Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

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