The show goes on – The never ending allure of cinema in Tamil Nadu

A larger-than-life cut out of a superstar vies for attention with a tall building on the same road. Efforts are made to climb atop the cut-out just so that the fans can offer an abhisekam of milk to the cut-out. It is his birthday. Stars aren’t too different from Gods when it comes to adulation.

It is interesting to know that in Tamil cinema’s first talkie Kalidas (1931), most of the dialogues were in Telugu and even Urdu but the songs were in Tamil. The importance given to music in the early days of talkies made this a Tamil film and people thronged to the theatres, not just to see characters talk, but to see them sing.

Vaasanthi, the biographer of Jayalalithaa, says the story of popularity of cinema should go back further. “In Tamil Nadu, oral and visual arts have always been there right from the Sangam era and the impact of theatre has been huge. So when cinema came, people took to it naturally.”

Actress and Harikatha artiste Revathy Sankaran says people never saw something like this before. “The early stars won popularity on the basis of how well they sang. For this reason MK Thayagaraja Bhagavathar won over the masses. But people like him and PU Chinnappa weren’t great actors. Until Sivaji, acting was not known to people. It was a post-Parasakthi phenomenon,” she says. And that led to a new kind of stardom.

In the new movies heralded by the writers from the Dravidian movement, there was a reformist message. “The society was waiting for such a change. The kind of dialogues changed and the prose changed. And this change on-screen was represented by someone like MGR. People were charmed by his looks and he was always the saviour of the damsel in distress,” says Vaasanthi.

Also, the arrival of playback made the singing stars passe. “MKT was the first superstar of Tamil cinema. He was apolitical. The hiatus brought in by his internment caused by the Lakshmikanthan murder case and play back singing made him passe,” says R Kannan, the biographer of MGR.

The phasing out of the singing star also coincided with the arrival of the new dialogue writers of cinema. Writers like Annadurai and Karunanidhi had proved their mettle on stage and now took cinema by storm. The actors now spoke to the masses through the silver screen. They carried the message or propaganda with them.

The arrival of MGR and Sivaji marked the birth of a new kind of fandom, rarely seen in any other part of the country. “Stars stood for a philosophy and program now. MGR was the only one to understand that people did not separate the reel from the real – at least at a time when this was important and took care to play only positive roles. His films reinforced his public career and vice-versa,” says Kannan.

While Sivaji began with Parasakthi, his path diverged soon after and MGR became the face of political propaganda. As Kannan puts it, “MGR’s film and public career spanned five decades. His growth is also the growth of the Dravidian movement. His legacy was to some extent carried on by Jayalalithaa and the party he founded is still a major force. Many of MGR’s fans and followers are still alive especially women although they might be in their sixties, seventies and eighties.”

The MGR-Sivaji rivalry also led to several legends. “I heard about this anecdote from a village near Madurai. When the boy went to see the girl before the marriage, the girl rejected the boy, who was a Sivaji fan and she was devoted to MGR. People took the idea of stardom very seriously. When Gemini Ganesan appeared on screen as Panduranga, my grandmother grew emotional. Stars had that sway. The same magic was spelt by NT Rama Rao,” says Revathy.

Legend has it that pilgrims returning from Tirupati would go to T Nagar to have a darshan of NTR at his residence as he was the closest approximation to the Krishna that they had in their mind.

Kannan feels Tamil Nadu is singular in as much as we treat films stars like gods. “Anna’s genius gave the stars a new found social accommodation and space and catapulted them from being derided as mountebanks and performers to those who were endowed with charisma and glamour.”

But Revathy cites another reason for the adulation that goes beyond all belief. “People were denied the Gods they had long held to. They were told there is no God in the new rationalist wave. But man, by nature, needs to believe in something, a crutch to hold on to. Film stars thus became the new Gods.”

In the 1980s and 90s, new superstars emerged and a new kind of cinema was in place. “If anyone held the kind of sway over the masses as a film star the way MGR did, it was Rajinikanth. But there was a change and people loved him for a different set of reasons. He belonged to the subaltern and did not come with any identity. For the first time, we had a dark hero. He smoked and drank and it wasn’t seen as a crime now. He was more human and one among the masses.,” says Vaasanthi.

Today, there is no element of mystery around a star. As Vaasanthi puts it, there was a huge gap that MGR maintained between his personal life and his fans. “For Rajini, he makes the difference very apparent by appearing as a superstar on screen but it is very important to look real in public with his white hair and bald head. I think the last star who maintained that mystique around her was Jayalalithaa.”

Kannan says although no one has been able to do an MGR thanks to him film stars have been taken seriously. “Vijayakanth is a good example until his political miscalculations and his health did him in. Today we see two shining stars but without a public career background. But it remains to be see how much of a welcome would be accorded to them.” The show goes on.

This was published in the 10th anniversary special edition with The Times of India, Chennai

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