While Rajinikanth’s on again-off again flirtation with politics seems indefinitely suspended for now, it adds another chapter to the ties between Tamil Nadu politics and its film industry. And though MGR remains its most successful link — for reasons beyond his stardom — this story doesn’t begin or end with him.
If S S Rajendran, Sivaji Ganesan, Jayalalithaa, Captain Vijayakanth are the more known examples, and Kamal Haasan hopes to join their ranks, there were others who fell along the way. The common thread is that unlike other parts of the country, cine stars entering politics in Tamil Nadu have failed to click without a solid grounding in political ideology.
A scholar of South Asian cinema, Gopalan Ravindran, who teaches at the Central University of Tamil Nadu, points out that the founder of Dravidian movement, Periyar, didn’t view film stars favourably. “But Annadurai (Periyar’s disciple who left to set up the DMK) was a theatre artiste and writer, and roped in his followers like Karunanidhi and MGR to communicate with people. Annadurai used a combination of mediums… There were also many factors… cinema was not seen as a separate entity unlike today,” Ravindran says.
The actors too belonged to the post-Independence era where nationalism was at its peak, and cinema often reflected that, along with themes of socialism.
One of Annadurai’s first choices was K R Ramaswamy or KRR. A much-in-demand actor at the time (1950-60s), who starred in both theatre and films, Ramaswamy was a committed DMK functionary who kept aside his entire remuneration for the party. Soon after, the DMK had two more actors in its ranks, S S Rajendran a.k.a SRR and Sivaji Ganesan. More popular than Rajendran, Sivaji too was a diehard DMK functionary. It was when he got too busy with his movie career, and branched onto mythological movies (seen at variance with the DMK’s professed atheism) that the space vacated by him in the DMK was filled by M G Ramachandran.
Gopalan says that unlike Sivaji, MGR was clear about his political ambitions and worked on this. “He picked roles where he was cast as an idealistic man, and cultivated an image of being benevolent to the poor. He marketed and branded himself for the masses.” If J Jayalalithaa was his protege, M Karunanidhi wrote the scripts for many of MGR’s films, with both eventually joining politics. Karunanidhi carved a separate space on the strength of his writings, both for theatre and film, and his poetry.
This is where the older film stars differ from Rajinikanth’s ambitions, despite the latter’s unsurpassed success and name recognition that extends to North India.
Tamil film historian Theodore Bhaskaran calls a comparison between MGR and Rajinikanth “foolish”. “Right from his 30s, MGR was active in politics, initially in the Congress and then the DMK. When he left the DMK to form the AIADMK after party founder C N Annadurai’s death, the followers he took along with him were not mere film fans but a highly political, homogenous set of people, unlike Rajinikanth’s heterogenous fans,” he says.
Apart from this, MGR was a powerful orator with complete command over the Tamil language, Bhaskaran says, with Rajinikanth trailing on both accounts.
This is why, Bhaskaran feels, that despite all the hype surrounding any announcement by Rajinikanth regarding politics, he will fail if he rests on “mere stardom”, without firm politics or ideology.
One of the most recent examples of this is Captain Vijayakanth, whose DMDK blazed to the second-highest number of seats after the winner AIADMK in the 2011 Assembly polls, but is now reduced to zero MPs and MLAs. Kamal Haasan’s party Makkal Needhi Maiam failed to open an account in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with its vote share not crossing even single digits.
Kalaippuli S Thanu, a veteran Tamil film producer known for several Rajinikanth superhits including Kabali, says the success of film stars in politics is a thing of the past, and not just because they are not as rooted in politics as before. Actors had a certain aura, Thanu points out, with a larger-than-life image, accessible only on the big screen.
“Also, unlike the past, fans too are no longer political.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 31, 2021 under the title ‘Why Rajini is no MGR, and other starry stories’.