Film and Politics in India

Cinematic Charisma as a Gateway to Political Power

by Dhamu Pongiyannan (Author)
©2015 Thesis X, 230 Pages
Series: Film Cultures, Volume 7


In the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, all five of the Chief Ministers since 1967 have been former actors. This provocative book debunks the notion of Bollywood as the synecdoche of Indian cinema to explore the hitherto less studied, yet highly influential cinema in South Asia. Developing the concept of the politics of sentiment, the author examines the ways in which actor-politicians constructed their cinematic charisma, projecting themselves as messiahs saving the people from injustices, to create a political appeal to voters. The resilience of cinematic charisma, as Indian society undergoes massive socio-economic changes, provides a compelling study of modern politics, cinema, celebrity and the culture of the subcontinent.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Chapter One: Cinematic Charisma and Political Dominance in Tamil Nadu
  • Why Bollywood is not representative of Indian cinema!
  • Tamil Nadu and its cinema
  • Tamil cinema as cultural artefact
  • Tamil-ness in Tamil cinema
  • Politics and Tamil cinema
  • Ordinary Tamils, extraordinary celebrity devotion
  • Tamil cinema stars and Weber’s charisma
  • Weber’s charisma theory applied to Tamil cinema
  • Chapter Two: MGR: Saviour of the Masses
  • Nadodi Mannan: film summary
  • The MGR formula
  • The construction of MGR
  • Tamil nationalism
  • The politics of sentiment
  • Charisma of MGR
  • Summary
  • Chapter Three: Jayalalitha: Charisma of Complexion
  • Early life
  • Adimaip Penn: film summary
  • Chastity and misdemeanours
  • Colour, caste, and class
  • The MGR – Jaya relationship in cinema and politics
  • Charisma of Jayalalitha
  • Summary
  • Chapter Four: Rajinikanth: The Political Influence of a Mystical Sensation
  • Heterodoxy of Rajinikanth
  • Rajinikanth – Jayalalitha animosity
  • Padayappa: film summary
  • Characterisation
  • Social discourse
  • Conservative values
  • The politics of sentiment and superstitions
  • Charisma of Rajinikanth
  • Smoking, drinking, and Rajinikanth
  • Rajini’s films as a source of hope
  • Summary
  • Chapter Five: Vijayakanth: The Black MGR
  • Vijayakanth, Rajinikanth, and MGR
  • Captain Prabhakaran: film summary
  • Charisma of Vijayakanth
  • Violence, weapons, and instant justice
  • Social discourse
  • Rape, chastity, and conservative values
  • The politics of sentiment
  • Landscape
  • Summary
  • Chapter Six: Sarathkumar: The Rural Rambo
  • Naattamai: film summary
  • Problematising Naattamai
  • Charisma of Sarathkumar
  • The politics of sentiment
  • Patriarchy, caste, and feudalism
  • Social discourse
  • Conservative values and superstitions
  • Summary
  • Chapter Seven: Actor-Politicians: Past, Present, and the Future
  • Filmography
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

← 4 | 5 → CHAPTER ONE

Cinematic Charisma and Political Dominance in Tamil Nadu

Politics is a bedfellow of almost every film artist in Tamil Nadu.

Robert Hardgrave 1973, p. 296

After imposing a humiliating defeat upon the dynastic Congress Party in the 2014 Indian General Election, Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharathiya Janata Party (People of Bharat, BJP), became the Prime Minister of India. Although Modi’s victory was a foregone conclusion due to various factors, including the intense anti-incumbency wave against the decade long corruption-ridden governance of the Congress Party, what astonished many was the historic margin with which he led the BJP to power. One right-wing newspaper eulogised him by claiming that the entire India was swept by ‘Modi’s tsunami’. Modi was praised for enabling the BJP to penetrate even into the regions where its presence was barely felt until this election. Nonetheless, Modi was unable to convince the electorate in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu where the Chief Minister – equivalent to the State Governor of the United States of America (USA) or the State Premier of Australia – Jayalalitha, a charismatic former film actor, led her party to win 37 of the 39 parliamentary seats. With that in mind, one may argue that the cinematic charisma of Jayalalitha was more influential than the political popularity of Modi in winning election seats. While this book does not intend to provide psephology that led to Modi’s victory, it does begin by emphasising that the 2014 Indian election reaffirmed the political dominance of cinematic charisma in Tamil Nadu.

This book, in fact, is about cinematic celebrities who use their charisma as a launching pad for their political careers in Tamil Nadu, which is the second wealthiest state in India. The participation of celebrities in politics is not unknown across the world. Examples of actor-politicians ← 5 | 6 → include George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the USA, Glenda Jackson in the United Kingdom, Joseph Estrada and Vilma Santos-Recto in the Philippines, and Amitabh Bachchan in North India. However, the unique feature of Tamil Nadu is that all the Chief Ministers since 1967 have been former actors. This phenomenon of film stars becoming politicians is likely to continue in Tamil Nadu, as many current film stars have also ventured into politics either by starting their own political parties or by associating themselves with existing ones.

Through intensive examination of films and paratextual documents, this book analyses the cinematic representations of five Tamil actor-politicians: Marudur Gopalakrishnan Ramachandran (most commonly known as MGR, 1917–1987), Jayalalitha (also known as Jaya, 1948–), Rajinikanth (also known as Rajini, 1950–), Vijayakanth (1952–), and Sarathkumar (1954–). All five actors have acted in more than 100 films and each has remained in the industry for more than two decades. The late legendary actor-politician MGR was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1976 to 1987. His co-star and arguably his long-time lover, Jayalalitha, is the current (at the time of writing) Chief Minister. Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar are the founding fathers of their respective political parties. Vijayakanth is the opposition party leader in the current Tamil Nadu assembly, while Sarathkumar is a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). These five actor-politicians have been chosen as the focus of this book not only because of their screen popularity and political activism, but also because they demonstrate the chronological development of the phenomenon being investigated.

This book explores filmic characterisations and cinematic charisma, which opened the gateway for the political ascendancy of these five actors. Adopting a cultural studies approach, the investigation has used sociological, semiotic, textual, as well as contextual analysis of their films and associated media reviews, as a means of interpreting the cultural, historical, ideological, aesthetic, and political significance of the representations of these Tamil screen idols. The interpretation primarily has been guided by Max Weber’s theory of charismatic leadership, which is outlined later in this chapter. First, however, it is necessary to deal with the misconception about Indian cinema, found among many viewers in the Western world.

← 6 | 7 → Why Bollywood is not representative of Indian cinema!

I hate the term Bollywood as it does not represent Indian cinema but Hindi cinema and North Indian stuff only [sic]. Indian cinema is much broader than Hindi films. For instance Tamil films, Telugu films, Kannada films, and Malayalam films are to name a few, and there are so much in terms of culture, philosophy, and poetry to take from this part of the world.

AR Rahman, The Academy Award winner for Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

For many Western viewers, Bollywood is a synecdoche for Indian cinema featuring musicals (predominantly Punjabi bangra), provocative dance movements with gyrating hips, the exposed bellies of female stars, melodramatic story lines, and ultra-national themes. Bollywood represents Hindi cinema but not Indian cinema as a whole. The insularity of the term ‘Bollywood’, as it exists in everyday parlance in India, is noticeably clear as it excludes non-Hindi film industries, which produce approximately 80 percent of films in India. Athique argues:

Bollywood does not incorporate the regional-language cinemas that constitute the bulk of film production and consumption in the subcontinent in purely numerical terms … So, if Bollywood is not the Indian cinema per se, as Rajadhyakse points out, it might be described as the ‘export lager’ of the Indian cinema, since Bollywood productions are the ones that dominate India’s film exports (2012, pp. 112–113).

Thus, it becomes evident that inside India, Bollywood singles out itself as ‘national’, while aggregating non-Bollywood cinemas as ‘regional’. Outside India, however, it is promoted as the biggest film industry in the world. The assertion is not only a fallacy but also an extension of cultural hegemony since the non-Bollywood film industries produce the major portion of Indian films. As Hardgrave and Neidhart reveal:

The film industry in the South centred in Madras is the largest in India, in the number of studios, capital investment, gross income, and in the number of people engaged in the industry. Half of India’s 6,000 cinema houses are located in the southern region – and half of those are in the state of Tamil Nadu. Virtually no village in Tamil Nadu is so isolated as to be beyond the reach of the film (1975, p. 27).

While it is a widely known fact that India produces the greatest number of films in the world, the diversity of Indian cinema that includes ← 7 | 8 → Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu film industries, is rarely acknowledged. Hence, Bollywood makes films for Hindi-speaking Indians, mainly from northern India, and its diasporas; Bengali film industry makes films for the Bengali-speaking people; South Indian film industries like Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam make films for those who speak their respective languages. The Bombay film industry is identified as Bollywood, while the Tamil and Telugu film industries are known as Kollywood and Tollywood respectively. The etymologies of these names, of course, were influenced by Hollywood. The interesting point here is that, unlike Hollywood, Bollywood is not a geographic district or a place.

The media hyperbole of Bollywood is revealed when examining the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial context of Indian society. The complexities of the myriad identities of Indian society are not just contrasting but often conflicting in nature as well. Prior to the British rule there was no ‘India’ and national identity was constructed by leaders during the freedom struggles and through political compulsion after independence. However, the inherent weakness of this fabrication of Indian identity is still evident as the construction of ‘Indian-ness’ remains incomplete so long as Indian identity benefits only the Hindi-speaking North Indians at the expense of peoples from diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds and circumstances.

During their two hundred years of colonisation, the British unified the geographically continuous, but racially and culturally disparate India, via transport, communication, and administration. In other words, Indian unity did not evolve out of the people’s own sense of need, necessity, or nature, but was imposed upon the people by the British to begin with. After Independence, the Indian Territory was reorganised by the then Congress government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru on the basis of language. In terms of linguistic origin, the four main South Indian languages, namely, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam have their roots in Tamil, while the much younger North Indian languages such as Hindi have their origin in Sanskrit. The Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution recognises over twenty languages, including Hindi and Tamil, as national languages, while designating English as the common language (locally known as link language).

Dickey (1993) observes that cinema was introduced in British India in 1896, six months after its original unveiling in Paris. Soon after, ← 8 | 9 → cities such as Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and Madras (Chennai) became the hub of cinema for the respective North, East, and South regions as they simultaneously witnessed the mushrooming of film theatres. As these disparate cinema industries grew, films from the three cities began to represent not only the regions but also the linguistic and cultural differences of India. Bombay films entertained the Hindi-speaking North Indians, films from Calcutta catered to the needs of the Bengalis, while Madras became the hub of South Indian films, which included Tamil and Telugu. As these film industries addressed entirely diverse audiences that differed in terms of language and culture, the characteristics of their films became distinctive. Even though there are occasional interactions among the three different film industries, they maintain their individuality. For instance, Hindi films mostly portray their protagonists as diasporic, happy-go-lucky, luxurious young men (usually) surrounded by product placements, and bachelors who always wind up with their girls. On the other hand, protagonists in Bengali films have more poignant roles and portray the emotional subtleties of daily lives. Tamil film heroes depict Tamil culture and deal with more pressing social issues, such as poverty and corruption, while offering their audiences hopes for a better future.

There are more than one thousand films produced and released every year in India, making it the largest film producer in the world. Of these, Bollywood produces around 200 films per year (Athique 2012). Therefore, more than 800 of the films produced in India are not Bollywood films. In addition, it is South India, comprising Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka, and Kerala, which produces over 50 percent of the films in India. South India also accounts for the greatest number of cinema theatres per capita in the world. As noted, the paradox is that Bollywood is projected as the national film industry, while the other film industries in India are labelled as ‘regional’ by the so-called nationalists and the English-speaking media in India. The economic, numerical, and cultural significance of the multi-billion dollar film industry of South India is thereby subsumed within the hegemonic discourse of the ‘national’ North and ‘regional’ South (Velayutham 2008, pp. 1–2). Arguing against labelling of non-Hindi film industries as ‘regional,’ Devadas (2006) proposes an alternative discourse for Tamil cinema, as a form of ‘transnational cinema’. Considering the content, characterisation, the global outreach, and the intra-national ghettoisation of Tamil films, ← 9 | 10 → it is not unfair to regard Tamil cinema as transnational since it transcends state boundaries even without the support of the narrow-minded nationalists.

The interaction among the different film industries in India is sporadic, but largely, unsuccessful. It has so far proved almost impossible for a male actor, even if he is a superstar in his home film industry, to crossover from one film industry to another; although female actors have done it occasionally. For instance, Bollywood megastars like Shah Rukh Khan in Oh My Soul (Uyire, dir. Mani Ratnam 1998) faced humiliating flops in their Tamil film adventures. Moreover, South Indian matinee idols such as Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi were similarly unable to replicate their cinematic successes in Bollywood. However, South Indian heroines such as Sri Devi are popular in Bollywood and female actors from Bollywood, such as Aishwarya Rai, are also popular among South Indian audiences. It can be argued that it is only female actors that have been able to cut across the North – South divide in Indian cinema, while male actors in the patriarchal Indian film industry have not been as successful. This gender specificity is rooted in the racial antagonism between the North and South Indians, which is discussed in detail in Chapter Three.


X, 230
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Asian Cinema Charisma Indian Cineam, Rape Fair Skin South India Rajjinikanth Bollywood Indian Cinema
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 230 pp.

Biographical notes

Dhamu Pongiyannan (Author)

Dhamu Pongiyannan received a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Adelaide in 2013. He has a wide range of professional experiences in the media industry. His research interests include media sociology and Indigenous studies. He is currently collaborating with Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, on Aboriginal issues.


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