While MK Muthu, Stalin's older half-brother, failed to take off in cinema despite efforts, Stalin entered and exited the field all too quickly.

MK Stalin collage stylised image
Features 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election Friday, March 26, 2021 - 15:55

The relationship between politicians in Tamil Nadu and cinema goes a long way back. The film industry has produced Chief Ministers of the state, and some of our stars continue to lead active political lives while balancing their career in cinema. Books have been written on the “image trap” that MG Ramachandran (MGR) perfected, Karunanidhi’s mastery with words and Jayalalithaa’s transformation to Amma.

There are some who tested waters in cinema before launching fully into politics while there are others who led full lives in cinema only to turn to politics well after their prime. One such story we thought of revisiting is that of DMK’s current Chief and Chief Minister face this Assembly elections, MK Stalin.

Stalin began his political journey as a school student, around 1968. He contested in electoral politics for the first time in 1984 when he was 31. He lost that election and before he could contest in his next in 1989, he had a brief stint in cinema. His older half-brother MK Muthu (Karunanidhi's first born) was launched in cinema earlier, with a plan in place. However, he did not make much headway.

Writer Stalin Rajangam observes, “In fact, MK Muthu was introduced during MGR’s period, when MGR was still a part of the DMK, with an intent of the former becoming MGR’s direct competitor. Evidently, Muthu’s style, on-screen mannerism, the kind of songs in his films, all mirrored MGR. MGR must have come to know about this a little later but he never spoke about it.”

While MK Muthu failed to take off in cinema despite efforts, Stalin entered and exited the field all too quickly.

Between 1984 and 1989, Stalin acted in two feature films and a television serial. The DMK leader was part of plays espousing the Dravidian ideology even before entering cinema. In 1987, he acted in a film called Ore Ratham along with Karthik and Radha Ravi. This film was written by Karunanidhi and directed by Swarnam.

“Interestingly, Stalin was not the film’s hero. Instead he played the role of a tyagi (martyr) who is murdered by caste Hindus. His character, in fact, was a Dalit named Nandhakumar,” Stalin Rajangam says. As an educated Dalit youth who comes back to his village, Stalin’s role as Nandhakumar presented him with the opportunity to talk about the anti-caste Dravidian ideology on screen.

However, Ore Ratham was not a film ahead of its times, Stalin Rajangam says. “It was a standard Dravidian narration but heavily dramatised. There is an upper-caste saviour and the Dalit characters are stereotyped and shown to be people who do not realise their own potential. I’d say another film called Natpu (1986), directed by Ameerjan, also starring Karthik and Radha Ravi, did a better job with a similar story,” Stalin Rajangam says. MK Stalin also acted in another Tamil film called Makkal Aanai Ittal co-starring Vijayakant. Not much is known about this film’s storyline but a song ‘Aara Amara’ from this film where Stalin is seen holding the party flag seems quite popular. 

While Stalin’s films did not take off, his serial Kurinji Malar, became popular within DMK cadres in the late '80s. An adaptation of Na Parthasarathy’s novel, Stalin’s role as Aravindhan, a young poet with Dravidian ideals, created quite the impact among party cadres. “They also held a success meet for the serial, something unheard of at the time. It was possible that it was meant to create popularity,” Stalin Rajangam says. Some reports also suggest that Stalin’s role in the serial that aired on DD channel extended his reach not just in the party but outside it too.

However, despite the success of Kurinji Malar, Stalin remained focused on politics. He won the 1989 Assembly elections from the Thousand Lights constituency and in 1996, Stalin became Chennai’s first directly elected mayor.

His son Udhayanidhi’s journey in cinema, however, has followed a different trajectory. Udhayanidhi, who debuted with Oru Kal Oru Kannadi in `2012, was appointed the DMK’s Youth Wing Secretary in 2019 and is at present contesting from the Chepauk constituency. However, in all of his early interviews as an actor, Udhayanidhi had made it abundantly clear that entering politics was not a part of his plan.

A journalist from Chennai says, “Leaders have used cinema to build their identity. If that’s the case, Udhayanidhi’s choice of roles in cinema makes it evident that politics was not on his agenda. He says so too in his early interviews”

“In that sense, MGR was the only one who did it so cleverly. Even Jayalalithaa had to discard her on-screen identity and transform into Amma,” she adds. Udhayanidhi, so far, has played fun, comic hero roles and the only role in which he had dialogues against the government was in Seenu Ramasamy’s Kanne Kalaimane. His plunge into politics therefore appears to be a recent decision prompted by Karunanidhi’s demise.

All things considered, cinema has been a means for political aspirants to reach the masses. “Cinema helped spread the popularity of the Dravidian movement. It is undeniably a great tool. However, leaders who were part of cinema have also worked outside of it. From MGR to Jayalalithaa to Karunanidhi to NS Krishnan, MR Radha, they’ve been active in politics even while working in cinema at their peak. This is unlike what Kamal Haasan seems to be doing now, which looks ambitious even for a state like Tamil Nadu," says the journalist.

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