Star power has a completely different meaning in Tamil Nadu. The State has had five chief ministers with a cinema connection, beginning with C.N. Annadorai (play script writer), M. Karunanidhi (script writer), MGR (matinee idol), Mrs Janaki Ramachandran (actress) and Ms J. Jayalalithaa (actress).
Fantasy-as-reality, as portrayed in MGR’s catchy ‘Nallai namadhe, nadum namadhe’ (Tomorrow is ours, the country is ours), was a musical prelude to the weaving of a heady combination of films, politics and power. MGR’s emergence in 1977 seemed to set a trend and even the US, thought of as a more evolved society, soon plumped for Ronald Reagan as President in 1980.
Reagan was the real trend setter of an actor in politics as he was elected Governor of California as early as in 1967. In his film career he was as active in union work as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also elected governor or of California.
Reagan is considered today, in the light of history, as the best Republican President of the modern age and in the top drawer of American Presidents. Coincidentally, he began his career with the Democratic Party, much as MGR began his serious political innings in the Annadorai-led DMK as the Dravidian movement picked up steam towards political power. Like many youth before him, MGR had started with the Congress on being influenced by Gandhian ideals.
A succession of chief ministers with connections to the celluloid world after the landmark 1967 general elections in which M. Bhaktavatsalam’s Congress government was dethroned was stretched controversially as those who were shadow ministers in MGR’s absence in US (for medical treatment) picked his wife to be placed on the throne.
The filmy sequence was not broken as Jayalalithaa fought back from the ignominy of being ousted from the gun carriage bearing MGR’s bier. Claiming the MGR legacy was a tricky proposition as greed for power raged but Jaya, with her charismatic personality, staged the ultimate coup for a woman in politics, by rallying the party around her and kicking the grandees out, Mrs Indira Gandhi style.
As she evolved from a fledgling politician in her days as Rajya Sabha MP under MGR’s tutelage, her intelligence guided her long before she was catapulted to power in 1991 by the strong sympathy factor in the wake of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Only in her second stint as CM from 2001 did she assume certain Reaganesque characteristics in handling sweeping authority. It must also be said that misandry played a large part in her authoritarian avatar seen in her second and third terms.
The sequence of stars as leaders did not come about without others with equal ambition falling by the wayside. The irony of the thespian Sivaji Ganesan not making it in politics stood in stark contrast to the runaway success of MGR. The different fates of virtual contemporaries in the thespian Sivaji and the people’s champion MGR had obviously nothing to do with histrionic ability, of which Sivaji had oodles.
Sivaji also played the idealistic young man, the angry young man and people’s champion in scores of films and with greater screen rhetoric than MGR and with the powerful rhetoric from the mighty pen of M. Karunanidhi (as in Parashakti, an unforgettable characterisation by the actor). But none of it seemed to click.
Vijaykanth may have come somewhat closer when he drew 10 per cent of the votes in his maiden election but faded out, so too the likes of Sarathkumar.
Jayalalithaa was not known to take kindly to any other actor exhibiting a political inclination. Her diktat gave some like Kamal Haasan and Vijay a tough time before their movie releases, once turning the screws on Kamal so much that he played the injured innocent in front of the media when the release of Viswaroopam was blocked and he even threatened to leave India. It is no secret that Jaya enjoyed reducing men to putty when she wished.
The big question in the void she left is whether Rajini and Kamal can make it, in tandem or individually. The people’s champion versus the thespian with great histrionic ability as we saw in the Sivaji versus MGR scene coincidentally applies to them too. The phenomenal success of MGR and Jayalalithaa in the minds of the people where they were saviours may be hard to attain as they were charismatic personalities.
Charimsa is something Rajini and Kamal have in plenty too but can they cash in on it to ascend the gaddi?