Movies that make political noise

A memorable still from 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron'

‘Yatra’, the Telugu movie starring Malayalam star Mammootty, has hit the screens today, and the film, which is about the life and times of former AP Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), has had the Congress party (in AP and Telangana) seeing red.

YSR’s son, YSR Jaganmohan Reddy, has floated the political outfit YSR Congress after the demise of his dad and his subsequent fallout with the Sonia Gandhi-helmed Congress party.

Jaganmohan Reddy is now the frontrunner to be the AP CM in the forthcoming State elections, and the local Congress leaders fear that through the film ‘Yatra’ Jaganmohan is trying to paint the Congress in a bad light.

As it happens, though the film is not unduly critical of the Congress, it shows YSR as a self-made man and practically blanks out the Congress from the equation.

Be that as it may, ‘Yatra’, and movies such as ‘Uri’ and ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ released recently, do raise the question: Are movies the new medium for political propaganda?.

The answer to the question can only be: This is not a new phenomenon.

Films have always been a handy tool for making political points. Hindi movies such as ‘Aandhi’ and ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ were banned in the 70s by the then Congress government, as they were seen to contain sensitive and difficult political ideas. Even the evergreen favourite of the masses ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ was a pungent satire on the venal governmental system.

“But, movies then helped make points against the ruling class. Now we have this trend of making films that seem outright advertisements from a party or a leader,” says Mithilesh Kumar, a Delhi-based film historian. Kumar hastens to add that this trend may be somewhat new to the Hindi audience; down South, especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra, there is a huge tradition of such political propagandist film culture.

Kumar is spot on. The DMK surged to power in the 60s in Tamil Nadu mostly based on demagoguery movies that were liberally laced with Dravidian ideology. Both Annadurai and M Karunanidhi were stellar writers and they conveyed their political ideology in many of their movies. Moviessuch as ‘Nallathambi’, ‘Orr Iravu’, ‘Velaikari’, ‘Parasakthi’, ‘Panam’ and ‘Thangaradham’ contained social messages that were also part powerful political ideologies.   

“They were smart and understood the power of a medium like movies. They shrewdly manipulated the messages through the unsuspecting vehicle of film fiction,” says J Murugan, a professor of humanities in Chennai. “But they were just continuing on the legacy of what some leaders attempted during the freedom struggle.”

Indeed, movies inspiring patriotism and against the British colonial rule were made across languages even in the 40s.

Of course, after Karunanidhi, the late MG Ramachandran spectacularly rode to power in TN, piloted primarily by his do-gooder image that was painstakingly chiseled through his celluloid offerings. His successor J Jayalalithaa used her filmy popularity to further her political prospects.

In Andhra Pradesh, the former Chief Minister N T Rama Rao too initially walked into the hearts of the people through his portrayal of Godly characters on the big screen.

Even today, it is not uncommon for a star like Rajinikanth (whose entry into formal politics is hanging fire) to utter political dialogues and reach the people with that message.

“It is not without reason that both the main Dravidian parties In Tamil Nadu continue to maintain strong links with the Tamil filmdom. They understand its use,” says Murugan.

Parties in the rest of the country too are cottoning on to this use now.