Tamil Politics Is (Not) Just About Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan

Is Tamil Nadu obsessed with hero-worshipping its silver screen superstars? Or is there more to this political trend?

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Celebrities
4 min read
Tamil Nadu politics seems to centre round Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, and other movie stars.&nbsp;<i>(Photo: Vibhushita Singh/<b>The Quint</b>)</i>

Will Rajinikanth enter politics? Will Kamal Haasan be the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu? Is Vijay marking his entry into politics through his film Mersal?

The week leading to Diwali, and the subsequent weekend, has been abuzz with such questions, thanks to the mersal (surprise) that Vijay’s new film has created.

But, the more pertinent question is this: why is Tamil Nadu so fixated with its silver screen superstars?

While this is Tamil Nadu’s current situation, the answer lies partly in psychology and partly with the rise of MG Ramachandran, the state’s most popular and populist chief minister yet.

If I command, and it is done...
The poor will never suffer
As long as I am alive, there is no pain
they will never fall into the ocean of tears

MGR, TN’s Dopamine Fix

In 1950s, two psychologists conducted a series of experiments where rats, when they pressed a lever, directly triggered pleasure centres in their brain that would release dopamine. The rats would press the lever as many as 7,000 times a day, even forgetting food or sleep. It had the same effect on humans too. 

Every time we get a response on our social media post, or watch a video on WhatsApp, or binge on a Netflix show, our brain gives us a shot of dopamine, a hormone that makes us ‘feel good’ by activating the pleasure centres (and there are many) in our brain. It is for this reason that we love movies, and by consequence, the actors who give us so much joy.

MGR was Tamil Nadu’s WhatsApp video, Netflix binge, social media update – all rolled into one. This didn’t happen by accident. Anyone who knows Tamil cinema and the stories surrounding the superstar, will tell you that no one knew (or controlled) music and lyrics like MGR.

Composer MS Viswanathan and lyricists Vaali, Kannadasan, and a host of others would dish out dozens – sometimes over a hundred tunes and verses – before MGR approved one of them for his film.

All of the songs in his movies were upbeat, inspirational, and would either celebrate the human spirit or extol the ‘leader’.

MGR is perceived as the leader that Tamil Nadu has always wanted. Through populist policies that drained the government but satisfied the people, he ruled as Chief Minister for 10 years, even as there was no improvement in education, infrastructure. or business.

Rajinikanth and MGR

Rajinikanth is to MGR what Kamal is to Sivaji Ganesan. While the former were on-screen leaders, the latter were pure entertainers, who put their heart and soul into their craft.

From the 1990s, starting with Baasha (1995), Rajinikanth played the people’s leader in all his movies. Beyond the universal formula of flashbacks, romance-drama-vengeance-comedy and songs, Rajinikanth’s movies held the seed sown by MGR through the 60s, with the still-running Aayirathil Oruvan (1965), up until 1977.

In effect, the general perception was that Tamil Nadu was leaderless for two decades, until Rajinikanth entered the scene. The line between a fictional hero and an able politician has always been blurred.

Tamil Nadu votes for its superstars, not politicians.
Superstars in Tamil Nadu, specifically Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, are given the same protocol of sycophancy accorded to politicians. Historically, the fan-base has voted for their on-screen hero rather than for the government.  

This fact was proved time and again in Tamil Nadu’s politics.

Snapshot

1. It was through MGR’s support that the DMK defeated the Congress in 1967, in what was a historic win.

2. It was because Rajinikanth declared support for the DMK-TMC (Tamil Manila Congress), that with just 30 days of campaigning, the fledgling TMC party won over the much larger and all pervasive AIADMK.

3. In the 2011 Assembly elections, ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth’s DMDK party ousted the then 57-year-old DMK as the Opposition party.

4. It was thanks to actor Vijay’s on-screen rant against the 2G scam and open support for the AIADMK, that the DMK lost the 2016 Assembly elections.

Hero Worship?

That’s the usual, obvious reaction, but it is also oversimplifying the issue. The real answer lies in the biological need for leadership.

Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln – these are some of the most popular leaders in history. And they all had one thing in common: sacrifice.

According to Simon Sinek, who’s become a global household name for leadership theory, the cost of true leadership is self-interest. To put it another way, a true leader should be willing to sacrifice his position, his power, and his authority, to protect the interests of those under him.

Sadly, how politics is perceived in India, such a politician is a utopian dream. And no politician of the current crop is truly seen as a leader. But, the world on the silver screen isn’t encumbered by limitations of reality and logic.

Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, MGR, Vijay, and Vijayakanth, therefore, are the leaders the people of Tamil Nadu have always aspired for.

The ‘Others’

MK Stalin, DMK’s working president, spent a fortune on his ‘Namakku Naame’ (we, for ourselves) tour. By shifting to casual and semi-formal clothes, and shunning white, he tried to isolate himself from the identity of a politician. Sadly, it was no match for Vijay’s on-screen persona.

Vijay didn’t spend a single day campaigning. Stalin spent almost two months under the Chennai sun.

Snapshot

1. ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth’s DMDK is the only party which doesn’t have a class/caste classification. In fact, he was the only actor who split his fan clubs into vocational segments – lawyers’ fan club, doctors’ fan club, etc – much before he entered politics, but never on the basis of caste.

2. Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK has struggled for years to come out of the caste perception his father gave the party. He often wishes he were born in Kerala, in which case he would have been more successful in TN.

3. Vaiko (MDMK) has undertaken padayatras across Tamil Nadu to highlight social issues (not political) for years now. In fact, it is doubtful if anyone else has walked as much as he has for the state.

I mention these men not as a ready reckoner of candidates for the by-elections in December, but as examples of politicians with potential, who have now fallen to the wayside.

The lustre of prospective leaders is dulled, or worse, forgotten, by Tamil Nadu’s desire for another MGR.

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