THE IMAGE TRAP - The India Saga




“ images”” alt=””images”” />The late M G Ramachandran who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for eleven years from…


images”” alt=””images”” />The late M G Ramachandran who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for eleven years from 1977-87 was a modern day political myth. He was eulogised as the undisputed patron saint of the poor in the southern state and lampooned by his opponents. MGR as he was popularly known was not merely a political personality but also a film star at the same time. His early popularity rested substantially on his successful roles in films. 

Author M S S Pandian, Professor at the School of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, draws attention to his book — THE IMAGE TRAP:M G Ramachandran in films and Politics — being an essay written primarily as an exercise in self clarification. He has been puzzled and pained by MGR’s unparalleled success. 

Under his dispensation profiteers of different kinds like liquor barons, real estate magnates and ubiquitous ruling party politicians prospered greatly. On the other hand the poor who constituted the mainstay of MGR’s support suffered unbearable misery. The well honed police machinery in Tamil Nadu with its characteristic ruthlessness and MGR’s open blessings snuffed out even the mildest of dissent from subalterns whether they were workers, poor peasants or professionals, such as school teachers and government servants. 

His rule also witnessed a considerable dilution of the cultural gains due to the relentless struggles waged by the Dravidian movement during its early progressive phase. In place of the earlier rationalism, religious revivalism now reigned supreme. Only his death in 1987 could dislodge him from the centrestage of Tamil politics and give a fresh lease of life to his political rivals. 

Even death could not undo him fully. This book seeks to unravel the complex terrain of Tamil politics. The politics of hegemony thrived in the wake of proliferating body of literature on MGR’s hegemonic sway. This has proved an important source of data to explore how MGR was popularly represented among the common people. 

These constructed biographies are carefully constituted popular narratives which dovetail his real life with his screen image, as if there were no difference between the two. Finally it traces the relationship between the material/economic conditions of the subaltern classes and the rise of the MGR phenomenon. 

When he died on October 24, 1987 Madras city witnessed one of the world’s largest funerals. No less than two million people travelled long distances from villages formed the funeral procession. 

In other places those who could not attend the actual funeral organised mock funerals in which images of MGR were taken out and buried with full rituals. Thousands of young men even tonsured their heads, 31 of his desolate followers, unable to contain their grief committed suicide. 

The political devotion of the subaltern classes was not because he had pursued radical economic policies during his rule. There were no major structural changes in the economy which only increased the suffering of the poor. The AIADMK government of MGR thrived on taxing the poor and the middle classes to profit the rich, especially the rural rich. The wealthier classes remained more or less untaxed. 

The lopsided economic interventions were glaring. There was economic misery all round in Tamil Nadu. Well over 40 per cent of the people in the state continued to languish below the officially defined poverty line and over time the situation did not improve. 

In short MGR’s regime was one which enjoyed massive support from the poor but served the interests of the rich. His government was also a brutal police raj. In the late 1980s the press throughout the country carried reports of how the police were combing the North Arcot and Dharmapuri districts in northern Tamil Nadu and hunting down activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninists). Nearly 15 activists were killed in cold blood for taking up the cause of farm labourers in these dry and backward districts, and for defying a few unruly and violent landlords. 

MGR defended his policemen in public without any compunction. When the Madras High Court passed strictures against the policemen for taking law into their own hands and killing CPI (ML) activists, MGR decorated the police officials with medals for ‘valour and distinguished service.’ 

Police brutality became part of everyday life  in Tamil Nadu. The data from 1977 to 1981 shows that once every ten days one undertrial died behind bars. MGR also constantly tried to browbeat the media which exposed the corruption, administrative lapses and police oppression that had come to characterise his rule. 

A few months before his death, the AIADMK government passed a bill to curb the screening of films critical of legislators and ministers. The bill was introduced in haste on the morning of 11 May 1987, the last day of assembly session, and was adopted that same evening relaxing the rules of notice. The Act armed the MGR government with powers to ban films which had been certified by the Central Board of Film Certification. 

The film scripted by M Karunanidhi was quite critical of the MGR rule. In actuality, however, MGR enjoyed a stable, if not growing, popularity among the poor in Tamil Nadu throughout his tenure in office and earlier as well. 

The party founded by him polled a third of the total votes in every election and his followers exhibited almost a personal bond with him. MGR successful film career spanned four decades and 136 films, earned him one of the largest fan following in the world. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between the medium of cinema and politics in the state. 

Driven by poverty MGR began his acting career as a child theatre artist. He acted during the late 1920s in nationalist plays. It was only in the 1950s that he was seen in social roles on the screen achieving recognition. A characteristic MGR role was that of a working man attempting to combat everyday oppression. 

Power is seen as all pervasive and undifferentiated while its victims are always meek, beaten and share their common suffering. MGR’s role as an independent dispenser of justice unfolds with regularity with emphasis on stunt sequences. This gives his starrers the flavour of action films which is an expression of his struggle against social evil, oppression. 

The authority that MGR appropriates on the screen relates to women. In MGR’s films the hero often starts off as a poor man but ends up marrying a rich woman, or as a lower caste man marrying an upper caste woman. If powerful villains come in his way it is the subaltern MGR who invariably succeeds. 

The language that MGR uses is not one of submission but of authority. At least with regard to three aspects he brings it to the fore in films encompassing his right to dispense justice, exercise control, education and access to women thereby appropriating the authority of the elite. 

The ubiquitous and overarching structure of patriarchy in Tamil Nadu is reaffirmed, time and again, through MGR films. Moments of freedom that these films offer women spectators are necessarily contained within this structure of patriarchy. While MGR was as successful in politics as in films, Sivaji Ganesan failed as a politician despite his political ambitions and indisputable star status. 

MGR’s supposed real life invincibility and eternal youth were, time and again, constructed by various kinds of media; so much so that a degree of immortality was conferred on him in real life as well as the screen. 

The DMK repeatedly brought charges of corruption against MGR but failed to gain any substantial political mileage. MGR thrived on unaccounted money and at one point admitted that he had disclosed Rs 80 lakhs of black money under the voluntary disclosure scheme. Pandian provides rare insight of MGR the actor and the crowd puller as a larger than life regional politicians.

Author:M S S Pandian
Publisher:Sage Publications


(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)