How Tamil cinema is riding on star power and its social reach to drive political narratives

There is general discontentment with AIADMK, DMK, and BJP, and filmmakers are cashing in on that, says an artiste

New Delhi: Actor Vijay’s Diwali blockbuster Sarkar has crossed the 260-crore mark at the box office after a stormy start. The film, which ran into trouble with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu over the depiction of their late leader J. Jayalalithaa and her welfare schemes, is the third Tamil offering in recent times to take on an aggressive political narrative.

Last Diwali, Vijay’s own film Mersal, criticized the Bharatiya Janata Party’s goods and services tax and Digital India initiatives, while earlier this year Vijay Deverakonda’s NOTA was the fictitious tale of a young non-resident Indian forced to take over as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who then reforms the state. Telugu film Bharat Ane Nenu, starring Mahesh Babu, ran on pretty much along the same lines as NOTA.

Industry experts say there are clear reasons as to why political narratives work. “In general, like fantasy and fiction, there’s a huge draw for current affairs (as a genre) in cinema," said NOTA director Anand Shankar. “Every opinion, be it in a book or movie, comes from the people. What filmmakers try to do is match their narrative with what the majority of the audience feels. Like depicted in NOTA, everyone has thought and felt bad about things like the state’s inefficiency in handling floods or the miserable condition of the Cooum river, as have I. There’s no point making a political film if you don’t talk about current affairs."

While the topicality of the subject draws audiences and arouses curiosity, it also often rubs some the wrong way. And if that comes from a huge star like Vijay, who is the face of the film, his reach makes it that much bigger. AIADMK workers vandalized Sarkar posters and carried out violent protests in theatres, forcing Sun Pictures, the producer of the film, to delete certain controversial scenes and re-censor it for theatrical screening in Tamil Nadu. Last year, pro-Hindi groups had led demonstrations in front of theatres screening Mersal and torn Vijay and director Atlee’s posters.

“Vijay being one of the top three stars in Tamil cinema is causing that many eyeballs to widen," said Tamil film actor Mohan Raman. Shankar also admitted that if his film NOTA, with the issues it took up, had featured an actor of Vijay’s stature, theatres were bound to be burnt, not just attacked. That is the kind of social reach actors in the state have, with their cutouts being bathed in milk before a film’s release and temples being built in their names.

Raman added though that Tamil cinema has a history of politically driven narratives, which stars such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, acted in, in the 1950s and 60s. But for the last 20 years, top stars including Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have stuck to fundamentally commercial outings, refraining from taking concrete political stances.

Today, you find top heroes making political statements and that is why people are reacting. Also, while most films portray politicians as comic or villainous characters, these new films rake up real-life incidents. Sarkar, for instance, talks about everything from Jallikattu to votes being bought in Tamil Nadu. When the issues are so close to what’s happening on ground, feathers are bound to be ruffled.

Of late, at least in Tamil Nadu, filmmakers have also gained more confidence from the lack of solid political leadership after the death of DMK and AIADMK leaders M. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa.

“Now that the tide is clear and there is a political vacuum, it’s very easy to make more obvious and loud statements," said theatre artiste and film journalist Parshathy Nath. “There is also a general discontentment with the DMK, AIDMK and the BJP in the state, and the filmmakers are clearly cashing in on that. This is extremely brilliant marketing."

Also given the historical interlink between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu, and the fact that both Rajinikanth and Haasan are taking the plunge, it comes as no surprise that Sarkar star Vijay is also said to have political ambitions. Which works perfectly well for the movies, too, as their box office numbers show.

“This is a clear case of cinema acting as a propaganda tool to launch a new politician in the state and pushing the agenda that we’ve been taken for a ride by both parties for long and it’s time for a new person to come for good," Nath said.

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