Politics, politics everywhere, whether Tamil cinema likes it or not

As the Dravidian movement turns 80 this year, South First explores the inseparable bond between Tamil cinema and politics.

ByS Subhakeerthana

Published May 18, 2024 | 1:05 PMUpdatedMay 19, 2024 | 2:13 AM

Tamil cinema and politics

As the eagerly anticipated results of the Lok Sabha Elections 2024 draw nearer, politics is evident in the air. With a long history entwined with Tamil Nadu politics and culture, Tamil cinema has been a major force in the state’s daily affairs.

The politics of Tamil cinema between the 1960s and 1970s can be described as Dravidian—if one were to examine the genre—not only from the perspective of its artistic development but also from that of a political one.

The Dravidian movement used cinema as a crucial propaganda tool, with films showcasing explicit political messaging about empowerment, self-respect, and social commentary on an array of topics.

Because of the connection between politics and films, the silver screen became the perfect platform for promoting Tamil nationalism.

The social movement, known as “Dravidar Kazhagam“, founded by Periyar EV Ramasamy and which paved the way for the rise of the parties that have dominated the State since 1967, will turn 80 in 2024.

Tamil cinema and politics

tamil cinema and politics Thanneer Thanneer

A poster of ‘Thanneer Thanneer’. (X)

In India, the influence of films transcends beyond the confines of the cinema and permeates public areas through the prevalence of music, dance, and advertisements.

Some moviegoers even build temples for their favourite stars in their homes and places of business, treating them like gods.

Tamil Nadu has had five chief ministers from the world of cinema, in case, you didn’t know.

Political heavyweights in Tamil Nadu, including MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi, CN Annadurai, and J Jayalalithaa, rose to prominence by problematising and illustrating the plight of the downtrodden and marginalised.

For instance, M Karunanidhi enjoyed seven decades of a prosperous career in the cinema industry. Driven by his unwavering devotion to the Dravidian ideology, his superb screenplays and intense language skills, remain unrivalled in Tamil cinema.

Given that politics has an impact on people’s daily lives, it gives filmmakers a lot of meat for their scripts.

It is no secret that films that address delicate issues or criticise the ruling government find it challenging to get released due to the stringent censoring procedures in place.

A poster of the film Amaidhi Padai

A poster of ‘Amaidhi Padai’. (X)

What matters most, though, is that despite all of these challenges, there are still some incredibly powerful films about actual problems and laws and how they affect society directly.

Fortunately, some filmmakers aren’t afraid to speak their minds and call a spade a spade, thus making films that cater less to the masses.

The politics in a few of K Balachander’s films always pertained to everyday life.

Thanneer Thanneer (1981), for example, addressed the challenges that ordinary citizens faced as a result of political corruption. Achamillai Achamillai (1984) satirises the Indian political system and the toll it takes on small-time politicians.

Also Read: Changes in the release date hit exhibitors and producers in Tamil cinema

A reflection of society

Kamal Haasan on the sets of Unnal Mudiyum Thambi

Kamal Haasan on the sets of ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi’. (X)

Films have always had an impact on everything that is going on around us, acting as a mirror to society.

Beginning in the 1980s, caste-based violence returned to various parts of Tamil Nadu and this was depicted in Tamil cinema.

As a result, films about avenging caste honour were made, including Thevar Magan (1992), Pasumpon (1995), Kaadhal (2004), Paruthiveeran (2007), and Subramaniapuram (2008). These were set against the backdrop of Madurai—a hotbed of violence.

Tamil cinema narratives, according to a film historian, have undergone continuous changes in response to political developments.

The caste system was portrayed in the early Tamil films of the 1930s and 1940s.

The emergence of Dravidian parties coincided with the critique and parody of Brahmins, in Tamil films.

The practice of glorifying caste communities only started to take shape in the 1990s.

Films like Muthal Mariyathai (1985), Chinna Gounder (1992), Periya Gounder Ponnu (1992), Yajaman (1993), Naattamai (1994), and Maravan (1993), which came out in the early 90s, shaped the idea of a good and kind landlord.

In communities, it was a celebration of the client-patron relationship. These films overtly praised landlords and their lifestyle.

Manivannan’s Amaidhi Padai (1994) is perhaps the most well-known film in the genre that has been linked with political satires.

Shankar's Mudhalvan

Shankar’s ‘Mudhalvan’. (X)

Manivannan had a strong sense of politics, and most of his works, including Palaivana Rojakkal (1986), were rife with clever political references. The Sathyaraj-starrer had a screenplay by DMK Patriarch M Karunanidhi.

Several Shankar films on social issues explored politics, including Gentleman (1993), Indian (1996), Mudhalvan (1999), Anniyan (2005), and Sivaji: The Boss (2007).

Mani Ratnam also brought us Iruvar (1997), inspired by the lives of Karunanidhi, MGR, and Jayalalithaa; in addition to directing films with political themes as their backdrop such as Roja (1992), Bombay (1995), Uyire (1998), Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), and Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004).

Described as India’s first pan-Indian filmmaker by his peers SS Rajamouli and Shankar, Mani Ratnam’s latest Ponniyin Selvan franchise (2022 & 2023) also deals with politics and greed in the Chola dynasty.

The epic Tamil historical fiction written by Kalki became a magnum opus in its truest sense, joining the long list of serialised works of literature that have been adapted into successful film franchises worldwide.

Also Read: Tamil cinema and its obsession with sequels…

Contemporary cinema

Mani Ratnam's Iruvar

A poster of Mani Ratnam’s ‘Iruvar’. (X)

Beginning in the middle of the 2000s, the Tamil cinema—which had previously been dominated by films with a strong caste pride—saw the resurgence of movies with a working-class, anti-caste, and subaltern theme that attempted to explore and analyse social reality unabashedly.

In the contemporary Tamil film landscape, there has been a fair share of political satires/dramas such as Citizen (2001), Ramanaa (2002), Ko (2011), Saguni (2012), Thalaivaa (2013), Kaththi (2014), Joker (2016), Uriyadi (2016), Kodi (2016), Yaman (2017), Sarkar (2018), NOTA (2018), Annanukku Jai (2018), NGK (2019), LKG (2019), Tughlaq Durbar (2021), Kodiyil Oruvan (2021), Thalaivii (2021) and so on.

Once again, films like Sandakozhi (2005), Thimiru (2006), Mayandi Kudumbathar (2009), Goripalayam (2010), Sundarapandian (2012), Komban (2015), Devarattam (2019), Draupathi (2020), and Viruman (2022) have come under fire in recent years for feeding caste pride.

The films, whether directly or indirectly, glorify caste supremacy and serve as platforms for the assertion and self-satisfaction of intermediary castes.

The more controversial the subject the more likely it is to resonate. The more visceral the fear on screen, the more discussion it generates.

Suriya in Aayutha Ezhuthu

Suriya in ‘Aaytha Ezhuthu’. (X)

Political controversies sell, assures a Tamil filmmaker, on the condition of anonymity. But mind you, a “controversial film” need not necessarily be a sure-shot formula, he cautions.

“Perhaps, this explains why renowned studios and A-list actors avoid producing contentious or propagandist films. You never know what will backfire in politics, which makes it dangerous,” explains the Tamil filmmaker.

Even leftist or liberal filmmakers who were not actively involved in the Dravidian movement adopted some anti-caste stances.

The best whodunit in Tamil cinema, S Balachander’s Nadu Iravil (1970) contains a subtle but powerful anti-caste undercurrent.

In the 80s, two more films opposed caste—Rama Narayanan’s Sivappu Malli (1981) and K Balachander’s Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), a social drama.

The trend resurfaced again!

Also Read: Mother’s Day special: Tracing the evolution of mothers in South cinema

OTT and its influence

The film industry strives to keep viewers entertained while paying close attention to political issues.

Thanks to the latest spate of Tamil films, including Election (2024), Uyir Thamizhukku (2024), and Thalaimai Seyalagam (available on Zee5), OTT platforms are profiting from the current poll craze as well.

Producer Radikaa Sarathkumar said in a statement that Thalaimai Seylagam captures the essence of Tamil Nadu politics on a national scale by contrasting it with the complexities of Jharkhand’s rebel groups and grassroots workers.

Experts note that while politically charged content might have been scheduled around the elections, OTT’s influence is still confined to a population that is concentrated in cities and metro areas, many of whom already subscribe to majoritarian ideas.

What does today’s audience want?

Kangana Ranaut in Thalaivii

Kangana Ranaut in ‘Thalaivii’. (X)

The film business circuit believes that since movies are a necessary tool for influencing people’s opinions, audiences are receptive to storylines that deviate from the typical commercial trash.

“If a film with a political backdrop succeeds, I think it’s because of action, thrills, and violence. In general, I think if you get too on the nose with politics, it’s off-putting,” a producer tells South First.

In addition to seeing films in theatres, a lot of people are exposed to other points of view through promotional materials like teasers and trailers, which start a conversation on social media.

“The younger generation wants to engage with powerful cinema. They are prepared to see something that will be an eye-opener, conversation-worthy, and makes them think,” a producer-director tells South First.

According to the director, cinema simply depicts society and viewers are free to determine whether or not they are truthful.

The director opines that political dramas in Tamil cinema are better than those in the North. He says, mockingly, “It’s because of the mob mentality and culture.”

“Their films are often patronising. This paradox that arises from being both political and apolitical hinders the portrayal of election realities. They aren’t to be blamed. Nobody wants to be caught off guard, especially when their funding source was dubious in the first place,” the director adds.

He continues, after a pause, “Sometimes people have ideas but they feel it doesn’t have a market. So, they try to replicate successful models.”

Also Read: Lights, camera, action: 10 Tamil films that explore the essence of cinema

New-age filmmakers

Director Pa Ranjith

Director Pa Ranjith. (X)

Films that portray the unpleasant, grim reality have always found viewers.

In Tamil Nadu, where politics and cinema are seen as “bedfellows,” a trend started in 2014 with the release of Pa Ranjith’s Madras. The Karthi-starrer established the tone by speaking about the socio-economic effects and grassroots politics.

Since then, the Dalits have been portrayed as strong, heroic figures, whether it is in the stories of Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Asuran (2019), Karnan (2021), or Jai Bhim (2021).

Pa Ranjith, whose directorials include politically charged films like Kaala (2018) and Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022), deserves all credit for turning the story around.

In the past, films frequently discussed extreme caste pride. However, the scene now centres on caste oppression, rights, and anti-caste sentiment. This is what’s required right now.

Pa Ranjith, in multiple interviews, said he wanted to make a film that sheds light on how the system upholds caste hierarchies, in an industry where films that promote caste superiority have been widely successful.

Through the large doors that Pa Ranjith opened, Tamil cinema has continued to feature more films discussing the rights of the oppressed.

These directors—Ram, Ameer, Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj, Gopi Nainar, and Leena Manimekalai—are among the current generation that holds up a mirror to the harsh truths of society.

Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018), Lenin Bharathi’s debut film, was possibly the first of its sort in Tamil.

It focused on the difficulties of landless labourers and the long-standing land dispute between the indigenous labourers and those in power.

Thalaimai Seyalagam Season 1 review: Weak writing pulls down this well-acted show

‘In cinema, everything is politics’

A still from The Great Indian Kitchen

A still from ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’. (X)

Has political meddling decreased since OTT’s widespread use?

This question lacks a definitive response. Malayalam director Jeo Baby stated at an event that major OTT platforms and television networks rejected The Great Indian Kitchen (2021).

“Men made up the majority of those who rejected the film,” he said.

He observed that a lot of people began to second-guess their opinions after watching The Great Indian Kitchen. “The film gained popularity due to the receptiveness of its female audience,” Jeo Baby added.

The most serious approach for Tamil cinema and its fan base to set themselves apart from the regressive politics promoted in Hindi cinema would be to make a course correction.

Films with patriotic themes were once cool. Films against corruption followed. Now, anti-caste films are the rage.

It’s intriguing to observe, though, that all of the movies we talked about have political overtones.

It’s no secret that filmmaking is political, a writer from Tamil cinema tells South First.

Suriya in Jai Bhim

Suriya in ‘Jai Bhim’. (X)

She points out that every decision the industry makes, as a group, is political—from deciding which stories are told to who gets to tell them and who gets to watch them.

The writer adds, “It is important to keep in mind that every film is a political statement, regardless of the production company, distributor, or studio we work for. Each film conveys a certain set of values to the general public.”

“Who the director is, where your movie is being shot, where it is set, the emotions that you hope to elicit from your audience, the attire of your female characters, and how much they get paid—everything is politics,” she insists.

The writer goes on to say, their role is not limited to providing entertainment.

“Not all of our work consists of giving people what they want to see. It is our responsibility to approach people through entertainment and then present them with ideas that may change their perspective on the world,” she signs off.

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