Vijay's Mersal: Tracing how political stance has played an integral part in Tamil cinema

Gautam Chintamani

Oct,23 2017 08:13 31 IST

The recent Vijay film Mersal continues to rake in the big bucks at the box office and unlike other Vijay films, the interest in this one is bound to transcend the superstar’s traditional audience base. A small portion of this phenomenon can be credited to a brief dialogue in Mersal on the recently implemented Good and Services Tax (GST).

In the film, Vetri, one of the characters portrayed by Vijay, remarks that while a country like Singapore charges just 7 percent GST and provides free healthcare, India, which has high GST rates, can’t afford to do the same. The scene that resembles a press conference of sorts also includes a reference to government hospitals not having oxygen cylinders, which is being seen as a comment on the recent Gorakhpur tragedy.

While the producers of the film have offered to delete the scene that has also gone viral on the Internet because of the ‘factual inaccuracies’ pointed by Tamil Nadu BJP, the reactions have led to a great surge in the demand for tickets.

Political identity and, by extension, a political stance has been an integral part of most leading film stars in Tamil cinema.

Ever since its creation the state of Tamil Nadu in 1969, which was previously called the Madras State from 1950 till 1969 and the Madras Presidency from 1653 to 1949, a Chief Minister, who hailed from films, has mostly led the state. Right from CN Annadurai, the first CM of Tamil Nadu and also the first politician from the Dravidian parties to use Tamil cinema extensively for political propaganda, the state has seen former film writer M. Karunanidhi, and screen legends MG Ramachandran (MGR) and J. Jayalalithaa occupy the top position in state politics for a better part of the last fifty years.

Vijay in Mersal. Image from News 18.

For anyone who follows Tamil cinema, there can be little doubt about the plausibility of some kind of political tenor in Mersal’s dialogues.

Almost every single star in Tamil cinema, be it male or female, at some point or the other during the course of their careers have been in a situation where their cinema revealed their political preferences. If one were to go back to the 1967 elections that saw film personalities foray into full-time politics, the role film in politics of the state and the influence of stars on Tamil politics becomes quite evident.

At that time the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) was essentially being seen as the only party of Tamil nationalism that took film as a vehicle of political mobilisation. In fact, K. Kamaraj, the then CM and president of the All-India Congress Party even mocked at DMK's aspirations and is believed to have even said – “How can there be government by actors?”

Ever since its inception, the DMK used films to further their ideology whenever possible. This was reiterated by Robert L. Hardgrave in an illuminating paper “Politics and the Film in Tamil Nadu: The Stars and the DMK” that was first published in 1973. In the essay, the author mentions how the DMK regarded film as the most important art form because it was the most popular and articulates Annadurai, the founder of DMK, wrote six screenplays with a view to “educating the people of Tamilnad.”

These films advocated the themes of cooperative farming and zamindari abolition amongst other “elementary principles of socialism” and created an environment where their message was delivered by rousing dialogues penned by the likes of Annadurai and later M. Karunanidhi and portrayed on the screen by stars of the days like K. R. Ramaswamy, N. S. Krishnan and later MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan (who later joined the Congress).

The manner in which MGR used his screen persona to carve out a separate identity for himself after he left DMK to form the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) hardly leaves any doubt about how closely political identity and film go in Tamil Nadu. During the time MGR was in the political wilderness in the early 1970s he had come to be seen as the “protector” of the common man and convinced of the moral purpose of his films, in a 1969 interview to Hardgrave also mentioned that the roles he portrayed were to show how a man should live and believe.

Just as he was to start his new party, MGR featured in films Netru Indru Naalai (1974), Idhayakani (1975), Indru Pol Endrum Vazhga (1977), which helped him connect with the common man on a social level. The power that he wielded as a film star – Annadurai is once supposed to have said of him: When we show his face, we get 40,000 votes; when he speaks a few words, we get 4 lakhs – saw him become the CM in 1977 and he remained in office until his death in 1987.

When it comes to Tamil films, what Robert L. Hardgrave observed in the early 1970s - the identification of the film star and party are reflected in the popular images of the stars – continues to hold true even now.

Today, as Tamil Nadu politics appears to be at a crossroads of sorts with an imminent political tussle between two of the biggest stars – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan – film might just end up playing its part again. Haasan’s tweet of support to Vijay is just the next salvo fired after his recent u-turn on Demonetisation and his earlier comment of saffron not being his colour.

As expected, the reference to GST and other current events in Mersal have evoked both political support as well as opposition. Hassan’s tweet suggesting Vijay shouldn’t succumb to pressure and delete a scene that has been cleared by the Censors evoked responses that reminded him of his decision to remove scenes that were offensive to Muslims in his films Vishwaroopam. 

While Rahul Gandhi’s tweet telling the PM to not “try to demon-etise Tamil pride by interfering in Mersal”, filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar called out the Congress VP’s hypocrisy. Bhandarkar had faced the ire of the Congress party at the time of the release of Indu Sarkar (2017) that looked at the life of a common person during the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and asked where was the freedom of expression when the Congress demanded a ban on the film.

Irrespective of how one looks at it, the fact that whether for good or for bad, stars have influenced Tamil Nadu politics and from the looks of it might just continue to do so.