama troupe to support their family. Influenced by Gandhian ideals, MGR joined the Indian National Congress. After a few years of acting in plays, he made his film debut in the 1936 film Sathi Leelavathi in a supporting role. By the late 1940s, he graduated to lead roles and for the next three decades dominated the Tamil film industry. By the time ‘Anna’ picked him up, he was a very tall figure uin terms of his mass popularity, which Anna used to pull votes.
In 1972, three years after Anna’s death, he left the DMK, now led by Karunanidhi, to form his own party — the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Five years later, he steered an AIADMK-led alliance to victory in the 1977 elections, routing the DMK and became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the first film actor to become a chief minister in India.
He remained as chief minister till his death in 1987.
MGR’s autobiography “Naan Yean Piranthaen” (Why I was born), published in 2003 in two volumes, gives us some insight into the man who was clearly the darling of the masses. He was born into a poor family, struggled for proper food in childhood could notgo to school due to utter penury and went through a rough childhood, and his lone pillar of strength was his mother.
His life and his experiences became the basic subjects for many of his films. He carefully crafted his screen image. He was almost always from a poor family and fighting the corrupt and the greedy. He was a man of clean habits—never smoked or drank on screen.
He was a man who would give everything for his mother and sisters; never fall in love with any girl. In fact in all his films, it were only the girls who fell for him, and even in the dream sequences — which his films are famous for—only the heroine would dream of singing a duet, it was never him. His only role, according to scripts, was to serve the needy and expose and punish the greedy.
This Good Samaritan image made him the heartthrob of millions of Tamilians with movies such as Thirudadhe, Enga Veettu Pillai, Aayirathil Oruvan, Anbe Vaa, Ulagam Sutrum Vaalibhan, etc.
Indira Gandhi cleverly saw his vote pulling capacity and ditched her alliance partner till then, DMK, and joined hands with MGR’s AIADMK.
Once he became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he placed great emphasis on social development, especially education. One of his most successful policies was the conversion of the “Midday Meal Scheme”, introduced by Kamaraj, which already was encouraging underprivileged children to attend school, into “MGR’s Nutritious Meal Scheme” in the government-run and aided schools in Tamil Nadu. He also introduced special buses for women, banned arrack and toddy, abolished racing and apart from renovating a large number of temples, he also extended reservation to temple archakas (purohits), though most of them were Brahmins.
Unfortunately some of these decisions were overturned by courts and racing still continues in Tamil Nadu and liquor is flowing freely, and in fact, being marketed by the state government through the Tasmac shops.
Even after his death, MGR is very popular in the state and his rule has been cited by many of his contemporaries as best in the country.Even today a rerun of any MGR film will bring in good box office collections and as one travels through the state, songs from his films are played even in small village functions throughout the day.
Personally he also contributed generously to individuals, victims of disasters and calamities like fire, flood, drought, and cyclones. He was the first donor during the war with China in 1962 (Sino-Indian War), donating Rs. 75,000 to the war fund.
This love that the people had for him was extended to his political heir and former lady in most of his later films, J Jayalalitha, too.
Starting her career as an actress in an English language film, Epistle (1961), J Jayalalitha debuted as the leading lady in a Kannada movie at the age of 15 years. Born in Mysore and brought up in Bangalore, Jaya entered the Tamil industry in 1965.
Jaya joined the AIADMK in 1982 and was made a Rajya Sabha MP. She became CM of Tamil Nadu five times.
Though she is the only Chief Minister in the country to have been convicted while in office, her stature as ‘Amma’ (mother) for her followers still remain strong.
She inherited almost all of her mentor’s legacies but became a prisoner of sorts later in her political career. While MGR had his wife and brother to support him, Jaya was almost a loner after her mother’s death.
It was then that she turned to politics and came under MGR’s protective wings. But after his demise, she was again a loner and that is when Sasikala and her family entered her life and changed its course.
People of Tamil Nadu saw her as the `Amma’ who could give them all that they needed.She was initially bold, articlulate, and had complete sway over her partymen. There were traces of brilliance in her administration but she was clearly overshadowed by charges of corruption and finally fell from grace.
People saw her initially as a true heir to MGR but she was clearly no match to her mentor.
There are stories of howMGR never missed attending events such as wedding of partymen, his excellent memory and his helping nature to whoever was in need,, even if he person did not belong to his party. But Jaya was surrounded by a coterie which completely cut her off from loyal partymen and the common people.
Jayalalitha was an autocrat who did not tolerate criticism. There is no inner party democracy in the AIADMK. Jayalalitha appointed, removed, transferred, promoted, demoted, expelled and recruited people at her own will. Ministers were appointed, fired or shuffled according to her whims. Her wish was the party’s command. None dared to disobey, let alone defy.
In Tamil Nadu many like R Sarathkumar, Karthik and Vijayakanth too attempted to follow MGR. Only Vijayakanth could achieve moderate success by starting a party, DMDK, but he too had to ride piggyback on Jaya’s shoulders to earn his membership of the legislative assembly. He soon fell out with her and his party is now almost in oblivion.
Actor Sarat Kumar is a popular hero but he plays on votebank politics and he too became a crony of Jayalalitha and become a member of the Assembly. He is from the powerful Nadar community in south Tamil Nadu and they are his vote bank.
The only star in south who could come anywhere near MGR was NT Rama Rao, the Telugu super star. He played god in many of his films and became popular for his roles as Lord Krishna. He also came into politics purely by accident.
Andhra Pradesh was almost always under Congress rule and Indira Gandhi, and later her son Rajiv, used to change chief ministers at their whims and fancy everytime.
Once Gandhi, as general secretary of Congress, came to Hyderabad and when he was stepping down from the aircraft, one of his slippers came off and fell outside the ladder. T Anjiah, who was the chief minister of the state at that time, was waiting for the `Yuvraj’and when he saw the slipper coming off, immediately went for it, and carried it in his hands to Rajiv and made him wear it. It was captured on camera by the entire media: an elected chief minister carrying the footwear a ruling family was disgusting sight.
With the media whippingup frenzy, NT Rama Rao sensed an opportunity. He went hammer and tongs and accused the state congressmen of mortgaging their ‘atma gowravam’ (self respect).
The once reigning super star of Telugu was almost in the evening ofhis film career and Telugu filmindustry had another super star now, Chiranjeevi, who was the darlingof the masses. He was young, debonair and could dance and fight well. The choices of Telegu audiences were changing.
NTR was clearly looking for an escape route and used this incident to emerge as a clear alternative to the age old Congress party. He used his charisma, flawless Telugu oration and screen image to convince the people that he would be the best alternative.
He formed his own political party Telugu Desam closer to the Assembly elections and in a matter of about three months, swept to power in AP, the first time a regional party took over the reigns of this traditionally Congress-ruled state. NTR tried to retain his popularity in politics too but his arrogant style of working and certain personal whims and fancies like his sudden marriage to his biographer Lakshmi Parvati, less than half his age dented his popularity and led to a revolt within his party, especially by his son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, who saw a direct threat in Lakshmi Parvati. Backed by NTR’s own sons and daughters, Naidu easily overthrew his father-in-law. NTR eventually died a lonely death.
Chiranjeevi wanted to imitate NTR and capitalise on his own large fan following, mostly comprising youths, and suddenly jumped into politics and launched his political outfit called Praja Rajyam. He tasted limited success, contested the elections and became an MLA. But he was clearly no match for the wily Chandrababu Naidu. Hard pressed for resources, he `sold’his party to the Congress (unconfirmed reports say Congress paid him over Rs 150 crore for the merger.) As a reward, he was given a Rajya Sabha membership, and even made a minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. Congress clearly was eyeing his vote bank since it did not have any mass leader in Andhra Pradesh.
No doubt Chiranjeeevi, the mega star as he was called, was still popular among the masses who thronged the theatres whenever his films were screened. But as a politician, he miserably failed, and when the Telangana struggle gained momentum, he was totally confused, whether to toe the party line or fight for a separate state. The result was that there were strong protests against him, his movies were not allowed to be screened in the ten Telangana districts and his own nephew, a young actor Pavan Kalyan, emerged as a serious threat to him.
On the film front too, actors like Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and a few others filled in the void left by him for over four years. Now with Prabhas becoming the new super star after the stupendous success of Bahubali, Chiranjeevi is unlikely to make any waves again.
While he at least started his own party, two other popular stars, Balakrishna, son of NTR and brother in law of Naidu became an MLA and a character actor Mural Mohan is an MP, thanks to Chandrababu Naidu giving them tickets to contest on behalf of TDP. Actress Raja had a brief but stormy stint in the Assembly. First she was elected on aTDP ticket, but later rebelled against Naidu and joined Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress. She manages to be in limelight by abusing Naidu or indulging in gimmicks like sit-in on the roads on some flimsy issues. Another popular heroine, Jayasudha, is an MLA but hasn’t done much to attract any attention. As far as Andhra is concerned, the rise and fall of NTR is the only noticeable aspect of stars in politics.
In neighbouring Karnataka, most of the stars have either aligned with the Congress or the BJP or JD(S) headed by Deve Gowda. No one so far has dared to start a party of his own. It is stated that the thespian Dr Rajkumar had once thought of seriously contesting an election but was persuaded by his family to stay away.
Only another senior actor, Ambarish ventured into politics and became an MP and now is an MLA representing Congress. He is called `Rebel Star’ for the kind of rebellious roles he has played on screen. He is hugely popular due to his accessibility and his fan following is across all parties.
He even became the Union minister of state for Information and Broadcasting but resigned over the Cauvery water sharing issue. He was a member of Lok Sabha from Mandya, the hot belt of the Cauvery agitation.
In the last election, he was given a ticket to contest the Assembly seat, won comfortably and even became a cabinet minister in the ruling Siddarmaiah team. But again, he was sacked for his non-performance and is still sulking. But he can’t do much as Siddaramiah enjoys the total confidence of the high command.
He was also peeved that the party propped up a novice, actress Ramya to replace him in Mandya. This pretty young actress, it is said, was the choice of Rahul Gandhi himself who was impressed by her commitment to the party and popularity among the women voters. Curiously, she could not get renominated and today heads the party’s cyber cell in the in New Delhi.
While the Rajkumar family, including his three sons have kept away from politics, suddenly out of the blue, another young hero Upendra, who has made some potboilers, has jumped into the fray and formed his own party, Karnataka Pragnya Janata Paksha. He is presently collecting his fans and planning to contest the ensuing elections. He belongs to the Brahmin community and how far he can woo the other communities is to be seen.
But the Karnataka electorate has not shown much stomach for film stars entering politics. And Upendra is likely to learn it the hard way.
Of course, there are a number of artistes, Jaggessh (Ex MLC, BJP), Bullet Prakash (BJP), Malavika Avinash (BJP spokesperson) being some of them with political ambitions but with no real support at the base level.
Same is the case with Kerala. Essentially the state has seen only two parties rule, Communists and Congress. Though the two super stars, Mohan Lal and Mammooty have strong political leanings ,they have carefully stayed away from entering active politics.
The BJP, which is making a strong attempt to make its mark in this state, has no crowd puller. In desperation, it has got another popular actor Suresh Gopi nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Suresh is a top hero, a good actor and is known for his roles fighting injustice at various levels. He comes third or fourth in the hierarchy. But many wonder if it is a wrong move. Gopi has hardly attended the House and his attendance is less than 20 per cent in the last two years. He is also not much visible in Kerala in the public forums. Ramu Kariat, the director of the national award winning movie in the late sixties, Chemmeen, tried to enter politics, contested and miserably lost in the elections. The only successful actor at present is Mukesh, a Leftist who is a known face in Malayalam cinema. He is at present a CPM MLA.
Ganesh is another small time actor, son of a former Congress minister, who had a brief honeymoon with politics and also had a brief stint as a stint as a minister. But not so popular now.
Tamil Nadu Rerun
Though MGR is originally a Malayalee by birth, he could only succeed in Tamil Nadu. Kerala has always said No to stars and celebrities. The miserable defeat of cricketer Sreeshanth recently to contest an election is a pointer to this.
So, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (Telangana included) continue to be the favourite hunting ground for actors.
Realising that there is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan is preparing to throw his hat in the ring, while BJP is desperately trying to rope in the elusive super star Rajnikanth. Rajni is an `outsider’ — born in Maharashtra, grew up in Karnataka and made his riches in Tamil Nadu by graduating from a villain to hero in the movies. No doubt his fan base is massive but it is not as big as it was a few years ago. Young stars like Vijay and Ajith have better market value these days.
At present, he has adopted a neutral stance but may change his mind if enticed successfully. Rajni also has a spiritual streak in him and takes his religion seriously. Analysts predict that if he enters the fray, it may be on a Hindu nationalist platform, either in alliance with or as an integral part of the BJP.
However, this bus conductor-turned superstar is unpredictable. He has said in his film, “Late Aa Vandhalum Latest Aa Varuvaen”(even if I come late, I shall be the latest). But `when’ it will be, even he doesn’t seem to know and keeps everyone,including the BJP top brass, in suspense… Prime Minister Narendra Modi even went to his residence once to invite him, but nothing came of it.
That brings us to Kamal, who has been making a lot of noise of late, but mainly through social media, He is yet to test his strength in the public. But seasoned analysts say he will find it very tough confronting both the Dravidian parties, AIADMK and DMK, even in the absence of Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi. Even if miraculously he forms a party and contests the elections, he might just end up as an `also ran’ like Vijayakanth. As state minister Jayakumar, a seasoned politician, puts it , “He is a novice and acting in front of the camera may come easily to him but facing the people and living up to their expectations is a different ball game altogether”. Not many would disagree. So, it is almost curtains in Tamil Nadu politics for the reel heroes.
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