Kollywood And The Quest For Political Box Office
Actors Vijay and Suriya court controversy ahead of their films' releasePhoto credit: imdb.com

Kollywood And The Quest For Political Box Office

While Vijay and Suriya may court controversy for political or box office mileage, stars can make an impact only if they meet the people

It is never a dull moment in Tamil cinema and Tamil Nadu politics. With the two being somewhat joined at the hip, it is never easy being a politician or a top actor in Kollywood.

Actor Vijay’s veiled attack on the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government during promotional events of his upcoming film Bigil and Suriya’s stance on organic farming and other dialogues in his latest film Kaappan, have resulted in plenty of debate.

In fact, on Monday, State Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar said that actors were unnecessarily blaming the government, and went so far as to say – “Actors are welcome to start their own parties. They attack us because they have invested big in their films and they want the movies to run well.”

However, observers say that actors taking a stance is not always an off-screen stunt, aimed at promoting a film. While Vijay has always been seen as someone who will eventually foray into politics, Suriya’s recent off-screen stance, taking head on, issues like the National Education Policy (NEP), are seen as indicators that Suriya will increasingly get involved in issues that affect people. Vishal too did that early on, in films like Sivappathigaram, and tested political waters a few years later.

Ever since the Kollywood template of using cinema to connect with people on a political wavelength was fashioned by former chief minister MG Ramachandran, successive generations of actors have been pointed down to have chosen to take the political road.

However, there is more of static and less of a connection like the one MGR established, says a politician, not wanting to be named. “Tamil cinema today is too full of Dravidian ideologues who do not really know their ideology. That is one reason why such films are not working,” he said.

The ouch-factor when a much-hyped film falls flat is almost instantaneous, thanks to social media and the trolls. And whether it is a carefully constructed image-building exercise, or genuine social concern, the fate is decided by how the film is received.

It is a tougher world now for aspiring star politicians, unlike the 1950s and 1960s. “MGR won over people because his off-screen presence was consistent with his on-screen image,” says independent journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, who tracks both films and politics.

“He started from scratch, worked with the party cadre and leveraged his fan clubs. His real life pictures were always of him eating with the poor, while those of current day stars is a far cry from their celluloid ones,” she adds.

Did not Vijayakanth succeed? Conceding that he connected with people, she however points out that Vijayakanth’s original impact has gone down from an initial high of nearly 11% voteshare.

“He claimed to be an alternative to Dravidian politics. He condemned nepotism. But today his DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) is also a family-run one, and Tamil audiences are very politically aware. When you talk of organic farming in a mass, commercial film it is probably a ‘click-bait’ attempt to hook people’s interest. The dedicated fans of stars also have these huge expectations and socially relevant issues fits right there,” she says.

“But many will want to know if Suriya is serious about organic farming in real life as well, just as he has made education accessible to the underprivileged through his Agaram Foundation,” she adds.

With social media emerging as a vibrant media, stars are constantly under scrutiny. No one can make a tremendous impact like MGR did, with cinema alone. Actor Kamal Hassan seems to have understood the power of interacting with people at large and has gained tremendous traction.

R Kannan, author of the two books MGR: A Life and Anna: The Life And Times Of CN Annadurai agrees and says public life is not like shooting a movie.

“Even MGR and NT Rama Rao in Andhra had to sweat it out in the political arena. Today social media is almost as influential as media. The expectation for a relatively consistent record of public engagement is still a key element for any actor to make an impression.

MGR was particular about his image and his producers, associates and writers helped with this. Of course, we live in an era where the screen image does not have to be clinically good.

Rajinikanth did not shy away from controversial roles in films like Moondru Mudichu and Johnny. The same is true of Kamal Haasan too. However, these are two superstars who have raised the expectation that they wish to serve. Suriya and Vishal are somewhat junior artistes in this regard.

Vijay falls in between, and his movies, more often than not, have a message. Films are still relevant and could make an impact. But to cause social change or create a leader, films alone will not do.

Otherwise Shah Rukh Khan would be more popular and influential than Narendra Modi. Prakash Raj is a perfect example of how people see actors,” he adds.

Politics calls for a different kind of energy level, and ground level work on a consistent basis, points out Kavitha. “Rajinikanth missed his cue to political entry in 1996, but after the passing away of both J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, he indicated a willingness to fill the ‘vacuum’.

However, AIADMK cadre have come to terms with their leader, while the transition has been smooth in DMK, with MK Stalin at the helm. Vijay, Suriya etc may be competition only for the next generation of politicians such as Udayanidhi,” she feels.

Meanwhile, movie lovers would always welcome good movies and actors should pay attention to everything from storyline to screenplay, she feels.

Going to the movies is a cultural habit, controversy or not, says anthropologist Rajan Kurai Krishnan, who also authored a book, Kadhanayaganin Maranam.

“MGR’s films succeeded because there was a social need in those days, which is just not there anymore. Some may try the concept of creating a controversy over a film in order to establish a hero, but the idea of good versus evil has an enduring appeal,” he adds, referencing the huge success of Marvel’s Avengers movies worldwide.

“Our Ambulimama comics enthralled successive generations. Directors like Vetrimaaran, whose upcoming film Asuran with Dhanush is generating media buzz, prove that content is king. It is just people love their superheroes and mass heroes. After all, don’t we all turn to watch a Baasha, decades after its release?”

Tamil people will always love cinema and their heroes. However, if they want to transition from box office success to ballot box victory, it calls for a lot of action on ground.

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