Tamil Nadu’s MGR Sparked South’s Hero-Turned-Politician Trend

Many of South India’s heroes, like Pawan Kalyan, Upendra & Kamal Haasan, will be facing a litmus test in 2019 polls.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Tamil Nadu’s late superstar and  politician MGR used for representational purposes.
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In 1972, when Karunanidhi expelled MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, a new movement in the history of Indian politics was born. MGR, the onscreen hero who fought for the poor, took his screen image to real life politics – an image that helped him remain as chief minister of Tamil Nadu till his death in 1987.

After a decade in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, it took N Taraka Rama Rao, popularly known as NTR, just nine months to turn himself from a ‘mythological hero’ to the chief minister of the state.

He launched his party in March 1982, and by January 1983, NTR had become the first non-Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Demigods of Yore

Those were the times when cinema halls were the most frequented weekend haunts, and few homes boasted of TV sets. Radio and newspapers were the only doors to the world outside. The political situations in both the cases of MGR and NTR favoured their arrival on the big stage. Congress was in power in Andhra Pradesh till NTR made a clean sweep with the ‘cycle symbol’ in 1982, and MGR dethroned the DMK’s legacy in Tamil Nadu.

Amidst these circumstances, it was the ‘fans’ who took their heroes arrival into politics to every street and every village. These fans spread the message to the commoners and projected their reel life heroes as real-life messiahs who would fight for the common man.

Their political paths were different, but MGR and NTR shared a common feature – their demigod status among the masses. Their charisma and awe-inspiring speeches made millions go crazy, and they used that frenzy to drive their political stints.

How the Mighty Fall

MGR and NTR were both larger than the party they started and were even considered autocratic. Despite all their critics, together MGR and NTR left behind a legacy that’s beyond the parties they started; a legacy that made politics virtually the next career plan for most of the celebrated South Indian heroes.

The last two decades saw popular Telugu actor Chiranjeevi raised to the pinnacle of stardom, and he equally enjoys a demigod status in the region. During the early 2000s, especially after the release of the film Tagore, political parties realised the charisma of the ‘megastar’ and openly offered him a ticket. Fans of Chiranjeevi across the state carried out campaigns and padayatras requesting their hero to come into active politics.

Media, especially electronic media, carried out many features and shows about Chiranjeevi’s political entry. With much fanfare and hype, Chiranjeevi made an entry into politics with his new outfit in 2008. Even though his party managed just a few seats, it was able to split votes and garnered 16.32 percent of the votes in the 2009 elections.

Dreams of thousands of fans and predictions from media houses that took Chiranjeevi’s political image to new heights, were immediately grounded with the election results and then sunk within the next 36 months. Another popular hero from Tamil Nadu, Vijaykanth’s DMDK party as an alternate to the AIADMK and the DMK could not succeed to power.

What Keeps ‘Heroes’ Across Time Going?

In terms of fan following and craze, all heroes have enjoyed similar benefits and status during their respective periods of glory.

All these ‘demigods’ across time and culture share one thing in common – the undying support of their fans. Right from MGR to Kamal Haasan, every ‘hero’ took the plunge (into politics) not because there was a political vacuum or their film career had reached its peak, but because of their support base.

These ‘fan clubs’ have been the biggest strength for NTR and MGR and their support base translated from their film careers into their political stints. In the case of Chiranjeevi and Vijaykanth, it was proven that fans are not equal to voters during the digital times. Now, what does the future hold for the upcoming filmstar-turned-politician?

Pawan Kalyan in Andhra Pradesh and Upendra in Karnataka shall face the litmus test of the ballot box in 2019, while Kamal Haasan too has a fight to fight, having just launched his party from Madurai. However, all eyes will now be on Rajinikanth, possibly the biggest superstar of South Indian cinema.

He has already announced his idea of ‘spiritual politics’ and it’s only a matter of time before the party takes off. With the general elections fast approaching, politics in South India will not only be interesting for the region, but as these ‘matinee idols’ emerge as possible movers, shakers and kingmakers, the Centre too will be impacted.

This is what makes the Indian democracy vibrant and unpredictable. Come 2019, it will be ‘showtime’ – but in The Great Indian Election, we won’t see movie stars, we’ll see star politicians this time.

(The writer is an alumnus of IRMA and currently a scholar pursuing Masters in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He has worked in the development sector for 8 years, prior to which, he was a full-time farmer. He has represented India at the Commonwealth Youth Forum 2015, and has been selected as a youth delegate at the World Bank Youth Forum 2017. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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