In Tamil Nadu’s theatre of politics, the element of drama may have finally ground to a halt. In voting MK Stalin to power the state is witnessing a rare spectacle – civility between the winning DMK and the vanquished AIADMK. The vanquished chief minister Edapadi Palaniswami’s greeting to Stalin on his victory was widely considered a surprise given the degree of animosity that exists between the two Dravidian parties.
What has been taken for granted for in other states, say Karnataka, is something of a wonder in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, politicians are known for sharing personal friendships cutting across party lines, as a result of which acrimony is considered rare even if the occasional hot word is exchanged in the Vidhana Soudha.
But Tamil Nadu is not just different, but unique with idiosyncratic filmstars and scriptwriters dominating the stage until recently. Three towering film-centric personalities occupied centre-stage for the last 50 years – M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran (a.k.a MGR) and J Jayalalithaa. Having worked with one another in scores of films, their personal relationships played out through their political roles on a live stage before a transfixed populace.
The three of them may have been stars on celluloid, but behind the makeup they were consummate politicians. Karunanidhi was a top leader in the DMK, being a deputy opposition leader in the Assembly in 1962 and a minister when the party came to power in 1967. MGR was a DMK member in the legislative council in 1962 while Jayalalithaa earned her political spurs as propaganda secretary of the AIADMK.
Karunanidhi as the script writer was the puppeteer while MGR dutifully played out his roles as part of the DMK’s singularly unique blending of the arts with politics. After the death of their common mentor CN Annadurai, the two fell apart with MGR founding the breakaway ADMK in 1972. The rivalry and one-upmanship between the two was a veritable box-office hit, in the process pushing aside the once-powerful state Congress out of contention forever.
Since then the Tamil electorate has gleefully consumed politics laced with glamour, gossip, love, hatred and even physical pow-wows that has come to characterise its unique contours. Looking back at the live, high-pitched drama that has unfolded since then, it would be not be a hyperbole to call it the “mother” of all scripts.
MGR’s arangetram as a DMK candidate in the 1967 Assembly elections came in the aftermath of a murder attempt on him by a fellow actor MR Radha. Personal animosity and political rivalry triggered the shooting incident that almost killed MGR. The actor with a bandage around his neck and a damaged voice reportedly became the DMK’s poster-boy for the elections. The party won, as did MGR, dethroning the then ruling Congress. MGR went on to act in 42 more movies with his damaged voice winning him lasting sympathy, votes besides stardom.
The Dravida movement’s singularly successful mix of politics and cinema propelled the DMK into power, from where it has never really looked back despite a few electoral defeats over the years.
All internal issues within the DMK was a public spectacle, lapped up by a voyeuristic film-fixated audience, a high point being the split between MGR and Karunanidhi, that saw the emergence of the ADMK. Five years after the split, MGR humbled his more illustrious rival, emerging as the chief minister at the head of the ADMK government.
The real life script unfolded when MGR brought in his “lady love” and co-actor J Jayalalithaa into the ADMK (now the AIADMK) as the propaganda secretary in 1983. The special on-screen relationship was played out in the open, when MGR died in 1987. As in the movies, MGR’s legally wedded wife Janaki and her supporters physically pushed aside Jaya from the funeral hearse of the late leader. Jaya retaliated, emerging as the AIADMK leader. A couple of years later, an angry exchange of words between the then chief minister Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa turned a free-for-all within the Assembly. Jaya accused DMK legislators of disrobing her and vowed to return to power. In 1991, she was voted to power in a sweeping victory winning 225 out of 234 seats.
His ego deeply bruised Karunanidhi got his chance in the 1996 elections when the DMK returned to power. Jayalalithaa was promptly packed off to prison for a month on charges of accumulating wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income.
Not someone to let pass a humiliation, Jaya got her chance at revenge when she returned to power in 2001. In the early hours of June 30, police stormed into the house of Karunanidhi, and unceremoniously dragged him out of his house on corruption charges.
As the top echelons of DMK and the Tamil people reeled in disbelief, a half-asleep Karunanidhi was literally dragged out of his residence and lodged in prison. The charges did not lead anywhere, but it was widely seen as Jayalalithaa’s revenge for the treatment meted out to her five years earlier.
The drama was not over. Jayalalithaa contributed her own share of suspense and thrill in her unique relationship with Sasikala, a woman who was running a video library. Over time Sasikala was the only way anyone, including ministers and legislators, could communicate with Jayalalithaa. The curtains came down when Jayalalithaa eventually died in December 2016, after weeks of suspense and mystery over her state of health, as she lay incapacitated on her hospital bed. A couple of years later, in August 2018, her ailing rival Karunanidhi too died of old age.
The Tamil film industry’s hold over politics was definitively loosening. A last ditch attempt was made by top actor Kamal Haasan who fancied himself to fill the vast emptiness left behind by three super-sized veterans. His putative rival, ‘superstar’ Rajinikanth dilly-dallied keeping people in suspense until he backed off amidst the Covid-19 threat.
But Kamal Haasan went full ahead, individually contesting under the banner of Makkal Needhi Mayyam (MNM). But his party could not win a single seat, with Kamal himself losing narrowly in his Coimbatore constituency.
Actor Udayanidhi, the son of Chief Minister M K Stalin, recently elected an MLA, is yet to prove he has the ability to carry forward the unique legacy of the DMK.
The half-a-century old reality show, running into thousands of reels or gigabytes in digital terms, appears to have finally come to a halt. Politics, though of a yawn-inducing kind, is making its way back in Chennai. Now, one sees the vanquished AIADMK congratulating and wishing Stalin on his victory, the cordial presence of opposition politicians at his swearing in and several other friendly gestures that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
One report, for instance, points out that photographs of opposition leaders are part of pictures of the swearing-in that have been stuck on the notice board of the state secretariat. Small signs no doubt, but for Tamil Nadu, these are significant. Clearly the scene is shifting to a possibly more collegial and relaxed practice of politics. Not like earlier when Dravida party leaders ‘acted’ as if their lives depended on it.
(The story was updated to include the line on Udayanidhi)