Eroding star power of Tamil Nadu

Even though MGR, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa, easily swayed their fans to vote for them, will the same larger-than-life status be applied to Kamal Haasan in the upcoming elections in Tamil Nadu?
Eroding star power of Tamil Nadu
Kamal Haasan, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi and MGR (L-R) (A representative image)TBC

Cinema has played a great role in facilitating the political agendas of the leaders in India – pre and post Independence. The influence of cinema did not restrict itself to just the story or the theme of the movie, it went beyond the grandeur and masses related more to the on-screen actors, which turned them into brands that the audience/voters could relate to. Tamil cinema in particular had a big role in shaping the scene of Dravidian politics.

The reach and influence that Tamil cinema had on the region’s people, paved the way for industry-related personalities to enter politics and make it big. The give and take between Tamil politics and the film industry finds its roots in the pre-Independence era. While politicians used films to spread their propaganda, film stars used their star following to attract voters. The idea of using movies to propagate party agendas was a big tool for the actors to endorse the products (the party ideologies) as they had sway over their fans.

The current political gurus, however, suggest that there may be a divide in voters and that fans turning into potential voters may not be the case, anymore.

Dravidian Politics and cinema

Dravidian politics plays a crucial role in the democratic politics of India. With 38 seats in Lok Sabha, Tamil Nadu becomes the fifth most important state in the Lok Sabha elections. The southern state, however, was famously ruled by another phenomenon – that of celebrity power – even though it is likely to be a once-upon-a-time phenomenon. From MGR and M Karunanidhi to J Jayalalithaa, five chief ministers of the state have been associated with Tamil cinema as well as the Dravidian movement.

With the demise of the state’s former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, the star seat of the office was left vacant till superstar Rajanikanth announced his intention of jumping into the political wagon of the state. While this was met with widespread support from his fans in the state and his colleagues in Bollywood including Amitabh Bachchan, the announcement received a cold shoulder from states major political parties – DMK and AIADMK – who understood the blow it could have to their top brass since they majorly banked on the star value of their candidates.

There were also reports about Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan, another mega film star of South India, forming a possible third front in the state. This expectation of the voters, however, was crushed when actor Rajanikanth decided to take a back seat during the pandemic and announced that he would, after all, not enter politics due to health complications. This paved way for Haasan to roll the dice and play his turn.

Founded in 2018, Haasan’s party Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) prompted sudden support with most reports suggesting that his grand entrance in Tamil Nadu politics is intending to capture the space vacated by Jayalalithaa’s demise.

Tamil film industry’s involvement in state politics garnered attention from the world media.

A look at yesteryear’s Dravidian star power

A paper written by Robert L Hardgrave, Jr on ‘Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK’, mentions the acknowledgement of the film fraternity’s role in the state’s politics by the New York Times. In 1967, the NYT carried an article describing film star involvement as having "a touch of California." Notably, the film industry’s involvement in state politics garnered attention from the world media.

The first chief minister of the state and the founder of DMK, CN Annadurai was one of the first politicians to be associated with the movies. He used cinema to support his political propaganda. Annadurai was an acclaimed writer in Tamil and wrote for the theatre, which was later turned into films. Once the floodgates to the film industry were opened, the stars started trickling their way into state politics.

Thereafter, major leaders that emerged from the Tamil film fraternity were M Karunanidhi and Maruthur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR). Even though, later, a tiff between Karunanidhi and MGR led the latter to quit DMK and form a new party named Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), and later renamed as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

How did it work for MGR?

After his split from DMK, the veteran actor primarily encashed on his hardcore fan-following for votes. Even after his exit from the major party in Tamil Nadu, this tactic worked in favour of MGR. His glamour that once promoted DMK’s Dravidian ideologies, shifted to the relatively nascent AIADMK. This made the new party the only other major party in the state strong enough to oppose the-then ruling Karunanidhi-led DMK.

Kamal Haasan, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi and MGR (L-R) (A representative image)
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The legendary actor, who introduced Jayalalithaa to politics and made her propaganda secretary, went on to become Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for nine years. He remained in the office till his death in 1987. The fan-following garnered by MGR was quick to shower their love on his widow, Janaki and Jayalalithaa. The latter, however, claimed her place as MGR's political heir after successfully contesting the 1989 assembly elections.

Jayalalithaa’s legacy

Soon after, MGR went on to become the first actor-turned-politician to be a chief minister in India. Jayalalithaa, one of the main leading ladies opposite MGR on the big screen, was inducted in AIADMK by MGR. The move added another star to the power dynamics in the political scene of the state.

A screengrab of J Jayalalithaa and MGR featuring in a song 'Parthu Kondathu Kannukku'
A screengrab of J Jayalalithaa and MGR featuring in a song 'Parthu Kondathu Kannukku'YouTube/Tamil Music Videos

Jayalalithaa claimed her place as MGR's political heir after successfully contesting the 1989 assembly elections.

The book titled, “A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand” mentions the turmoil faced by the AIADMK post-MGR’s death in 1987. The friction between MGR’s widow Janaki and Jayalalithaa led to division in the party – AIADMK (JR) and AIADMK (JL). The party dynamics, however, changed once again after Jayalalithaa led her faction to win 27 seats in the elections, while Janaki’s faction won one seat in the assembly elections. Even though the party lost the elections, Jayalalithaa’s claim to MGR’s legacy was thereafter undisputed.

Kamal Haasan to take after M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa?

While Karunanidhi scripted over 60 films, Jayalalithaa acted in over 140 films. Even though it is widely considered that Jayalalithaa’s fan-following is not owning to her film career, but majorly drawn from MGR’s pool of followers, Jayalalithaa’s film career got her inducted into the state’s politics.

Compared to the late political and movie veterans, the recent player in action is Kamal Haasan. The actor, a self-acclaimed atheist and a follower of Periyar, has acted in over 230 films. The recent vacuum created after the demise of former chief ministers of the state was expected to be filled by another megastar. Hopes were pinned on actor Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan. Soon after the demise of Jayalalithaa in 2016, Haasan launched his party MNM in Feb 2018.

Kamal Haasan during his campaign in Tamil Nadu
Kamal Haasan during his campaign in Tamil NaduTwitter/@ikamalhaasan

While the timing was apt if Haasan wanted to contest the 2021 Assembly elections, the stars further aligned for Haasan by August 2018, when Karunanidhi passed away – who was not actively participating in politics by then.

Soon after, many reports considered this as a boon for Haasan and his party. This year, in an interview with the New Indian Express, the South superstar cleared the air, and said, “You can’t say it is opportunism. It is an opportunity given by the time to me.”

In an interview with The News Minute, the actor-turned-politician further clarified, and said, “There is never a vaccum in Politics… In a democracy there should not be a vaccum… I can’t actually remember the time I became an active politician but I can’t remember a time when I became a politician that must’ve been in my 20s when I wanted to vote. My films are a reflection of that... Both my heroes have personally kept away from electoral politics – Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Mr EV Ramasamy, Periyar as we call him.”

While many unversed consider Haasan to be a replacement for MGR and Jayalalithaa, the political analyst find the chances of that happening to be slim. Explaining the low possibility of Haasan turning his fans into potential supporters, political analyst, Sumanth C Raman said, “Earlier, it [the phenomenon] used to be very prominent with movie stars, but now that influence has reduced. I won’t say that it used to be as it was before.”

People will go and see a celebrity, there is no doubt. They will draw crowd, but that may not convert into votes.

Sumanth C Raman, Political Ananlyst

Kamal Haasan shared this picture on Twitter of him filing his nomination from Coimbatore
Kamal Haasan shared this picture on Twitter of him filing his nomination from CoimbatoreTwitter/@ikamalhaasan

On being asked if star factor may reappear with the Haasan’s entry in the political scene, he said, “It’s very unlikely to reappear because I think today’s the era of social media. Everything goes out to everybody. People can see everything; you can see the mistakes and the rest. Earlier on, people were larger-than-life because you never got to see so many videos [of the actor-turned-politician]. Now everybody has become less God-like... People will go and see a celebrity, there is no doubt. They will draw crowd, but that may not convert into votes. Earlier stars were less accessible. Now you can even communicate with them on Twitter or Facebook. You can see the kind of things they say or they do, regularly. This makes them less glamorous. So will people still go there... Kamal Haasan will get huge crowd but that does not mean that his party will win the elections.”

Kamal Haasan, J Jayalalithaa, M Karunanidhi and MGR (L-R) (A representative image)
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Assembly Elections 2021

Many political gurus believe that in this assembly election, fans won’t be enough to secure a state-wide win. It is also argued that the legends like MGR and Jayalalithaa had a thick layer of hardworking party workers. Although the legends were actively in politics it was widely accepted that the power that the Tamil actors hold over the audience, they became natural choices for political leadership.

There is no analytical theorem to figure out the of popularity any political figure, it is yet to be seen if the widely-famous and beloved actor Kamal Haasan would successfully break into the state’s active politics, as other legends did back in the day. And that, the poll results may finally answer the looming question, if Haasan entered politics to fill the vacuum created by the deaths of mighty figures in the state, and if the Dravidian state will once again go for the star than seasoned politicians.

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