Among current stars, I was determined to meet M. G. Ramachandran, known as MGR. The reigning star of Tamil films, he was "the idol of the masses" and called the "Indian Reagan.” After more than a hundred successes, combating tyrants in never-never-land, he had decided to enter Madras politics. As with Reagan, his screen image seemed at once to infuse his political persona. He seemed sure of election. To some observers, all this was absurd. His pronouncements were considered simplistic. Asked about his political views, he said he believed in "the best of capitalism combined with the best of communism." He seldom went beyond this and wasn't asked to. His campaign appearances were more like movie premieres than political rallies. They were variety shows with guest stars: movie singers, dancers, and comedians. Film songs rang through the air.
The party he adopted, founded by the screenwriter C. N. Annadurai, was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK. Its name identified it as part of the so-called Dravidian movement. The four languages of South India – Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, and Kannada-were descended from ancient Dravidian roots, having no relation to Sanskrit, from which most languages of northern India had descended. Among these northern languages, by far the most widely spoken was Hindi, the language of almost 200 million people. Another 100 million spoke languages related to Hindi, with common Sanskrit roots, and could learn Hindi without great difficulty. For all these reasons the Indian republic's founding fathers had decreed, in 1947, that Hindi should eventually be the national tongue; it was so designated in the constitution. But the starting date for the official debut of Hindi as the official language was postponed to give time for a learning process. Hindi became compulsory in schools.
But resistance developed, especially among those who spoke Tamil, the parent of the Dravidian languages. To the Tamils, Hindi seemed as strange as Chinese. That a Dravidian party, focusing on this issue, should be started by a screenwriter who had a certain logic. Film people saw it not only as a political issue but as a defense of their market-against the widely distributed Hindi films, already dominant in much of India.
MGR's people assured Babu that he would find time to see us. Meanwhile, it seemed best to see as many MGR films as we could and to learn more about the DMK. The party had had a curious growth, which often seemed more filmic than Dravidian. The DMK had adopted the rising sun as its symbol; black and red were its colors. The party founder, C. N. Annadurai, was widely known as “Anna," meaning older brother. These symbols were occasionally injected into films. When they occurred, the faithful cheered and applauded, setting off a game that became contagious. It led to such sequences as:
MAN I: The night is dark.
MAN 2: Don't worry. The rising sun will soon bring light and good fortune. (AUDIENCE: WILD CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
He: Believe me, Sister!
SHE: I do, Anna, I do! The whole land believes in you and will follow you.
(AUDIENCE: WILD CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
In the casual selection of a sari:
SHE: I always like a black sari, with a red border. (AUDIENCE: WILD CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
Two people lost in a forest:
MAN I: Should we turn north?
MAN 2: No, never! The South is much better. (AUDIENCE: WILD CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
While this was started by party faithful, others soon joined in. Producers having no connection with the party began to introduce the symbols, which seemed to trigger automatic applause, and applause was welcome. Ramachandran, long regarded as nonpolitical, was thought by some to have merely jumped on the bandwagon in adopting the DMK. He did attend its rallies, especially when releasing a new film. He always got a tumultuous reception. His songs rang through the air. DMK rallies seemed essentially movie events.
This had caused a venerable Madras politician, long identified with the Congress Party that had led India to independence, to ask, "How can there be government by actors?" For "actors" he used the most invidious term available--koothadi, or "mountebank." The DMK became accustomed to such ridicule.
People in India often asked me, with a puzzled, troubled look, why on earth I was studying Indian films. Why not Bharata Natyam dancing, or Indian classical music, or the cave temples of the seventh century with their magnificent sculptures and wall paintings-all honored subjects for scholars? But films? It was as though we were focusing on an on-and abetting-some national disgrace. I found the question hard to answer to their satisfaction. But in our book, I knew we would have to answer it.
A recent Ramachandran film, Nadodi Mannan (the vagabond king), featured spectacular swordplay, an MGR specialty for which he was compared to Douglas Fairbanks. In a promotional ceremony for Nadodi Man. nan, an MGR fan club-there were hundreds of them-presented him with a silver sword. The event was featured in fan magazines as indicating the fans' devotion to him. The same magazines told us that the sword had been provided by the financial backer of the film, who had chosen a fan club to present it. This did not seem to dim the wonder of the event.
In several films MGR played brothers--sometimes separated brothers eventually reunited as they expose official corruption and bring down a tyrant. The formula gave MGR a chance to rescue himself. MGR heroes had no vices. They went out of their way to be kind to widows and children. They were helpful in a disaster. But when confronted by corruption, they were furious and implacable in combat.
We noted that fans, fan magazines, and even critics generally referred to stars as "film heroes" and "film heroines" rather than as actors. An actor, having won "film hero" or "film heroine" status, hardly dared to accept roles that blurred the image. Thus actors became stereotypes, requiring scripts built around the stereotypes. The critic Satish Bahadur, founder of the Agra Film Society, observed that the dramaturgy dominating the industry was "firmly interlocked in the stable equilibrium of a vicious circle."
Satish Bahadur, The Context of Indian Pilm Culture Study Material Series No. 1, National Film Archive, Pune, 1978. Word came at last that MGR would see us. He received us in a courtly manner. He was built on the generous proportions favored among Indian stars, especially in the south. His office was decorated with innumerable plaques and cups; he took the time to explain some of them. He was like an athlete exhibiting his trophies. From a wall, he brought down the silver sword presented in recognition of Nadodi Mannan. Settling down, he talked easily about his life.
His father had been principal of a school in Sri Lanka-at the time, Ceylon-where MGR was born. But his father died when MGR was three, causing the family to move to Madras, where he said they lived in poverty. Two sisters and a brother died. At six MGR joined a dramatic troupe, the Madurai Original Boys Company, who trained him in dancing and swordplay. His film career began when he was in his teens. He became a star in his twenties. Since then he had played some hundred hero roles. There were theaters that had, for several years, played only MGR films.
We asked about his interest in politics. How committed was he to a political career? We pointed out that his films were often compared to those of Douglas Fairbanks. Because they seemed escapist to most people, we had not suspected him of political interest.
Escapist? MGR protested. His films were certainly not escapist, he said. He recognized the link to Fairbanks. But "Fairbanks, great as he was, is now forgotten." An acting career, said MGR, must now have a political dimension, and he himself had found that in the Dravidian movement. The roles he played, like the folk hero in Nadodi Mannan, battling a royal usurper, meant something. To his followers, it represented their own struggle against the north, controlled by Hindi-speaking bureaucrats. Already in New Delhi, government positions went mainly to those who spoke Hindi. Their policies favored the north. Under the Congress Party, the south was becoming a sort of colony. The establishment in New Delhi, led by old Brahmins, had turned into a kind of royalty. They were the usurpers who must be overthrown. MGR's followers understood all that. In Nadodi Mannan, the opening song made it clear: “Oh divine Tamil ... who reflect the glories of ancient Dravidians!"
We were surprised by these words. Such ideas did not find expression in film journals. We had not anticipated a rationale of this sort from the “idol of the masses." Yet the fact was that the DMK-that fan club in politics, that absurdity, that band of koothadi-was transforming Indian politics. It had already taken control of the Madras city government and put scores of film people into state legislatures, Soon afterward it sent the party founder, screenwriter Annadurai, brother of the lowly, to the parliament in New Delhi, to breathe defiance in the stronghold of the enemy. An astounding political turn appeared in the making.
We so described it in our book Indian Film, published in 1963 in the United States by Columbia University Press and in India by Orient Longmans. Amid the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, the book appeared to have considerable impact. In 1964 the government established in Pune (previously known as Poona), a National Film Archive, a first effort to preserve India's cinema heritage. Adjoining it, on a tract of land that had once housed a silent film studio, rose the Film Institute of India, training a new generation of filmmakers- from other Third World countries as well as from India. Various states established film subsidies for promising work. So much was happening that it soon seemed to be essential to return to India to prepare, again with Krishnaswamy, an updated edition of Indian Film. This would finally be achieved during my retirement years, in a 1980 Oxford University Press edition. In this, we were able to report that the new wave set in motion by Satyajit Ray was producing a surge of fine work by such directors as Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Mrinal Sen, M. S. Sathyu, Basu Chatterji, B. V. Karanth, and others. We also reported that the dominant cinema of the stars was in no sense jolted by this phenomenon, but careened onward on its own course. In the south, the rise of the "Indian Reagan” remained an ongoing saga.
In many Ramachandran films, the villain had been played by the actor M. R. Radha. Between the villain-actor and the hero-actor, some animosity developed. On a day in 1967, Radha paid Ramachandran a visit. Two shots were fired. Both men were found wounded. Each said the other had fired first; no one believed the villain. He was indicted, convicted, and jailed. MGR languished in a hospital. He was at the time a candidate for the state legislature, and the campaign went on. Campaign posters showed MGR with his head swathed in bandages. Huge crowds kept vigil. His survival seemed to confirm his more-than-human status. He was elected in an unprecedented landslide. In 1977 he became chief minister of the state of Madras-which had meanwhile been renamed Tamilnadu. He was to remain its chief minister for more than a decade, a power in national politics. When he died in 1988, at least ten followers were said to have committed suicide.
My Indian venture of 1961-62 had turned out to be an educational experience beyond any other. I had learned a lot about India and about film-but both still posed more mysteries than certainties. I noted that the MGR phenomenon soon reenacted itself in other states of India. The actor N. T. Rama Rao often played gods in India's mythological films. He became so identified with these roles that Indian religious calendars depicted gods as looking precisely like N. T. Rama Rao. In 1984 he ran for the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the state adjoining Tamilnadu. In his campaign he said little. Dressed in ochre robes, he squatted like a benevolent deity on the roof of his Chevrolet van, moving slowly through the gathering crowds as he signaled his blessing. He was triumphantly elected. The need to believe seemed to be overwhelming.
In India's elections, a huge proportion of eligible voters participated. It had become known as the world's largest democracy. But in a dominated by images of film and television, I found myself less and less sure what "democracy" meant. Could democracy survive the new-age democratic procedures?
Show-business styles of journalism were widely blamed for distorting our view of the world and its disputes. But was fiction, especially "escapist” fiction (so omnipresent, and now starting in everyone's infancy), perhaps a more powerful force in structuring our “reality"? If so, what did this mean for "democracy"?