Thin line between TN politics and cinema: Why Minister Sengottaiyan's anti-actor jibe is ironic

Did Sengottaiyan forget that he himself claims allegiance to a party founded by one actor, and then led by another?
Thin line between TN politics and cinema: Why Minister Sengottaiyan's anti-actor jibe is ironic
Thin line between TN politics and cinema: Why Minister Sengottaiyan's anti-actor jibe is ironic
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By Sujatha Narayanan

“What stature do actors have to comment on politics?” bellowed Minister Sengottaiyan, a prominent member of the Sasikala faction, in an interview to a popular Tamil news channel. The question has since become a raging topic in media circles in Tamil Nadu.

The leading spokesperson for the Edappadi Palaniswami government was referring to the constant tweets from Kamal Haasan, Arvind Swami, Suriya, Siddharth and Khushbu among others, which took well-aimed at shots at the political establishment.

Kamal Haasan quickly emerged as a strong voice against the Mannargudi faction, and an open supporter of O Paneerselvam. His tweets, in English and Tamil, spoke directly to the people – he urged fans and other Twitter-users alike to believe in their own power to bring about a change – to use the franchise available in a democracy to good use.

The recent distasteful comment from Subramanian Swamy only showed Kamal Haasan in greater light, as he refrained from retorting in kind.

The day the 122 MLAs voted to confirm Palaniswami’s government, actor Suriya tweeted, “It is we the people who are now left to eat the mixture ...,” referring to the common meme-description of OPS as a mixture-eating bystander. 

Siddharth and Arvind Swami have been equally vociferous in their opposition to the current government, and their strong tweets have encouraged other citizens to register their views online. Khushbu belongs to the Congress party, but her tweets also resonated with the prevalent anti-EPS/Mannargudi sentiment.

Unfortunately for Sengottaiyan, his questions on how qualified actors are to comment on politics, has only made him a juicy subject of meme-creators. After all, Sengottaiyan may have temporarily forgotten, but others will not let him forget, that he represents a party founded by an actor, MG Ramachandran, whose name every AIADMK loyalist invokes ahead of Jayalalithaa's.

“Naan aanaiyittaal adhu nadanthuvittaal ingu yezhaigal vedhanai padamaattaar,” MGR sang in one of his blockbuster movies Enga Veetu Pillai. “If I were to command, if it comes to pass, the poor here will not suffer” – this loaded political statement of a song indeed listed the Dos and Don'ts of MGR’s newly formed party – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Tamil cinema was always a supreme tool for politicians, from Annadurai to M Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa. The Dravida Kazhagam (Periyar’s DK) denounced all art. But Anna differed with Periyar on that aspect, as he was already a screenplay and script writer for films, and a dramatist. Following in his footsteps, Kalaignar Karunanidhi saw more success on the silver screen with his powerful word-play.

The addition of MGR as the ‘face’ of their ‘kolgaigal’ (tenets of the party) made the DMK shine brighter than its predecessor DK. And with their combined effort, Annadurai became the Chief Minister much against Rajaji’s prediction. Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is possibly the best chronicle of the major role cinema played in the Dravidian saga, led by Kalaignar and MGR.

Karunanidhi and MGR had a tiff over party accounts and the split resulted in MGR launching his AIADMK sitting atop his make-up caravan inside his Sathya Studios. Electoral battles between Kalaignar and MGR would always be contested with well-timed movies from MGR who would release them with apt titles and roles unabashedly addressing his vote-bank in the most direct manner possible.

Songs, heroines, situations, sentiments – MGR brought it all into his films with so much clarity that his off-screen and on-screen personas merged to create the Politician MGR became and he even won his last election from America, where he had gone for his treatment. The sole recall factor during that election for MGR was his songs, which would blare from every auto-stand in the state, and his movies, which would play in his regular theatres. The common man believed he was indeed their messiah. 

It is MGR’s film template that Rajnikanth followed in many movies to attain his superstardom. It is MGR’s template which NT Rama Rao followed in Andhra Pradesh, and whose counsel he took to become Chief Minister, using the appeal of his godly roles of Krishna and Rama. NTR also acted in many MGR film remakes to garner similar hurrahs.

No wonder then that Sengottaiyan’s statement on actors commenting on politics begs the question, ‘Were MGR and Jayalalithaa from NASA and ISRO?” His remark indirectly demeans late CM Jayalalithaa’s own stature as a leading heroine in Tamil and Telugu films.

Politics is a serious platform for actors who command a great fan-following. But it’s not as if the transition from film to politics is a natural one. Time and again, there have been actors who either joined the ruling party or began one of their own (like Vijaykanth or Sarathkumar) – but they have not always seen success like MGR who transformed his actor-self into a full-time politician, or Jayalalithaa, who was groomed by him to follow suit. 

And there have been many others who’ve refrained from taking the plunge despite their overwhelming popularity. Way back in the 1980s, Kamal Haasan took a calculated call that recognised his inherent passion for filmmaking, and converted his fan-base into a welfare organisation (Narpani Iyakkam). Actor Vijay, like Rajnikanth, plays hide-n-seek with his political affiliations, but he has also seen a backlash with the release of films like Kavalan, Thalaivaa and Puli which came under the Mannargudi radar. Both Vijay and superstar Rajnikanth have chosen to play it safe in the present scenario and there has been no word yet from the two of them.

But whether or not actors cross the Rubicon of politics, they are also voting citizens of a democratic state. Questioning their right to comment on politics reflects the current government’s stand on free speech and abhorrence to criticism of any sort. Meanwhile, in a state where politics and cinema tie up so closely together, it also remains to be seen how much of the people’s acceptance will be available for the first CM from a who does not have a background in Tamil cinema.   

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