THE IMAGE TRAP
M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics
M S S Pandian
196 pages; Rs 548
It's easy to overstate a politician's hold over the masses in retrospect. M G Ramachandran's status among his followers, though, was truly surreal. They routinely killed themselves in large numbers when he fell ill or faced political difficulties. They often put their own bodies under extreme duress as an offering to him in ways that popular Hinduism is practised in Tamil Nadu. The party he formed is still the largest party by some distance in the state; a significant section of the electorate still votes for MGR 30 years after his death.
M S S Pandian's book-long essay The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics, originally published in 1992 and now republished by Sage after the author's untimely death, remains the finest exploration of the subject. The 2015 version retains the original text almost entirely; Mr Pandian's critique of society, however, holds true just as well.
The essay starts by reminding us MGR as a chief minister was authoritarian and ran a crudely vengeful administration where police atrocities were rampant. Ministers were accused of serious corruption. And MGR went back on his core campaign promise of prohibition. Then comes Mr Pandian's less-convincing Marxist evisceration of MGR's economic policies: the beneficiaries of populism were landed farmers, while the landless labourers bore a higher share of the tax burden through increased indirect taxes, especially on liquor. Poorly targeted populism is something we now dismiss as lack of imagination and not as a conspiracy against the poor; Mr Pandian imagines it to be one. After all, almost every politician in the country has since tried to copy that electoral recipe of free power to farmers. We also have the benefit now of knowing Tamil Nadu broke out as a high-performing state in the last 30 years largely because of gains in literacy and health; MGR's Nutritious Noon Meal Scheme had a direct effect on both.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's theory that the subaltern classes use a set of cultural presuppositions as common sense when dealing with the world forms the prism through which Mr Pandian explores MGR's filmography and politics. It's a compelling framework and the author uses it skillfully to explain the multiple fractures of Tamil society, especially its underclass, as they relate to building the myth of MGR. In the past 20 years, this analysis has only been strengthened, if the moral universe of Rajinikanth's filmography is taken to be evidence of any sort.
Tamil ballads, before there were movies, challenged the moral economy of the existing order as Mr Pandian's small but representative sample shows. Their subaltern and mostly male protagonists often copulated with women from higher castes - sometimes using force - and won battles by leading armies. Both of which were impossible in real life. Their revolt was against a system and the ballads stayed true to that. MGR's filmography borrowed the concept of revolution and vicarious living from the ballads, with a liberal infusion of Dravidian ideology; but the films did not challenge the existing order. An oppressive land-owning villain was a rotten apple in MGR films. The subaltern hero took that villain on and won. But conserved the existing order. The landlord still retained his land and position in power structure; he just stops being the villainous kind.
The old ballads had another ugly unpalatable aspect: bodies of women whom the protagonist copulated with were battlefields on which the revolution was staged. MGR's women, on the other hand, all of them upper-caste, fall in love with the hero because of his supreme virtues. They are, as Mr Pandian observes in film after film, given the illusion of choice for the first time; which was just enough revolution tailored for the target audience. The implication being no revolution can succeed by definition; the thing that stands a chance is conservatism couched in revolutionary semiotics. Quite a depressing thought.
The other bedrock of MGR's political support, older women, were deified as mothers for whom MGR was their ideal son. The careful image-building and targeted erasing of the chasm between on-screen persona and reality reminds us of a time when there were fewer variables to control. Which is possibly why there was no answer to MGR from Bollywood, given Hindi-speaking regions were much larger and, therefore, too many variables even back then. As Tamil society has evolved in the time since, its degrees of complexity have increased. No one person, however charismatic and capable, has since straddled both subaltern cultural semiotics and politics at once. Rajinikanth and J Jayalalithaa, both extremely talented in their own ways, have now essentially split these two roles between them and a few others.
The benefit of hindsight points us to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)'s resilience as well. The kind of dominance that MGR enjoyed and deployed in the 1970s' and the 1980s' Tamil polity would have destroyed most other political parties in most other electoral democracies. That the DMK's vote share moved between a narrow band in those years and the party managed to come back intact is a lesson parties in political opposition today would do well to remember.