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Thursday, September 19, 2019

Celebrating 100 years of Indian Cinema

A society through celluloid


S THEODORE BASKARAN, FILM HISTORIAN , CHENNAI | Issue Dated: July 8, 2012, New Delhi
Tags : SOCIETY AND FILMS | bollywood films |

Sa Kandasamy, the writer, wrote that an average Tamil is fixated with three things: cinema, politics and religion.  An American academic talked about "a society through celluloid”. Tamil film industry has been one of the most prolific in the world. The first studio-made, feature film, Keechakavatham, was made in 1916 by Nataraja Mudaliyar. Over nine decades, Tamil cinema has grown into a cultural and political leviathan. With 2548 cinema houses – out of which 806 are touring outfits, operating mainly in rural areas – films enjoy a high exposure rate in Tamil Nadu.  The arrival of satellite TV and DVD has extended its reach and for the Tamils in India and in the diaspora, cinema is a centripetal factor the world over.

A prominent feature of Tamil cinema is its interaction with politics. How did it begin? When sound came to Tamil cinema, in 1931 with the film Kalidas, the artistes from company drama moved into the studios. They were already a highly politicised community, having been an active part of the freedom struggle. They brought with them their ideology. For instance, Kalidas, though a mythological, had a song praising Gandhi. Soon cinema became an instrument of political propaganda and many film artistes began taking direct part in politics. A 1930s star, KB Sundarambal, campaigned for the Congress. She was the first film artiste in India to enter the legislature in 1958 as a Congress nominee in Chennai. This interaction between film artistes and politics continues to the present day. Two stars, Vijayakanth and Sarathkumar, floated a political party each, recently.
After Independence Congress leaders ignored cinema. Leaderless film artistes gravitated towards the Dravidian movement. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that grew out of the Dravidian movement facilitated the advent of the phenomenon of star politicians in India. MG Ramachandran, the best-known star-politician and later Chief Minister, had in fact acted in patriotic plays and was a khadi-wearing Congress sympathiser in his younger days.

For three decades Tamil cinema was in the shadow of two stars, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, rivals both in films and in politics. MGR specialised in swashbuckling roles on the pattern of Douglas Fairbanks and built up a loyal fan following. Sivaji featured in melodramas such as Pasamalar (1961). They both built up a huge following with thousands of fan clubs functioning as surrogate party units. Fan magazines were one feature of film culture. The films of this period were formulaic, the characters stereotyped and acting stylised. One critic observed: “Bedevilled as Tamil films are by the Big Two, the story of every year is the story of what films they made... Aesthetics do not come into the discussion at any point for aesthetics here is subordinate to economics.”

The reign of stars continued, though not in the manner of the earlier two. Kamala Hasan exhibited a keen understanding of cinema and began writing for and directing, the latest being Dasavatharam (2008). Rajnikanth built up a huge fan following and was popular even in Japan.

Though so far more than 6000 films have been made, it is only in recent years that Tamil films are making a mark at the national level.  So far only two Tamil films have won the Best Film award from the government of India One was Marupakkam (1992) a film by Sethumadhavan, and the other is Kanchipuram (2008) by Priyadharshan on the plight of silk weavers during the colonial period. Three Tamil filmmakers have won Best Director awards, Ahathiyan, B Lenin and, most recently, Vethrimaran for Aadukalam. Actors have fared better. Lakshmi, Shoba, Suhasini and Archana won Best Actress award while Kamalahasan got Best Actor award   thrice. Sivaji Ganesan and filmmaker K Balachandar have been awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award.

In the last few years some path-breaking movies have appeared. The warm reception that the film Subramaniapuram (2008) has had augurs well for Tamil cinema. But a bulk of the movies continues to be mindless entertainers, plagued by amateurish narrative methods. The absence of film criticism and a vibrant film society movement are some of the reasons why film appreciation remains at a low level in Tamil Nadu. 

Sivaji Ganesan: An enduring icon

The warm reception a restored version of his 1964 mythological Karnan received when it was  recently revived across Tamil Nadu demonstrated that cultural icon Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001)  lives  in the collective memory of Tamils. Ganesan stormed into the world of cinema through a star-making role in Parasakthi, speaking alliterative, rhetoric dialogue written by Karunanithi. In fact his voice and the way he delivered his lines were his forte. Within eight years Ganesan was at his peak. He reigned for nearly half a century.

In the early films, his acting was understated and convincing as in Rangoon Radha (1956). As stardom struck roots, his style of acting became more melodramatic and  deliberate. Though he carried a lot of stage conventions, he did manage to develop his own distinctive style.

Nearly 3000 branches of fan clubs acted as a scaffolding for his screen and political career. But his forays into politics were disastrous. Starting as a sympathiser of DMK, he moved over to Congress when the DMK began projecting  MGR. The stellar rivalry with MGR was a running thread in Ganesan’s career. He joined Congress on the persuasion by Kamaraj, who wanted to use his charisma to counter MGR’s influence. It was at this point that Ganesan threw himself wholly into work and often lived in the studios. Many successful films such as Veerapandia Kattabomman (1959) and Pavamannipu (1961) rolled out. He never won the National Award for Best Actor. But Ganesan could draw comfort from the enormous affection he enjoyed from Tamilians all over the world. Tamil identity was central to his life and career.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017