New Delhi: All Indian states have their fair share of larger-than-life figures, but Tamil Nadu stands in a league of its own when it comes to the cult of personality, thanks to the seamless mix of film and politics. Both J Jayalalithaa and he political mentor MG Ramachandran (MGR) honed their public image on the silver screen and transferred it smoothly on to politics.
Whether in cinema or in politics, or those who straddled both, a larger than life image was crucial. This ensured that public emotion was with the leader in times of joy (winning elections), sadness (ill-health) or turbulence (court cases or corruption cases). The profusion of public sentiments – visuals of wailing men, women beating their chests and reports of fan-suicides – every time a leader is rushed to the hospital explains this partly.
Going by the grain of Tamil Nadu politics, the Thalaivar (leader) or Thalaivi (female leader, in Jayalalithaa's case) is not just a figure basking in his or her celebrity status. He or she also hones their skills assiduously as an orator, a person of letters, a playwright or just simply a model person for others to emulate.
CN Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was known for his oratorical and writing skills, scripting several Tamil plays which were made into movies; his protégé M. Karunanidhi honed his skills as a writer of poems, screenplays, novels, dialogues and film songs, which extolled the virtues of "Tamil culture" and laid the foundations for the rise of MGR.
The cult that MGR spawned, first in the movies and then in politics, lives to this day. He was not exactly a man of letters, but was a powerful public speaker whose opening line "En Rathathin Rathamana Tamizh Makkale (People of Tamil Nadu, the blood of my blood...) was nothing short of electric. Transferring his onscreen persona into public life, he played up his image of the "savior" and reaped electoral dividends.
In fact, Jayalalithaa was a direct beneficiary of this.
"MGR's was the most important cult of personality in Tamil Nadu," Sampath Kumar, a veteran journalist who now teaches radio news at the Asian College of Journalism told News18. "He did this by cultivating the image of a good man, a savior of the poor," he added.
MGR never smoked or drank on screen, always rescued the damsel in distress (often played by Jayalalithaa), and appealed directly to the sentiments of the common man. The image was carefully constructed by M Karunanidhi, who wrote many of the film scripts.
In 1977 MGR became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and cemented himself in the psyche of his fans (political and cinematic) as an icon. He transferred the 'Good man' screen image to politics by enacting measures such as the highly popular mid-day meals scheme and special buses for women.
Sampath Kumar said that in some villages in Tamil Nadu, people still refuse to believe that MGR is dead, and voted for Jayalalithaa as his heir.
Modern day Tamil Nadu's political culture is intimately tied to Dravidian politics, in which Karunanidhi, MGR and Annadurai all earned their spurs. The Dravidian movement was forged on promoting Tamil language and culture, opposing both Brahmin domination and the imposition of Hindi. Tamil poetry, prose and cinema were used liberally to create an emotional bond and forge a Dravidian identity to mobilise people.
The predictable flip side then is that Tamil Nadu has become bereft of issues and centered instead on personality. Not only that, inner party democracy in the State's political parties were sacrificed at the altar of the leadership cult.
"In theory there are democratic structures in the parties, but in practice it is the leader who calls all the shots," Dr. C. Lakshmanan, an Associate Professor at the Madras School of Development Studies, who has studied Tamil Nadu's political and cinematic cultures told News18. "Politics in the state is not issue centric, but leader centric," he added.
Jayalalithaa is no more and Karunanidhi is over 90 years old. How politics in the state evolves now remains to be seen. But don't rule out strong personalities in the future.