In India, acting like politicians

SUN JOURNAL

Tamil Nadu: In this movie-mad southern state, actors position themselves as heroes in film after film and then leap into elected office.

September 16, 2004|By Nicholas Riccardi | Nicholas Riccardi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRAS, India - It all began at one of those gatherings in the countryside where villagers turn out by the thousands to ask movie star Vijaykanth - known as the John Wayne of Tamil cinema - to name their babies.

After selecting some names, Vijaykanth told his adoring supporters that he deplored the political situation in their impoverished state of Tamil Nadu, pointedly wondering how the son of the leader of the PMK, one of the region's big political parties, just got appointed the country's health minister.

With that, the battle was on. PMK cadres tore down the life-size cutouts of Vijaykanth that adorn the boulevards of the capital of this movie-mad state and marched outside a college that was founded by the action hero.

Vijaykanth's fans - uniform-clad loyalists who have sworn an oath of obedience to the actor and breathlessly await his much-postponed decision on his political future - responded in kind. They brawled in the streets with the PMK, and burned effigies of the party chief and his son.

Such is politics as usual in Tamil Nadu, where cinema, populism, hero worship and the Tamil flair for the dramatic have blended in a way that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush.

"They're both the same," Sharath Kumar, a Tamil actor and member of Parliament, says of the political and cinema worlds. "In politics you're working hard for the people. And here, in entertainment, you're working hard for the people so they can laugh, relax, forget about their worries."

The state's chief executive, Jayalalitha, is a former leading lady. Her co-star, political mentor and predecessor as chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, known as MGR, held office for 10 years until his death in 1989.

The state's most influential political party was founded by a screenwriter. When actors run for office, their fan club cadres join political ground operations, going door to door and packing polling places.

It all makes for an entertaining political world and a relentlessly populist government in this state, home to the minority Tamil community that has long chafed against the Hindi-speaking political and film capitals of New Delhi and Bombay, or "Bollywood."

Tamil films are rife with stories of humble villagers or working men rising up against entrenched political orders and corrupt institutions - the perfect backdrop for the "power to the people" message carried by nearly every Tamil politician.

In a bid to win popularity, action heroes become social activists, competing to see who can help the downtrodden more. As a result, some of Tamil Nadu's anti-poverty efforts, such as a school lunch program founded by MGR, have become models for poor nations worldwide.

That's not to say actors necessarily make better politicians, said Sadanand Menon, a political analyst based in Madras, which has been officially renamed Chennai. "They have a more hysterical contact with their base," he says, "but otherwise they're as clueless as the next politician."

Jayalalitha has become a divisive figure, notorious for assaulting an auditor in her office and convicted in corruption cases, for illegally approving a hotel project and dubious land purchases during her previous term in the early '90s. Despite the convictions, which were stayed pending appeal, her coalition swept to an overwhelming victory at the polls in 2001.

Many also find something unsavory about the way actors, with the help of party members in the industry, position themselves as heroes in movie after movie and then leap into elected office.

`Cheap popularity'

PMK boss S. Ramadoss is one of those people. His party is one of the few that do not field actor-candidates for elected office, and he has no problem taking them on in public. "They want to get cheap popularity. They make all these youngsters fools through these fan clubs," he says.

Ramadoss is no stranger to feuds with movie stars. This year, the party clashed with another Tamil movie star, Rajnikanth. He and Ramadoss traded insults, PMK cadres attacked theaters where Rajnikanth's new film was showing, and the actor endorsed a slate of legislative candidates against the PMK. The slate lost.

"These actors," Ramadoss says, "they have ruined Tamil Nadu politics for 23 years."

The intermingling of cinema and politics is not new on this sweltering, scrubby tip of the subcontinent. After India became an independent nation in 1947, Tamil Nadu was carved out as a state for the Tamil-speaking population. Many of the fiercely independent Tamils weren't satisfied - especially C.N. Annadurai, a writer who founded the Dravidian Progressive Movement, known as the DMK.

Annadurai first used plays to spread his Marxist-tinged, Tamil nationalist message, but he soon turned to the emerging medium of cinema. One of his party lieutenants - the actor and future chief minister MGR - became the messenger.

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