Actor to Minister? But Udhayanidhi Is Far From Karunanidhi & Social Cinema

Udhaynidhi is the son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and the grandson of former CM M Karunanidhi.

Actor to Minister? But Udhayanidhi Is Far From Karunanidhi & Social Cinema
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Udhayanidhi Stalin could soon become a minister in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu.

He is, however, not just an MLA but also a noted film personality – an actor whose films have recently taken a subtle political detour, different from that of his grandfather, veteran politician and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi.

What has Udhayanidhi’s political arch in films been?


Why the Interest in Udhayanidhi?

For starters, let’s answer why anyone should take an interest in Udhayanidhi’s filmography when he is quite obviously a legacy child – the son of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and grandson of Karunanidhi, who was also a veteran screenwriter. Here’s why.

A still of M Karunanidhi

(Photo: Twitter)

Before 18 November, the date on which Udhayanidhi’s latest film Kalaga Thalaivan (2022) released, a private screening was arranged for his father Stalin, who, according to reports, was “all praise for the film that dealt with a social issue.”

Kollywood was then abuzz with the obvious conclusion that the film – which depicted a hero rising against corporate fraud – was socially relevant to further Udhayanidhi’s political prospects. Was this a step in the direction taken by M Karunanidhi who used the medium of cinema, in his days as a script writer, to communicate the DMK's political message to the audience? 

A still of TN CM MK Stalin along with Udhayanidhi and director Magizh Thirumeni from the private screening of Kalaga Thalaivan

(Photo: Twitter)

The Quint dug deeper and found that Udhayanidhi’s films have indeed changed over the years. From being a romantic hero, he has moved on to mature themes related to caste and class.

But Udhayanidhi’s political statements in films have been subtle and not the same as that of Karunanidhi, who wrote a monologue that mesmerized millions when deftly delivered by Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakthi (1952).

A still from Parasakthi.

(Photo: Twitter)

Are Udhayanidhi’s films and politics intertwined? In Tamil Nadu, a state with a long history of films with social messages, can Udhayanidhi make a mark like Karunanidhi did?


What Strings Together Udhayanidhi’s Films and Politics?

When the MLA turned 45 years of age on 27 November 2022, Tamil Nadu School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi, who is also a close friend of Udhayanidhi, said, "Next year, Udhayanidhi will celebrate his birthday as a (state) minister." On his part, Udhayanidhi has promised that after his upcoming film Maamannan, he will focus “only on politics and the people of Tamil Nadu.”

It seemed, like Karunanidhi, Udhayanidhi too wanted to put his films behind and move on. Karunanidhi had place his political life ahead of his film writing, from the 1970s on. Similarly, Udhayanidhi has paved a way to transition to a politics centred life. Here’s how.

Udhaynidhi Stalin's stills from his romcom films

(Photo: Twitter/ Altered by The Quint)

While Udhayanidhi began his film career as an actor in light-hearted romantic comedies such as Oru Kal Oru Kannadi (2012), Idhu Kathirvelan Kadhal (2014), and Nanbenda (2015), he moved on to films which have subtle political messages, akin to his real life role as a politician.

His last two releases, Kalaga Thalaivan (2022) and Nenjukku Needhi (2022), gained attention for their political undertones. 

Kalaga Thalaivan (2022), meaning rebel leader, depicted a corporate takeover that affected the lives of ordinary people. The film even commented on political parties influenced by corporate giants.

Poster of Kalaga Thalaivan.

(Photo: Twitter)

In Nenjukku Needhi (2022), the official Tamil remake of Ayushman Khurana’s Article 15, the title was borrowed from Karunanidhi’s book 'Nenjukku Needhi' (conscientious justice).

In the film, Udhayanidhi’s character stood for Dalit politics and supported reservation. The character even opposed ‘imposition of Hindi’ on Tamil people, a trope that the MLA’s party, the DMK, has been relying on. The film referred to S Anitha, the student who died by suicide allegedly while opposing National Entrance cum Eligibility Test (NEET).

A still from Nenjukku Needhi.

(Photo: Twitter)

In a nutshell, Udhayanidhi’s recent films seemed to have been tailormade to suit his political personality.

Also, his upcoming venture with filmmaker Mari Selvaraj is expected to be political in nature as the director is known for his anti-caste films Pariyerum Perumal, backed by director Pa Ranjith, and Karnan, starring Dhanush.

However, Udhayanidhi’s grandfather had taken a different line altogether. Kalaignar, as Karunanidhi was popularly known, had dramatically changed the cinematic language of Tamil films in his scripts. While Tamil Nadu was known for its popular mythologies, Kalaignar mooted social cinema, readily packaged for the masses.


What's Between Tamil Cinema, Dravidian Politics, Karunanidhi and Udhayanidhi?

Data scientist and political analyst RS Neelakantan said, “Cinema as a weapon of political messaging was more or less invented by the DMK, at least in India.”

Tamil cinema lashed out at Brahminism, class oppression, and cronyism as Karunanidhi wrote for the screen and popular actors such as Sivaji Ganesan enacted the scenes, delivering each line to the heartbeats of the audience.

For instance, one of Karunanidhi’s acclaimed work Manthiri Kumari (1950), adapted from the Tamil novel Kundalakesi, rallied against caste. Kannagi, the lead character in his film Poompuhar (1964), an adaptation of the novel Silapathigaram, was called a feminist icon.

A still from Poompuhar.

(Photo: Twitter)

As the whistles resounded in theatres, the DMK sometimes came to power, but otherwise lost to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. AIADMK too had veteran actors-turned-politicians – MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa. 

Meanwhile, powerful telling of people’s stories remained an important aspect of Tamil cinema.

It is to be noted that Tamil cinema did have its share of regressive films, which emphasised on the supremacy of some dominant castes including the Thevars. The DMK and the AIADMK still pander to the Thevar vote-base.  

But, social cinema, arguably, was recently reinvented by directors including Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj, who changed the game. Thanks to these directors, Tamil cinema now has powerful depictions of anti-caste politics, told for an OTT audience spread beyond the confines of Tamil Nadu.

Jai Bhim is the phrase that got me here, says Pa Ranjith.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Hence, Udhayanidhi will have to do a lot more than a few politically inclined films to rise to prominence among those making Kollywood’s social cinema.

RS Neelakantan said, “The question is: ‘Does Udhayanidhi have the ability and artistic merit to pull it off?’ A polemic doesn’t become good art just because one agrees with its politics. And that’s the question Udhayanidhi Stalin needs to consider. Not every screenwriter has the potential to become M Karunanidhi. And not every actor can become Sivaji Ganesan. That takes serious ability.”

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