Critically Inclined Tamil Nadu

Do Tamil Nadu's voters prefer spectacle to reality?

There was a clear ‘blood-bond’ between MGR and his fans.   | Photo Credit: Sadanand Menon

The birth centenary year of iconic film star/ politician MGR has been marked by a rush of major and minor actors from Tamil cinema plunging into the deep end of the political pond. Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vishal Reddy, Udayanidhi Stalin, with the delicious possibility of a few more biding their moment in the wings.

These are among a score and more actor-politicians Southern cinema has spawned. It is an impressive list – N.T Rama Rao, Jayalalithaa, V.N. Janaki, Sivaji Ganesan, Vijaykanth, S.S. Rajendran, Vyjayanthimala Bali, Jayaprada, Hema Malini, Kushboo Sundar, Vijayashanti, M.R. Radha, N.S. Krishnan, Dasari Narayana Rao, Chiranjeevi, Napoleon, Sarath Kumar, Krishnam Raju, Innocent, ‘Bharat’ Murali, T. Rajendar, Naghma, Karunas, Pawan Kalyan, among others.

The Hindi and Bengali screens too opened out political paths for stars like Nargis, Jaya Bachchan, Raj Babbar, Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Rajesh Khanna, Dara Singh, Paresh Rawal, Manoj Tiwari, Smriti Irani, Roopa Ganguly, Kirron Kher, Nitish Bharadwaj and a few more.

Cinematic mandate

There is also, of course, the unique instance of someone who was a parliamentarian first and then acted in films — the charismatic Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

The question uppermost in many minds is whether superstar figures like Rajini or Kamal stand a chance to become leaders in contemporary electoral politics. How easy is it to translate screen popularity and fan-club adulation into a push-button EVM mandate? Can one aspire for leadership in politics today without any distinct ideological positioning? Is it enough to make some vague utterances around corruption or spirituality for the voter to keel over?

Is it psephological wisdom to rely merely on the ostensible currency value of electronics-induced charisma to purchase political legitimacy? In a ‘spectacle economy’, how does the social relationship between ‘citizens’ and ‘leaders’ get mediated by images? In the era of the ‘Homo Spectator’, is democracy the name of a pseudo-world of appearances, which consolidates the separation between ‘reality’ and ‘image’? What is the bridge between the screen and the street?

Forty-five years ago, my entry into journalism coincided with a glimpse into this phenomenon. The day after the final exam for my post-graduate degree, on the advice of Madras Christian College economist Prof. Josef James, who was also the art critic for the (then, undivided) Indian Express, I landed up before the much celebrated news editor C.P. ‘Master’ Seshadri. It was a wordless ‘interview’. He thrust a sheaf of teleprinter takes into my hand, with the imperious command, ‘Go, edit’!

The ‘story’ was about the results of a survey conducted by Madras School of Social Work (MSSW) on the extremely irregular pattern of blood donations to the blood bank at Madras General Hospital, rated those days among the biggest hospitals in this part of the globe. The administrators were puzzled by the fact that on some days there was literally no blood collection, while on other days there was a glut.

MSSW’s survey revealed that huge numbers of people were queuing up on Thursdays and Fridays to collect the ₹5 compensation per pint of blood, and then heading for the nearest theatre to watch an MGR film. An astounding story of people who, perhaps, didn’t have money enough for a meal, but paid with blood to watch their favourite star. I edited it into a tight five-para story with the headline, ‘Movies are in their blood’. I got the job.

The crucial connect

But that also triggered a life-long interest and curiosity to understand this connect between the star and the fan. Just a few months before this, in 1972, MGR had split from the DMK to float his own Anna-DMK party. It was not clear whether, despite his immense personal popularity, he would be able to hold his own against the ideological anchoring and cadre-based organisation of the parent DMK. But by 1974 it was clear that there was a ‘blood-bond’ between MGR and his fans.

The political capital that MGR had accumulated through the 36 ‘Dravidian’ films he had acted in since 1954 had, in fact, converted him into the ‘face’ of the historic OBC movement. In the dramatic 1967 assembly election, where the Congress was drubbed out of Tamil Nadu, never to return over the next 50 years, MGR won his seat with a thumping majority from his hospital bed. He had been shot through the gullet by actor M.R. Radha in a personal feud. (We have crossed the 50th anniversary of that too).

Hundreds and thousands lined up outside the hospital to donate blood. After he was discharged, it became customary for him to address the public as en raththattin raththame (blood of my blood).

Skin in the game

In 1974, to test his bench strength, MGR requested those loyal to him to tattoo themselves with the party symbol or name. Millions obliged by marking their body with the party stamp. That was when it became clear that the political had affected the visceral, and that the illusion of his image was poised to erase the historical reality of the Dravidian movement, dealing a fell blow to the DMK.

Analysing it all these years and incessantly photographing every manifestation of the MGR image in Chennai has helped me understand French philosopher Guy Debord’s idea (in The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) that ‘spectatorship’ is, ultimately, a kind of ‘political economy’. In a scopophilic society, which has been seduced by representations rather than reality, it is illusions that achieve the aura of the sacred. The spectacle then becomes a ‘visible negation’ of life by becoming the substitute for life. In a trice, the appearance of the filmic hero becomes his political essence.

The spectacle – and its agent, the hero – become the self-portrait of power. For the fawning spectator, this provides an opportunity to vicariously partake of that power. From passive voyeurism, to graduate to active consumerism from that power-bank is a short step.

The para-dropping of Rajini and Kamal onto the political landscape of Tamil Nadu after four decades on celluloid, without ever having participated in anything akin to a political process or formulating a vision based on any direct action relating to peoples’ concerns – except illusorily on screen – portends a further sublimating of the idea of democracy to a mere accumulation of spectacles. Their success will show up a society of ‘spectators’, which keeps its eyes open only to will itself to sleep.

The writer wishes to acknowledge the delightful discussions at MIDS with the late Prof. M.S.S. Pandian, who derived sharp political theory from popular culture.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:24:02 PM |

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