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India in Transition

The Tamil Voter: Savvy or Starstruck?

Radha Kumar
July 8, 2024

In 1977, when M. G. Ramachandran, a megastar in Tamil cinema, was sworn in as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he became the first Indian actor to hold that prestigious office. Over the next few decades, M.G.R. and others with deep connections to the film world continued to hold the state’s top elected office. Notable names included M. Karunanidhi, a five-term Chief Minister and screenwriter, and J. Jayalalithaa, a six-time Chief Minister who gained fame in the film world starring opposite M.G.R., with whom she also had a close personal relationship. During Jayalalithaa’s first term in office (1991-96), Tamil Nadu’s urban landscape was inundated with larger-than-life-size cutouts of her in various imaginative guises. Growing up in Chennai, a kilometer from her residence and 300 meters from the head office of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), I saw hundreds of images of the Chief Minister flanked by her supporters, atop a lion as the Hindu Goddess Durga, as Madonna with child, and so forth. Around this time, fans of Tamil actress Khushbu Sundar built a temple for her—to much criticism across the nation—cementing the Tamil film audience’s reputation as inordinately star-struck. Khushbu’s active political career—she moved from the AIADMK’s regional rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), to the major national parties, the Congress, and most recently, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—has further reinforced the perception that the Tamil voter is readily swayed by adulation for film personas. Today, it is almost an axiom: cinema is the path to success in Tamil Nadu politics. A facile corollary: the Tamil voter is politically uninformed and easily manipulated.

Consider, however, the unsuccessful political careers of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, arguably the two biggest stars of Tamil cinema in the years after M.G.R. Since his introduction to the industry as a child actor in the 1960s, Haasan has acted in over two hundred films traversing genres and languages, though the lion’s share has been in Tamil. His films have won critics’ awards and been box office successes. In 2018, he launched his own political party, the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM). Yet, despite his stardom, the party lost every seat it contested in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and in the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. The list of losses included Haasan himself, who lost his South Coimbatore constituency to the BJP, then and now a relatively insignificant player in Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. MNM finally allied with the dominant DMK in the 2024 parliamentary elections to present a united opposition to the BJP; the DMK alliance swept the polls.

Meanwhile, Rajinikanth, an actor with likely more star power but quite different political ideology, has also experienced political disappointment over the past few decades. Known as the “Superstar,” with a fan following extending beyond Tamil Nadu (to Japan, in particular), Rajinikanth made news in the 1990s for his frequent clashes with the then-Chief Minister, a neighbor of his. In fact, the star’s open denouncement of Jayalalithaa may well have contributed to the DMK’s return to power in the 1996 Assembly elections. Over the next two decades, Rajinikanth kept testing the waters, but never quite waded into the political pool. When he finally did, with the formation of the Rajini Makkal Manram in 2018, the experiment proved remarkably short-lived. The party contested no elections and wound down its operations in 2021. Haasan’s and Rajinikanth’s cult appeal as film stars has not been able to overcome the lack of clarity in their parties’ ideologies and their inexperience as career politicians.

My goal here is not to explain why Rajinikanth and Haasan have not succeeded in politics, but rather to emphasize the complexity of Tamil politics. Certainly, there are and have long been ties between Tamil cinema and politics (studied by Theodore Baskaran, Robert Hardgrave Jr., K. Sivathamby, M.S.S. Pandian, Sarah Dickey, Selvaraj Velayutham, Preminda Jacob, and many others), but these cannot be reduced to the cinematic success of individuals or to their adulation by the so-called masses. To do so undermines the political savvy of the Tamil voter and the political acumen of Tamil Nadu’s dominant parties. In reality, Tamil Nadu’s electorate has shown considerable discretion in its support of film personalities and has largely rejected Rajinikanth and Haasan as political leaders, though not as actors.

Admittedly, a few contemporary actors have achieved moderate success in their political careers, including Vijayakanth, Sarathkumar and Radhika Sarathkumar, who have won elections and formed their own political parties. But even their successes have been quite limited, certainly in comparison to figures like M.G.R. Vijayakanth’s party won only a few Assembly seats, while Sarathkumar’s party recently merged with the BJP. Khushbu has been a member of different parties but has never won an election. Vijay has only recently entered the fray, and many current stars—Ajith Kumar, Suriya, Jyothika, Karthi, Nayanthara, Trisha Krishnan, and Dhanush—have stayed away from politics. Many of them have turned instead to humanitarian causes, reflecting changing relationships between star power and public engagement. The enduring trope about film being an easy path to political power in Tamil Nadu would in fact appear to pertain to an earlier generation of politicians, specifically M. Karunanidhi, M.G.R., and Jayalalithaa. The fact that two of them had particularly long careers, lasting into the twenty-first century, perhaps keeps the trope alive. But these politicians’ successes can neither be reduced to nor divorced from their film careers.

Significantly, these early leaders’ careers can be traced back to E.V. Ramaswamy Periyar’s Self-Respect movement, which radically challenged Hinduism’s caste and gender hierarchies and asserted the cultural autonomy of Tamil (or Dravida) Nadu from Hindi-speaking north India in the first half of the twentieth century. When India transitioned to a democracy, C.N. Annadurai, one of the foremost members of the movement, established the DMK as a political party that could participate in electoral politics. The AIADMK, the other major party in Tamil Nadu, was formed by a breakaway group in the DMK, led by M.G.R., in the early 1970s. In other words, the two key players in Tamil Nadu’s politics drew their political ideology and method from the same wellspring. Their propaganda method centered on cinema, which in the 1950s and ‘60s, was a rapidly growing medium that could reach rural spaces and illiterate audiences, very effective for electoral politics. In this era, the DMK consciously used film to spread its ideology, mounting critiques of religious superstition and caste/class hierarchies and even inserting its symbol (the rising sun in red and black) in them. Additionally, the formation of fan clubs for individual stars, such as M.G.R., Sivaji Ganesan, and Jayalalithaa, facilitated the mobilization of a party cadre. Club members, organized by locality, campaigned for parties and often entered politics themselves.    

We also need to consider the careers of the individuals who spanned both domains. For instance, in the world of cinema, M. Karunanidhi wrote a fiery script lampooning social evils in the pathbreaking 1952 film Parasakthi. In those years, as the MLA for Trichy, he agitated for the rights of landless agrarian laborers. His activity in one field cannot be disentangled from the other: both espoused similar politics that stemmed from his position in the DMK. The political success of film personalities in these decades thus stemmed from deep institutional ties between cinema and DMK politics, not simply their adulation by a seemingly ignorant voting population. Admittedly, by the 1960s, M.G.R.’s film career showed a dilution of the DMK ideology and its centering in an individual as much as in a message. But his films were still closely linked to the party’s messages and symbols. Outside his role in films, M.G.R. actively pursued political work such as charity projects and public appearances. Since this early generation of politicians who systematically used cinema for political propaganda, Tamil Nadu has not seen a single figure with spectacular success in film and politics.

Finally, links between film and politics are by no means unique to Tamil Nadu and its neighbors (veteran actor N.T. Rama Rao founded the Telugu Desam Party and was thrice Chief Minister of neighboring Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s and ‘90s, adding to popular depictions of “South India” as uniquely vulnerable to star appeal). The list of crossovers in other parts of the country is long and cuts across party lines. The political careers of Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra, Jaya Bachchan, Urmila Matondkar, and Kangana Ranaut, to name just a few, suggests that star power also affects politics north of the Vindhyas.

More broadly, intersections between the worlds of film and politics can be explained not by the cultural specificity (or backwardness) of any one region, but by conceptual ties between mass media, society, and politics in the modern world. These ties have been in evidence from the early twentieth century to the present; they span the Global South and the North, dictatorships and democracies. Thus, one study argues that Algerian cinema played an important role in the country’s 1950s war for independence from France and in how it is remembered today, while another shows that cinema acts as a site of contestation between conservative and liberal political forces in contemporary USA. Films aided fascist regimes in Germany and Italy but they have also helped resist authoritarian rule in Korea and Paraguay. The ties between cinema and politics are complex and cannot be reduced to star-worship or cultural peculiarity. Indian voters have repeatedly taught pundits not to undermine them, most recently in the 2024 national elections when, defying poll predictions, the BJP came back to power with considerably reduced strength. It is time to recognize that Tamil Nadu’s politics have changed over the past two decades, that the direct association between cinema and political organization that characterized the era after independence no longer holds, and that the Tamil voter is no pawn.

Radha Kumar is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Syracuse University.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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