Vijay’s Mersal: Here’s TN’s Tradition of Silver Screen Activism

Vijay, like others, has used cinema, and fan-clubs, to build an anti-government, pro-issue consensus.

Indian Cinema
4 min read
A still from Vijay’s <i>Mersal</i>.&nbsp;

Mersal is set to release on Deepavali (18 November) in Tamil Nadu and expectations are high. The last time Ilaya Thalapathi Vijay, and director Atlee came together was for Theri, which smashed records in April 2016.

But the atmosphere is electric with expectations - not just in anticipation of a ‘family entertainer’ - but also because Tamil Nadu’s politics is in primordial soup state. And Vijay’s fans, across more than 20,000 fan clubs believe he’s the main, not-so-secret ingredient.

One might blame the fan community for reading too much into the lines; if one were unaware of TN’s politico-cinematic traditions. But right from MGR, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Vijayakanth, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Sarathkumar, and others non-Tamil-movie watchers may not know, have used (or tried to use) cinema as a launch pad for their political careers, to unimaginable success!

A year to create a child, three to create a graduate, but it takes an eon to make a leader.
Vijay in Mersal

Consider the title of Mersal, for some insights.

No, I’m not speaking through a Dan Brown hangover. The typography, and the theme are not coincidences, but reminders of Vijay’s activism.

Vijay is a vocal pro-Jallikattu, anti-PETA activist. He even visited the Marina beach incognito to be part of the protesters. A large portion of the trailer of Mersal seems to be based out of a village in TN. Many of the shots suggest a Jallikattu festival; the Jallikattu bulls tied in two columns as he walks between them; shrugging off dirt from his shoulders exactly like the bull would, etc.

Silver screen activism is as prevalent in Tamil cinema, as stalking is in movies all over the world. Actor Vijay is the latest in a long line of Kollywood Superstars, who has used cinema, and fan-clubs, to build an anti-government, pro-issue consensus.

MGR, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Jayalalithaa, etc., etc., etc.,

Rajinikanth’s Kabali had a clear pro-Dalit narrative. And his upcoming film Kaala, with the same director (Pa Ranjith), is based on a Tamilian (from Tirunelveli), who settles in the Dharavi slums and works for the Tamils in it. He has more than hinted about his interest in politics during fan interactions early this year, reinforced through dialogues from his previous movies, and usual ‘If HE (God) wants me to lead the people, I will’ spiel.

Here’s how Rajinikanth has been gallavanting as a leader, while acting as a don, or auto driver or milk-man.

Kamal Haasan has been raking up a twitter storm ever since Jayalalithaa passed away. Yes, the Amma of Tamil Nadu had it in for the ‘universal hero’, who almost went bankrupt trying to release Vishwaroopam (2013), while Jayalalithaa nudged over 24 Muslim political organisations to protest. Now that she is no more, and there is no clear leader, Kamal Haasan too has expressly expressed his interest in becoming the Chief Minister of the state.

A still from <i>Vishwaroopam</i>.&nbsp;
A still from Vishwaroopam
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Here’s what Kamal Haasan has been tweeting/saying over the last few weeks.

But the award for best filmatic politician of all time goes to MG Ramachandran, the original Puratchi Thalaivar (Revolutionary Leader) of Tamil Nadu, who rose to stardom, and then to ten years of unbroken CM-ship solely on the basis of playing ‘The People’s Leader’ on the silver screen.

MGR was always a politician. His career in acting was just part of the process. From his first movie to his last, there was no letting up in creating brand MGR. He remains the inspiration, and ultimate guide/manual for TN’s superstars who aspire to be CM some day.

Vijay as the Ilayathalapathi; Young Leader

From April, through May, farmers in Tamil Nadu began protests outside Jantar Mantar, seeking a loan waiver of over Rs 40,000 crore, among other things. They shaved their heads, held mice and snakes in their mouths, skulls of farmers who (allegedly) committed suicide due to debt, and stripped naked.

From May onwards, Vijay used literally every possible public space to talk about their plight; award functions, music release functions, after-movie events, literally every public appearance would be peppered with talk of the farmers, and how the people must rise to help them. In fact, he takes off from his movie Kaththi (2013) remade into Khaidi No 150 in Telugu, starring Chiranjeevi. And that, is another story.

Right after the launch of Vijay People’s Movement (2009), Vijay’s relationship with the DMK - a party which patronised his father - soured. 

Vijay Vs DMK

The DMK ruled and controls a major share of the production and distribution in Kollywood. This was more obvious and pronounced, when the party was in power in 2009. Vijay tried to expose/oppose this. As a result, all five films released between 2009 - 2011 faced serious roadblocks. Vettaikaaran (2009) and Sura (2010) were ruined at the edit table, purposely prolonging the movie. Kaavalan released with absolutely no marketing (not even a single poster, even in high volume cities like Madurai). For a while, Vijay decided to lay low, and focus on movies alone. And then the 2G scam happened, DMK lost royally to Jayalalithaa in 2011, and the Ilayathalapathi’s political compass was back on track.

What is 2G? Waves...air. This is a state that scams in crores dealing in just air.
Vijay’s dialogue from Kaththi (2014)

It was this dialogue that popped up in posters across the state, on the eve of the 2016 TN elections, giving AIADMK an added fillip.

While it is as yet unclear which political party Vijay will support, the Young Leader has spoken in no uncertain terms about his intention to serve the people. His fans will argue that his intentions are good. But they are also very clearly political. And as far as TN is concerned, that’s both problematic, and traditional.

As our Thalaivar Rajinikanth would say, TN is in for a ‘Happy Deepavali Folks’.

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