Adding More Comedians & Villains to Our Political Theatre

Johny ML
02/04/2016

Some actors in Kerala are in denial mode now, as trolls of political parties manipulated their images via Photoshop for election campaigning. While these actors are denying any political affiliations as if politics was a piece of filthy hot metal, some of their colleagues have announced their intentions to contest in the upcoming assembly elections. Film stars entering the political fray, at least for a few intellectuals, is a sign of the state’s socio-political and cultural degeneration. But for many, it is a new twist in Kerala’s political scenario, which is so far ridden by sex, lies and video tapes.

Hollywood, the main producer of the world's ideologically motivated moving images, has the reputation of supplying hardcore politicians to the U.S. politics. Actors such as Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger have not only performed the scripted roles of the nation’s saviors, but also enacted political roles. The reason for their success should be sought in their ideological selection of roles, which portray them as the real upholders of the American values and also sometimes as the protectors of the world democracy. The fusing of the actors’ corporeal personality with that of the characters they enact makes the transition easier. Perhaps that is one justification we could give to the three south Indian states, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where film stars have become political stars as well as state heads.

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 The filmgoers who actually constitute(d) the electoral body in these states couldn't (or didn't) make much distinction between the actors and their characters. Perhaps, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka could somehow enable the transition from film dominated politics to the politics of career politicians. Tamil Nadu still remains a unique phenomenon where most of the film stars mature into career politicians. From the generation of Karunanidhi, M.G.R., Sivaji Ganesan and Jayalalithaa, Tamil politics has moved into the hands of Napolean, Sarathkumar and Vijayakanth. The subordination of politics to films in that state could be seen in the images where dhoti-clad politicians genuflect before the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, a former film actress. Superstars Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan are the unique exceptions who let political parties hold their breath and make them guess too many eventualities with their quasi-political utterances or enigmatic silences on political affairs.

Most of the political observers in Kerala say the trend didn’t catch up in the state for two reasons: one, the political awareness of the voters; two, the indifference of the film stars toward politics. Both are right and wrong at the same time. Had Kerala’s voters been so aware of the political ideologies and the machinations of the political parties, they wouldn’t have allowed the same politicians to hold them hostage for almost half a century. Films stars in Kerala have been apolitical to certain extent because they are forced to cater to a limited audience who share the common language, Malayalam, which in turn holds a very limited film industry. With no religious or political group getting dominance in the social scene, these film stars remain 'neutral,' despite their unstated or understated political affiliations. However, Kerala also had egalitarian film stars and writers entering the political fray, with or without electoral success. One thing is certain that the voting Malayalee always held politician as a philosopher king for the simple reason that many of the pioneers of Kerala’s political scene were intellectual giants. How could one compare E.M.S., A.K.G., K. Kelappan, Panampilly Govinda Menon, Joseph Mundasseri and so on with the likes of Jagadish, Suresh Gopi or Bheeman Raghu?

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As a political observer, I would never say that a film star shouldn’t become a politician or a state head. In India, we have so many examples where film stars, entertainers and cricketers becoming successful politicians. Kerala needn’t and shouldn’t be an exception. But the problem is that none of the film stars in the state have so far made any socio-political or cultural statements, except for desperate actors with no future in films such as Suresh Gopi, who have been running from pillar to post to emerge as politically relevant. Unfortunately, people like Bheeman Raghu or Sreesanth or even Jagadish have never ever made a statement about any socio-cultural problems, including moral policing on artists and ordinary people in the recent past. They have been protecting their careers in small and big screens.

As we stand at the crossroads, we can’t compare Kerala's current scenario with that of Tamil Nadu's past. Tamil films have always been politically charged, and their makers wanted them to be so. Even before the Russians understood the power of political narrative garbed in celluloid social narratives, Tamil filmmakers had realized it and employed it successfully. Though many Malayalam films have political critique embedded in them, nobody's political future is systematically constructed through cinematic narratives.

There is something that we all forget when we speak about the degeneration of Kerala’s politics due to the entry of film stars. While degeneration could be one word that fits in for all explanatory purpose, we also have to see how the fragmentation of the cultural body has been done in the political and religious lines (progressive and secular lines for a change) through the arrival of private television channels. Star nights and award nights are such events where an actor's political and religious affiliations are made clear, and the viewers are subconsciously goaded to share a similar view. For example, though Mammootty is not identified as the chairman of the Kairali television channel run by the CPI (M), when he participates in the award functions and star nights organized by this network, his affiliation to the party is 'culturally' underlined.

Then came other channels including Manorama and Mathrubhumi, the media Moguls in Kerala. Like the way voters are shared on the basis of religion, viewers are also shared via their brand loyalty that stood closer to certain religions. This is one of the ways through which the legitimization of film stars was possible within the politics of Kerala, which is ridden by religious and caste interests and calculations. This phenomenon could go under the theory of spectacle where meaning is displaced from the fact to the signs and the relationships between the chains of signs. But in my opinion, creating spectacles of identity (not only of the actor but also of the viewer/voter) is the prime reason for this new passion for star-politicians.

(Photo credit: gordontour via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND)