What’s With Movie Stars in South India?

Now that we are engaged with issues of analysis this is a good issue to try our skills on.

We have often wondered about the political prominence of film related personalities (NTR, MGR, Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha) in the Indian South without devoting enough attention to come up with a decent hypothesis or explanation.

With the emergence of Chiranjeevi in AP as the potential ‘fourth-force’, we are face to face with the questions again. How do we explain the following?

  • The acceptance in South India of movie related personalities as leaders of political parties and as Chief Ministers.
  • The much less prominent profile of equally popular movie stars in North India – there are quite a few members of parliament but no political stars of equal rank.
  • The virtual absence of film stars in the politics of other South Asian countries.

In order to put this in a global perspective, we could also consider the following:

  • The absence of movie personalities in the politics of Europe.
  • The success of minor actors like Reagan and Schwarzenegger in the US.

We have picked up some interesting leads from our occasional contributor, Aakar Patel, but let us not disclose these for now.

The analytical task is the following:

How do we formulate some plausible hypotheses to explain this observed set of facts? How do we subject our hypotheses to some reasonable tests of robustness?

How do we go back and refine our hypotheses?

How do we know if we have a good explanation?

Let us try our hand at this interesting exercise.

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11 Responses to “What’s With Movie Stars in South India?”

  1. Vinod Says:

    My first guess would be in the field of social psychology. I would also combine that with political leveraging of celebrity status of actors. Many of the actors who became politicians were playing roles of social activists and leaders making changes. They articulated or recited dialogues about burning social issues among the poor classes. This may be seen as a form political campaigning. Real political campaigning is also a lot of drama. So the line between movies and politics may not be so stark in the minds of the masses.

    From the point of view of the people as well, administrative competency is not so high up on the minds than a leader who can stand (even if it be only vocally) for some ideals. That gives hope to the masses, although it is a shallow form of hope.

  2. RJ Says:

    This is a difficult one to comment on – Before any grand explanations are made one would need to know the background of the stars and the reasons for their screen success – one suggested path of inquiry – does success in South Indian cinema require the blessings of the local political powers?

  3. Vinay Says:

    Here’re some quick, rough thoughts on why South Indian political scene is dominated by the film stars:

    * Films have a large and deep influence in South Indian society. Much more than in North India or probably anywhere else. Between the four states they make over 150 movies a year. Compare that to the Mumbai (Hindi) film industry that has a wider reach in terms of both geography and number of viewers, coming out with less than 150 movies a year.
    * The success of initial stars turned politicians into politics paved the way for later stars.
    * Geographically concentrated fan following makes it easy for a super star to transition successfully into politics.

    Looking forward to other responses.

  4. almostinfamous Says:

    there is also the matter of the on-screen persona permeating the widespread perception of a particular person/candidate.

    this times of india article from about a week ago is a reasonably accurate description of what i hear from my friends in rural AP.

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Mooch-twirls-to-dialogue-fans-maange-more-/rssarticleshow/4262909.cms

    so far only tamil nadu has had 3 CMs with a film industry connection with MGR, Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi all being from a filmi background. AP has only had one – NT Rama Rao, who was also not as popular a politician as an actor while Chiranjeevi, despite his hype, does not have even close to the amount of support as there was for NTR in his time.

    along with the single-issue party Telangana Rashtra Samithi (they lobby for a separate state for the region known as telangana. they are locally known as TRS, and similar to JMM in the north) the Praja Rajyam party are seen as ‘spoilers’ rather than contenders.

    i think that it is very easy for various media outlets to sell news regarding already popular figures rather than try and publicizee the relatively unknown politicians and their often opaque policies, so they are given a lot more play than they really deserve.

  5. Vinod Says:

    In my first response, I hadn’t thought much about the relative lack of movie stars in politics in western societies. It’s a difficult comparison. It may have to do with the difference in quality of the masses. The masses in India are so downtrodden that any sign of hope is a welcome sign, even if it be from an actor who is zero experience in statesmanship. The masses in the Western world may not be so downtrodden. They are relatively educated about their civic system and know that actors cannot deliver what statesmen can. Their voting population is dominated by the educated middle class and not the lower class, unlike India.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Let me summarize the inputs received to date. My comments are in italics.

      Information provided:

      1. The movie industry in South India is bigger than in the North. Between the four states they make over 150 movies a year. Compare that to the Mumbai (Hindi) film industry that has a wider reach in terms of both geography and number of viewers, coming out with less than 150 movies a year. [This is relevant and important information.]

      2. The phenomenon is only observable in two of the Southern states – Tamil Nadu (3 CMs) and AP (1 CM). [This is very important information. The phenomenon cannot be generalized to all of South India. We have to ask what is special about TN and AP within South India?]

      Questions asked:

      1. Does success in South Indian cinema require the blessings of the local political powers? [This is a valid and interesting question. My guess is that the answer would be in the negative. Let’s get some more opinion on this.]

      Hypotheses proposed:

      1. Many of the actors who became politicians were playing roles of social activists and leaders making changes. They articulated or recited dialogues about burning social issues among the poor classes. So the line between movies and politics may not be so stark in the minds of the masses. [This might be true but we still need to explain the difference between South and North.]

      2. From the point of view of the people as well, administrative competency is not so high up on the minds than a leader who can stand (even if it be only vocally) for some ideals. That gives hope to the masses, although it is a shallow form of hope. [Same comment as for 1.]

      3. Films have a large and deep influence in South Indian society. [Same comment as for 1.]

      4. Geographically concentrated fan following makes it easy for a super star to transition successfully into politics. [Plausible. Can one follow this up with data on variation in concentrations among Southern states and/or Southern linguistic groups?]

      5. The success of initial stars turned politicians into politics paved the way for later stars. [Plausible, i.e., that the first occurrence was a random accident and created a precedent. Can follow up by arguing why the probability of such a random occurrence was higher in the South than in the North.]

      6. There is also the matter of the on-screen persona permeating the widespread perception of a particular person/candidate. [Same comment as 1.]

      7. It is very easy for various media outlets to sell news regarding already popular figures rather than try and publicize the relatively unknown politicians and their often opaque policies, so they are given a lot more play than they really deserve. [Same comment as 1.]

      8. The relative lack of movie stars in politics in western societies may have to do with the difference in quality of the masses. The masses in India are so downtrodden that any sign of hope is a welcome sign, even if it be from an actor who has zero experience in statesmanship. The masses in the Western world may not be so downtrodden. They are relatively educated about their civic system and know that actors cannot deliver what statesmen can. Their voting population is dominated by the educated middle class and not the lower class, unlike India. [Need to ask if there difference in education or downtrodden condition of masses in North and South India? Need to explain California which has elected two actors as leaders.]

      Comment:

      I feel we need to focus on coming up with a good hypothesis for the possible reasons for different outcomes in North and South India (and between states in South India after the new information provided). So far, the most promising one seems to rely on the fact that the movie industry in the South is regional with a concentrated fan following. I feel we need to add more to this. To some extent Punjab and Bengal could also be said to have a regional fan following. We can explore the nature both of the polity and of politics in South India and see if we can identify some differences from the North.

  6. Vinod Says:

    Do actors in North Indian movies play roles such as community leaders reciting dialogues about good governance and life philosophy? I haven’t seen much of those. When one thinks about MGR, the first thought that comes to mind is a statesman-preacher and uplifter of the downtrodden, a role that is now being played by Vijay Kant. Are there such roles played by North Indian actors consistently over a spread of many movies? I haven’t seen any so far.

    1 and 2 should not be viewed in isolation. They go hand in hand. They are also connected to 8. I am also unaware of how the actos in California got elected as statesmen. I could use some explanation there.

  7. Vinod Says:

    I recommend this –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_cinema_and_Dravidian_politics

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: Great find. Thanks. This reinforces the need in good analysis to do the background research and understand the context.

      This suggests a lot of new avenues. First, it becomes clear that the route is not from films to politics but from politics to films to politics – a completely different phenomenon. Second, that the politics (communicated through films) was/is tapping into a set of very deep-rooted grievances. And third, the importance of the caste composition of the electorate and the fact that no single caste was predominant in the politics.

      Almost immediately, we can contrast the politics in the North that remains much more top-down and caste-influenced asides from the fact that it has not used the medium of films to popularize its message.

      In the original post, I had mentioned that it had been triggered by some observations from Aakar Patel. Now is the time to give him credit for getting some of inferences right. This is what Aakar had written:

      “The dominant state of south India is Tamil Nadu and it has a binary culture. It has a high culture of music and literature that comes from its Brahmins. But it also has a subaltern culture that rebels against Brahminism. This is especially true of its popular cinema…

      Tamil politics is embarrassing because it is so craven. It is also overly emotional. The charisma of film stars is transferred without effort to politics, a sure sign of intellectual softness.

      The north is unable to do this because its film stars are all in one city (Bombay) and must necessarily exorcise their regional identity for a larger one.

      This transfer of charisma also points to the democratic nature of politics in the south. Till the rise of the peasants in 1991, mobilised through reservations, the north’s chief ministers were nominated, and most often high caste.

      Unlike them, the chief ministers of the south – M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao, Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi — were almost always popular figures.”

      I would agree with all these inferences except the one about “intellectual softness” which I doubt Aakar intended to be taken at face value. I will have more on this later.

      I feel we are well on our way to a better understanding of the phenomenon under discussion.

  8. Hayyer Says:

    I asked this question many years ago to a South Indian. His answer for what it is worth was;
    The escape from Brahminical domination in Tamil Nadu was through the film industry. The early leaders of the DMK were closely associated with the film industry as script writers and such like. It was through films that themes of social emancipation first came before the public. It was these film personalities and their political party the DMK that took over once Tamil Nadu was ready to shift from the Congress in the sixties.
    Some readers may recall that E Ramaswami Naicker the intellectual godfather of the DMK once led a procession in Chennai in which images of Aryan gods such as Ram were exhibited being beaten with shoes.
    In the case of Andhra it was just happenstance. NR Rama Rao had been insulted by Rajiv Gandhi at the airport and he set up this party for Telugu pride called Telugu Desam.
    Kerala and Karnataka have film stars in politics but no great success in politics as such.

  9. Chuck Iyer Says:

    Hollywood can boast that it is the movie capital of the world but the movie industry in India is so intertwined with people at all levels of society that it is scary to think of this society devoid of its movie industry. Take away food, water, and I dare say air and a lot of people will complain but take away the movies and these movie buffs will become totally dysfunctional. Life for these people will come to a total halt and they would not know what to do and will move around like zombies. From cradle to grave movies provide a certain kind of entertainment to the addicted that it is like religion. Movie stars are worshipped like demigods in India. In terms of comparative clout of stars in India and the USA, Hollywood stars will have to move to the proverbial back of the bus. This is the country where temples are built for movie stars and huge cutouts of the stars bathed in milk and worshipped before the release of a movie starring the blessed ones. Though such activities are self promoting and cheap, the stars condone such celebrations. It is said that sometimes the producers of movies finance such celebrations as a marketing ploy to advertise their movies. Such exhibition of fan loyalty though sick, comes with the territory in Indian movie industry.

    When these stars capitalize on their popularity and try to enter politics, a totally new and alien field for which they are not trained or equipped, the situation becomes pathetic. The common man and woman try to put them with great expectations at the top in a totally different field based on their performance in the movies. If such cross field success is the norm then I have the following recommendations. For the next Robot kind of movie, Mr. Narayanamurthy instead of superstar Rajni because the former has been very successful in putting India on the global map of technology. I think the character of the Robot itself should be played by none other than Mr. Azim Premji, another giant in the IT field. And who else can I recommend for Ms. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s role other than Ms. Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi International? Or how about giving the scalpel to a person who has been an eminent lawyer and ask him to perform delicate neurosurgery on your one and only child? I hope the absurdity comes through clearly.

    Whenever the stars are felicitated at a function and you ask them about reasons for the success of a movie, they will shed their ego and in the spirit of the moment enumerate the producer, the director, the art director and a host of others including the lowly light boy as the reason for the success. Without their knowledge and under the intoxication of the festivities for a fleeting second they are being totally honest. Yes, the truth is that the movie was successful because of the team, not just the star. This being the case, these stars claim that they can do a wonderful job as a politician that the so called “stalwarts” haven’t been able to do. When an actor is asked if he would like to say anything about the prospects of his entering politics, the stock answer is “no comment at this time.”
    I wish they would for once say, “No, I have no intention of entering politics, God has blessed me in my chosen field, I have made enough money, it is time I put my efforts in some small and simple grass root level social projects to help a village at a time.” He would have a built a temple for himself in everyone’s heart.

    Mr. Amitabh Bachchan is a great actor and many want to emulate him. He was in politics but swears now that he will not touch politics with a ten foot pole. How about emulating Mr. Bachchan on this?

    We should be remembered for our work. Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi, a Bharat Ratna brought fame to the art she was blessed with leaving behind music for ages to come but with no other monument or an edifice to mark her tenure on earth. Humility, thy name is MS.

    Presently, politics in Tamil Nadu is controlled by two dynasties. They both started with lofty goals like – loosely translated in English – Duty, Honor, and Restraint. These have been thrown by the wayside. The dynasty in power usually gets caught up in corruption and incompetency until the public forgets the corruption and incompetencies exhibited during the other dynasty’s tenure and realize that the previous dynasty’s shenanigans pale in comparison to those of the dynasty in power and elect the previous dynasty to power. This cycle repeats.

    The government at the center is no gem either. The Nehru years from 1947 to 1964 were highlighted by inaction. After that the country has mostly been governed by the Nehru family to various degrees of “prosperity” along with scams and corruption galore. A single party majority government has become a thing of the past and coalition governments have been of great disservice to India.
    There is a dearth of political stalwarts like Winston Churchill throughout the world. Ronald Reagan, a movie star turned politician is remembered better as the Governor of California than the President of the United States. George W. Bush is remembered better as the Governor of Texas than the President of the United States.

    To put man’s insignificance on earth, let’s compress the 14-billion-year history of the Universe into one day, or 86400 seconds. Thus, the Big Bang occurred at t=0 and now is at 24 hours. Our Galaxy formed just a few hours after the Big Bang. Our Solar System formed at about 16 hours; in other words, two-thirds of the day passed before the Solar System formed. Homo sapiens appeared about 1 second ago, and a long lifetime of 100 years is 0.0006 seconds – less than 1/1000 of a second. Our lives are a blink of an eye in the history of the Universe.

    If we had only intellectuals in our societies the choosing of our leaders will be less erroneous. In India, the movie stars instead of aspiring for elected offices can do the following with help from intellectuals and thinkers who put country in front of self.

    1. Demand manifestos from the different parties and analyze them
    2. Choose the best party and its candidates
    3. Educate the public to vote for the best party and give it a majority mandate to avoid coalition governments which ends up in horse trading
    4. Monitor the performance of the elected party and make sure the things in the manifesto are fulfilled
    5. At the end of the tenure repeat the process.

    I know it is easier said than done. Heck, we have tried everything else. Why not give this a shot?

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