Tamil cinema in the time of ‘political vacuum’

Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Vijay have all tried to position their politics through their recent or upcoming movies.

ByRajesh Rajamani
Tamil cinema in the time of ‘political vacuum’
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Let’s be honest—every time you stand up for freedom of speech as the well-meaning, progressive liberal that you are, you also partly cringe and wonder why you’re always made to stand up for books, songs or movies that are [spoiler] drop-dead boring. Because come on, how difficult can it be for religious groups and political parties to protest against a movie that is actually well made? Wouldn’t it be nice if a 4.5-star rated movie (though not TOI’s 4.5-star rating, because trust issues) gets into trouble? As taxpaying citizens of this country, don’t we at least deserve that much? Why are we forced to trend #IStandUpForSo&SoMovie on social media, when we fully know that we tried our best to not snore and disturb the other sleeping patrons in the movie hall?

The current brouhaha around Sarkar falls very much under this pattern.

Sarkar (The Government), a Tamil movie starring actor Vijay and directed by AR Murugadoss, was met with severe criticism and protest from Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It’s sort of surprising that the AIADMK took the movie’s criticism of ruling governments so very personally because the movie has made equal efforts to hit out at the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as well. But before we get to it, we need to first locate why a movie like Sarkar has been made at this juncture.

After the demise of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa and DMK chief Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, it’s popularly claimed that there exists a political vacuum in the state. Or at least, that’s a claim by those aspiring to fill the supposed vacuum. This includes several existing political parties and leaders and few new aspirants as well. Among the new aspirants to the Chief Minister berth, three star actors—Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Vijay—have been hogging a lot of the media’s limelight in recent times. It’s interesting to observe how each one of them has been trying to position their politics through their recently released or upcoming movies.

But what’s common among all three of them is that they’re all fiercely trying to locate themselves as a viable alternative to the Dravidian political parties. So rather than just look at Sarkar in isolation, it would be more useful to juxtapose the attempts of all three actors and see what they’re trying to achieve.  

Rajinikanth’s tryst with subaltern cinema

Contrary to the problematic statements he spouts during press meets, Rajinikanth’s positioning in his recent movies has been very well thought-out and planned. For most of his career, he played the working class Bahujan man on screen. In fact, it has been popularly claimed that Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan make films for the masses and classes, respectively—referring to the class-caste groups the actors are identified with. However, since the 1990s, both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have tried to cross their respective boundaries and make movies to attract newer markets.

Beginning with Yejaman (Feudal Lord) (1993) and following it up with Muthu (1995), Arunachalam (1997), Padayappa (1999), Sivaji (2007) and Lingaa (2014), Rajinikanth’s movies tended to become very feudal and misogynistic. This has been widely panned by critics as well.

However, in the last few years, before announcing his definitive political entry, Rajinikanth made a conscious effort to speak the politics of the most oppressed in his movies. He partnered with filmmaker Pa Ranjith, who is known for his fierce Ambedkarite politics. Together, they made Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018). This was clearly a very shrewd move by Rajinikanth because one of the key criticisms levied against the rule of Dravidian parties is that even though it largely benefitted the OBCs, similar advantages did not reach the Dalits.

By positioning himself as a potential voice of the Dalits and by quoting Ambedkar on screen, Rajinikanth has undeniably attempted to cash in on what is popularly considered to be a shortcoming of the Dravidian parties.

Kamal Haasan’s buffet politics

Like his late night tweets, Kamal Haasan’s political positioning at his party Makkal Needhi Maiam has been cryptic and all over the place. But let us try our best to make sense of it. Recently, Kamal Haasan announced that he will be acting in sequels to his earlier movies” Thevar Magan (Thevar’s Son) (1992) and Indian (1996).

Through most of his career, Kamal Haasan has been identified as an urban, English-speaking, elite, Brahmin actor. Even the successes of his several masala genre movies didn’t help him break the tag of being an elite actor. It’s under these circumstances that Kamal Haasan produced and acted in Thevar Magan. Glorifying the caste pride of the Thevar community, an OBC caste group of considerable size in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, the movie was immediately lapped up by them and became a huge success. Even though Thevar Magan has been criticised for pandering to the caste pride of the Thevar community and resulting in clashes between them and members of a scheduled caste called Devendra Kula Vellalar, the movie allowed Kamal Haasan to break out of the restrictive elite tag. He was at last able to identify with OBC groups.

In Indian, Kamal Hassan played dual roles, that of both father and son. The father is shown as an ex-freedom fighter who was part of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Later, disappointed with how current governments have turned out to be corrupt, he goes on a murdering spree of every government official who indulges in petty bribery. The movie, however, remained silent on big ticket corruption. It’s also interesting to note that the Thevar community identifies itself closely with Subhash Chandra Bose because the community’s most prominent leader, U Muthuramalingam Thevar, was a colleague of Bose at the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB).

By trying to revive both these movies and make their sequels, Kamal Haasan is clearly attempting to appeal to the OBCs, particularly the Thevar community, who at present are mostly with the AIADMK.

But reviving Indian serves another purpose as well. The often repeated criticism against the Dravidian parties is that they are both corrupt. While this criticism is not only directed at the DMK or AIADMK but against almost all Bahujan-centric regional parties in the country, it still works as a potent poll point. By invoking the anti-corruption narrative of Indian, he seems to be attempting to re-create an Aam Admi Party-like phenomenon and make inroads to the middle-class urban crowd.

Vijay’s Companies Act

What Vijay has set out to do in Sarkar is both interesting and braver. While Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have been trying to hit out at what is considered the weak spots of the Dravidian parties, Vijay has consciously tried to punch at their strengths.

The welfare schemes of the Dravidian parties have been widely popular and even replicated in other states. But Sarkar deliberately tries to mock and demonise these schemes as “freebies” handed out to lazy citizens. The movie attempts to subvert the very logic behind the existence of welfare schemes by suggesting that if governments are run effectively like corporate business houses, we wouldn’t be requiring these schemes in the first place. The movie instead offers a political alternative that is a strange cocktail of a big corporation’s ruthlessness and a small NGO’s romanticism, almost as if politics is a CSR activity that can be published on the colourful pages of an annual report.

While the movie criticises both the DMK and AIADMK equally and refers to J Jayalalithaa and Kalaignar M Karunanidhi in direct and indirect ways, it’s surprising that only the AIADMK took offence. Possibly because a female villain character is explicitly given Jayalalithaa’s original name Komalavalli, the AIADMK couldn’t afford to remain silent. On the other hand, because the movie is produced by Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Pictures, the DMK was possibly unsure of how to react.

Going by his recent movies, Vijay’s politics seem driven more by current affairs than any serious ideology. In Sarkar, he identifies himself as a member of the fisherfolk community and stages a long monologue on their plight. Earlier in Kaththi (Knife) (2014), he empathetically spoke on farmer suicides. But in both these movies, his understanding of real-life politics comes across as hurried and half-baked.

While the emergence of this “political vacuum” sub-genre in Tamil cinema is certainly an amusing trend that makes for an interesting study, one still wishes that filmmakers and actors do better to articulate their politics in an entertaining way. B Jeyamohan, popular writer and literary critic who co-wrote the screenplay of Sarkar with director AR Murugadoss, recently claimed that the team stayed at Hotel Green Park in Chennai for 42 days to write it. But after watching the movie, you badly want to get hold of him and demand to know what he or the team really did for those 42 days.


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