The blurred lines between politics and cinema in India

Article  by  Manon JESSUA  •  Published 12.02.2015  •  Updated 12.02.2015
The blurred lines between politics and cinema in India
What is unique about Indian cinema is the way the political system fit to welcoming film stars.

Summary

In July 1896, the Lumière brothers brought cinema in India: they showed six films, including the mythical Arrival of a Train. It is only a few years later, in 1913, that “Dadasaheb” Phalke presented the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, an epic tale inspired by the Mahabharata. Since, cinema has become the main cultural product consumed in India with 1,255 feature films shot, 3.3 billion tickets sold and 10,167 cinema halls throughout the country. With around 35%  of the population being illiterate, films constitute an extremely significant medium to reach the majority of the population and unite it through the construction of a common imaginary. Cinema generally tackles the political and social issues that the country faces, and India is no exception. Since independence in 1947, Hindi cinema has emerged as the “national cinema” and considered the nation-building process as one of its “missions”. What is more specific to India, however, is the long tradition of political involvement of film stars in politics, not only as “communication” figures adding glamour to a politician’s campaign, but as actual elected members of government. The careers of major figures of Indian cinema such as Marudhur Gopalan Ramachdran (known as “MGR”), Sunil Dutt, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao or Amitabh Bachchan show how much the shift from cinema to politics is almost natural in a country where the cinematographic production is, in spite of popular belief, extremely political.

Politics in cinema: films as tools and mirrors to the political issues

Despite of the extremely strict censorship of the Cinema Board of Certification, Indian cinemas deal, whether overtly or covertly, with the political or social issues that the country faces. Actually, there are almost as many representations of politics on screen as there are Indian cinemas: nationalism and patriotism in Hindi films, regionalism in Tamil films or social and realistic cinema in Bengali films.

After Independence, it was necessary to build a unified Indian nation not only for the politicians but also for the Hindi film industry, which sought to strengthen the nation around the values of Nehruvian socialism, as well as define Indianness through movies that reached out for the patriotic and nationalist sides of the public. By showcasing stereotypical characters representing an idealized society, Hindi films portrayed an ideal Indianness (Mother India by Mehbook Khan, 1957) and films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (Karan Johar, 2001) or, even more so Devdas, allow the family structure to be a metaphor for the nation[+] Note Jyotika, VIRDI, “The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History”, 2003.X [1], in which family conflicts are resolved as metaphors for national issues. Actually, observers tend to say that it has actually rather promoted a “Hindiness”, with minorities generally overshadowed by the hero. This is particularly the case with religious minorities and the representation of Muslims in Hindi films.
 
 My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist  In a secular India, where communal tensions are quite high, Hindi films have dealt with the difficulties of the representation of “the Other”[+] NoteSanjeev HM, KUMAR, “Constructing the Nation’s Enemy: Hindutva, popular culture and the Muslim ‘other’ in Bollywood cinema”, Third World Quarterly, 34:3, 2013, pp. 458-469.X [2] in cinema, namely the one that does not correspond to the profile of the ideal “Indianness”. If many of the major screenwriters, directors or actors are Muslims like Shahrukh Khan or Amir Khan, Muslim characters still tend to be stereotypical or secondary. The representation of this minority in Hindi cinema is delicate because it is inevitably linked to the national imaginary of Partition and the relationship with Pakistan (Upkaar, Manoj Kumar, 1967). The rise of Hindu nationalism, the return of communal violence in the 1990s and the 9/11 bombings have reinforced the tendency to represent Muslim characters as the villain or the “enemy” and to associate them with anti-patriotic values and terrorist activities (Mission Kashmir by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000 or Fanaa by Kunal Kohli, 2006). There are nonetheless exceptions to this: My name is Khan (Karan Johar, 2010) is one of the most recent examples of the industry wanting to “de-demonized” Muslim characters with the famous line “My name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist” repeated throughout the movie.

If the Hindi film industry promotes a national cinema, regional cinemas have, in reaction, cultivated their differences with Bollywood by creating a cinema that is much more openly political. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK became the defender of the Dravidian ideology, advocating for the creation of a Dravidian state and the protection of the Dravidian identity (native to Southern India) against the Brahmin culture imposed by New Delhi. DMK’s leading figure Mursoli Maran summed this up in an interview in 1968: “We select a good story and introduce our ideology wherever possible” [+] NoteInterview, Mursoli Maran, Madras. Quoted in: HARDGRAVE, Robert L. “Politics and the Film in Tamil Nadu: The Stars and the DMK”, Asian Survey, Mar., 1973, Vol. 13, No. 3, December 1969, pp. 288-305. X [3].
Tamil and telugu cinemas are very interesting as they produce a cinema that seeks to be identifiable as “local”: even more than the language used, the stories, the characters, the settings, the values and traditions are expected to be rooted in the “local” and this is very much reinforced by the presence of stars, such as T.R. Rama Rao (Kondaveeti Simham, K. Raghavendra Rao, 1981 or Roja, Mani Ratnam, 1992).
 
In parallel to this extremely political Tamil production and the regionalism showcased in regional films, Bengali cinema also emerged, in a different way, as a strong source of highly political films. Indeed, Bengal is generally considered as the birthplace of the “New cinema”, which is characterized by its very realistic cinematography. Far from any “filmi” drama, directors like Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen create a strong realistic and social cinema, which is best illustrated by Satyajit Ray’s “Apu trilogy” (Panchali, 1955, Aparajito, 1956 and Apur Sansar, 1959). Also, since the early 2000s, a “New Parallel cinema” has started to emerge again. It does not only emanate from regional or independent productions, but more and more from Hindi productions as well. For example, Rang De Basanti (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2006), Well Done Abba (Shyam Benegal, 2009) or films by Anurag Kashyap or Deepa Mehta are productions that are very much rooted in the traditional Bollywood language (with the use of songs for example), but that carry an openly political message and critics of contemporary issues such as separatist terrorism, the youth’s disconnect with society and politics or corruption.
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An Indian political system fit to welcoming film stars

mémorial de MGR à Marina Beach
 
Indian cinemas are thus, overtly or covertly, very political. However, what makes their link with politics truly unique is the strong political involvement of film stars, which is made possible by the fact that the Indian political system is, by essence, fit to the transfer from a star-fan to a politician-voter relationship.

When looking at the characteristics of the Indian political system, film stars beneficiate greatly from the advantages that their superstar stratus gives them.In India, cinema is so important that the star-fan relationship often becomes, for the most celebrated of films stars in India such as MGR or Amitabh Bachchan, a god-devotee relationship, with the star being regarded as an actual god by the public. This kind of relationship is closely linked to the “guru-shishya” relationship[+] NoteT.G., VAIDYANATHAN, “Authority and identity in India”, Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Another India, Fall 1989, pp. 147-169. X [4]
, which is based on the idea that the teachings of the guru, in all fields of intellectual, physical or technical activities, are passed on to the disciple through a spiritual and devotional relationship. When transposing these elements to the Indian political system, it becomes clear that the exceptional status of film stars can quite naturally be transferred to politics, as one of the characteristics of the Indian political system is what Sara Dickey calls “personality politics”, namely the fact that political life and parties revolve around personalities rather than actual ideas.
 
Indian voters are extremely diverse, be it in terms of ethnicity, class, caste, religion or linguistic affiliation and it is fair to say that one of the things that can bring such a heterogenic population together is cinema. For Robert Hardgrave, the “politics of adulation”, namely the idea that films stars are not necessarily associated to a particular group of population can explain why film stars entering politics are generally successful. Moreover, while the figure of the politician does not necessarily inspire trust or adulation in India, film stars provide a much more consensual and likeable alternative, theoretically far from any corruption or fraud schemes or power-driven objectives. Rather, they are associated to the roles and characters that they portray (generally gods or heroes), thus contributing to the creation of a myth around them. An excerpt of one song sung by MGR in Enga Veettu Pillai (“The Son of our Home”, 1965), sums it all up: “If you follow me, the poor will never suffer. First Christ came and preached; then Gandhi came and preached; then the people have forgotten. Now I will set things right.”
 
The presence of actors of the film industry in politics, which can also be referred to as mobilization[+] NoteSara, DICKEY, “The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, May 1993, pp. 340-372.X [5], is visible through different types of involvement. More interesting that the classic integration of an already existing political party, as illustrated by Shivaji Ganesan or Sunil Dutt, who entered politics by joining the Congress Party, another way that is more specific to India, is the actual foundation, by actors of the film industry, of political parties. The most iconic of those is the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founded in 1972 by MGR, who was a major figure of Tamil cinema; he had the status of superstar, which he greatly used to his advantage by cultivating his image of “hero” through his roles and by exploiting his very large fan base. The case of Tamil Nadu is particularly interesting because its main political parties were actually founded by people from the film industry, but it is not the only example: in Andhra Pradesh, N.T. Rama Rao, one of the greatest figures of Telugu cinema, entered politics in 1982 when his film career came to an end, and founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which led him to become the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.
 
A fundamental element in Indian politics, when looked through the lense of cinema, is the fact that the majority of the voters are the majority of cinema-goers, they are the “common people”. This partly explains the success of film stars in politics: through the popularity they get from their movies, they are able to reach a wide range of population with strong fan-bases and have built their political ideology around the promotion of the commoners’ interests and the protection of the poor and backward classes, which are the majority of the voters. And here, the Indian political tradition provides film stars entering politics with a great advantage, especially given the importance of patronage in the Indian political tradition. This refers to a “custom”, in order to win votes and be more visible, for parties to go to villages or to slums, to offer gifts, make charitable gestures or help the people (building some infrastructure or helping in an administrative procedure for example). For this, it is actor-politician’s fan-bases and fan-clubs that are great tools, as they have an extremely structured functioning and are able to gather very large amounts of people in a wide range of areas to support and promote the star’s image.

Shahrukh KhanFor MGR, “arts and politics are two sides of the same coin”[+] NoteAnirudh, DESHPANDE, “Indian Cinema and the Bourgeois Nation State”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 50, Dec. 15-21, 2007, pp. 95-101, 103).X [6] and films stars continue to this day to be extremely involved in politics, as seen in the 2014 general elections. In this article, we have focused on the concrete mobilization of film stars in politics, but it has to be noted that their implication can also be much more simpler and perhaps reach efficiently a different kind of audience. Unlike in Europe, where films stars do not really “promote” their civic engagement in the act of voting, it is quite impressive to see how much Indian films stars actually do very proudly so, showing their tainted fingers in the press or directly through their social media networks, as Shahrukh Khan’s Facebook post: “Most times I don't even get to choose the channel I want to watch on TV. Today I have an opportunity to choose my country's future. Awesome!”. This anecdote, as random as it may seem, proves the “healthiness” of Indian democracy where voting still is, more than fifty years after independence, a big deal.
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References

Books :
 Ram Awatar AGNITHORI, Film stars in India, Commonwealth Publishers, 1999.
 
M. Madhava PRASAD, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, Oxford University Press, 1998.
 
Jyotika VIRDI, The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
 
Ophélie WIEL, Voyage au Coeur du cinema indien: Bollywood et les autres, Buchet-Chastel, 2011.
 
Articles :
 Anirudh DESHPANDE, « Indian Cinema and the Bourgeois Nation State », Economic and Political Weekly, 15-21, Vol. 42, No. 50, Déc. 2007, pp. 95-101, 103
 
Sara DICKEY, « The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India », The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, Mai 1993, pp. 340-372
 
Duncan FORRESTER, « Factions and filmstars: Tamil Nadu politics since 1971 », Asian Survey, 1976, 16:283-96
 
Robert L. HARDGRAVE, « Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK », Asian Survey, Vol. 13, No. 3, Mars 1973, pp. 288-305
 
Sanjeev HM, KUMAR, « Constructing the Nation’s Enemy: Hindutva, popular culture and the Muslim ‘other’ in Bollywood cinema », Third World Quarterly, 34:3, 2013, pp. 458-469
 
Hélène LECUYER, « L’industrie du cinéma en Inde plus vibrante que jamais », inaglobal.fr, 11 novembre 2013
 
Jaideep MUKHERJEE, « Celebrity, Media and Politics: An Indian Perspective », Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 57 No.1, 2004, pp. 80-92
 
M. Madhava PRASAD, « Cine-politics: on the political significance of cinema in South India », Journal of the Moving Image, No.1, Automne 1999, pp. 37-52
 
S.V. SRINAVAS, « Stars and mobilization in South India: what have films got to do with it? », Postscript, Volume 25, No.3, Indian cinema, 2007
 
T.G VAIDYANATHAN, « Authority and identity in India », Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Another India, Automne 1989, pp. 147-169
 
Websites :
 
Figures of the 2001 census, Government of India.

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Photo credits :
Devdas. Pupilinblow / Flickr
M.G. Ramachandran Memorial, Marina Beach, Chennai, India. Nandakumar Subramanlam / Flickr
Shahrukh Khan. Prachatal / Flickr
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  • 1. Jyotika, VIRDI, “The Cinematic ImagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History”, 2003.
  • 2. Sanjeev HM, KUMAR, “Constructing the Nation’s Enemy: Hindutva, popular culture and the Muslim ‘other’ in Bollywood cinema”, Third World Quarterly, 34:3, 2013, pp. 458-469.
  • 3. Interview, Mursoli Maran, Madras. Quoted in: HARDGRAVE, Robert L. “Politics and the Film in Tamil Nadu: The Stars and the DMK”, Asian Survey, Mar., 1973, Vol. 13, No. 3, December 1969, pp. 288-305.
  • 4. T.G., VAIDYANATHAN, “Authority and identity in India”, Daedalus, Vol. 118, No. 4, Another India, Fall 1989, pp. 147-169.
  • 5. Sara, DICKEY, “The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, May 1993, pp. 340-372.
  • 6. Anirudh, DESHPANDE, “Indian Cinema and the Bourgeois Nation State”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 50, Dec. 15-21, 2007, pp. 95-101, 103).
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