Nehru envisioned the state to be a positive force for change that would penetrate all areas of society.

Nehru’s key historical legacy was to bestow the Indian state with highly inflated and wide-reaching duties.


Nehru did not believe in nepotism and did not prepare his daughter Indira to be his successor to the position of Prime Minister.

After Nehru’s death in 1964 and the death of his successor as Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964-1966), Nehru’s daughter Indira was made Prime Minister by senior members of the Congress party in 1966.

The 1971 election slogan Garibi Hatao (End to Poverty!) was an economic absurdity but translated into massive electoral gains for Indira’s faction of the Congress party.

The seductive appeal of Indira’s populism.

Indira’s most vociferous political opponents were arrested during the Indian Emergency.

Annadurai (left) and his young lieutenant Karunanidhi (right) used the Tamil theatre and Tamil films to spread the ideology of the DMK.

After Sivaji distanced himself from the DMK in the mid-1950s, MGR became the face of the DMK party (seen here with Karunanidhi before a photo of Annadurai).

In Marmayogi (‘Mysterious Saint’, Dir. A.S.A. Sami, 1951), MGR stars as a prince who rebels against the rule of an evil queen (his father’s mistress who usurps the throne) and restores his father to the throne. MGR, who was an ardent fan of the swashbuckling heroes of Silent Era Hollywood: Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, achieved great success in roles as a swashbuckling Robin-Hood type hero after this film.

MGR, once again in the familiar red and black, this time as a cycle rickshaw rider, in a still from the film Rickshawkaran.

In film after film, MGR was portrayed as an irresistibly handsome, brave, warrior-like and unselfish hero, traits that made him an ego-ideal for men and an object of desire for women.






State and populism in India

Before considering the “AYM” genre’s radical dimensions, it is instructive to ask: What precipitated the atrophy of the state—as portrayed in Tamil cinema? The causes of this decline become clear when one views the period 1971-1977, which saw the rise of populism under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. Manipulated by India’s political elite mostly for expedience and electoral gain, populism led to the destabilization and subsequent corruption of the Indian state.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought the state should transcend traditional roles of maintaining territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to Sunil Khilnani, the Indian state was envisioned by Nehru—its chief architect—to become a “developmental agency” that would penetrate all areas of society while being subject to democratic circumscription.[26] [open endnotes in new window] Nehru was convinced of the state’s ability to remold Indian society as a trustee when India became a Republic on January 26, 1950. At that point the state took upon itself a myriad responsibilities: “from patrolling borders that stretched across glaciers, to abolishing untouchability, from constraining religious passions to building nuclear reactors.”[27]The key historical legacy of Nehru’s leadership was therefore to lay upon the Indian state highly inflated and wide-reaching duties.

Nehru’s daughter Indira effectively institutionalized populism. Her slogans in the lead-up to the 1971 general elections reveal the large-scale operation of populist rhetoric, encapsulated in a direct appeal to the rural and urban poor. Consider, for example, her emphatic and successful election slogan: Garibi Hatao! (End to Poverty!) The limits of this kind of political thinking were obvious to a journalist writing at that time:

“The instant poverty-removal slogan was an economic absurdity. Psychologically and politically...it was however, a decisive asset for a community at war with reason and rationality.”[28]

This rhetorical assert was converted into resounding electoral gains for Indira’s party as it won 350 seats won out of 523 seats. Indira was so glorified as the source of success that her Congress faction became known as Congress (I) for Indira.

For historian Ayesha Jalal, such a recourse to populism is a symptom that a state's institutional competence and legitimacy is either eroding or eroded.[29] Populism utilizes a seductive appeal to the masses by

“giving voice to the frustrations of the dispossessed…[with] its declared aims to dent the existing structures of domination and privilege.”[30]

What differentiates this political temperament from other ideologies is that it resorts to empty sloganeering with a rhetoric of revolution transmitted by a charismatic personality, rather than being premised on any systematic analysis of social inequities.[31] Consequentially, Indira’s resort to populism would diminish any remaining legitimacy the Indian state had.

Through such kinds of populist mobilization, the nature of politics in India was transformed. The centralization of power according to Indira’s whims implied that those placed at the head of regional Congress (I) party organizations were of her own coterie: “mere clients rather than supporters of the central authority.”[32] The Congress system was undermined by the absence of experienced and committed cadre who had risen up from the grassroots.[33] People pressed into political service were now political contractors who would go to any length to dragoon votes.[34] The language of money replaced open debate around issues and programs, indispensable to the operation of democratic systems as effective registries of discontent. This kind of politics and corruption of representative democracy found representation in 1980s Tamil cinema. Here the scripts developed the character of the suitcase-politician (one who has received suitcases of bribe money) as villain, and such a trope effectively appealed to current resentments against politics.

The underworld-funded suitcase-politician in the “AYM” genre was not just an imaginative characterization. With the social contract established between the electorate and the Congress’ political elite in tatters, black money became the means through which the government bought support.[35] T. V. Sathyamurthy reveals that many politicians and leaders from the early-1970s onwards had a talent for making the right contacts with black market barons, as the black economy became the “demi-goddess presiding over the fortunes of the ruling party.”[36] Furthermore, legal institutions did little to stop the black economy, so a new political dispensation based purely on money came to the fore.[37]

Between 1973 and 1975, the failure of democracy became pronounced as politics spilled on to the streets with violence. Student youth movements in Gujarat and Bihar felt that there was no other way to get grievances redressed than through demonstrations, strikes, gheraos (encircling a government building or politician’s office in protest), bandhs (general strikes), and street violence.[38] They protested rampant inflation and shortages of essential goods, compounded by an unresponsive administration. These protests coincided with National Railwaymen’s Union’s attempt at a nationwide strike in May 1974. At a rally in Patna in October 1974, prominent Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), called for Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) and threatened to “establish a parallel government” with a “People’s Assembly.”[39] In this way, India saw the development of a “parallel” politics that challenged the very legitimacy of state institutions.

The Emergency was imposed on June 26, 1975, as an authoritarian reaction to a severe challenge to Indira’s leadership. The specific trigger came on the eve of the Emergency declaration when JP urged the army, police and government workers not to obey orders they considered wrong, as the Opposition parties organized nationwide strikes against Indira.[40] Indira’s justifications for imposing the Emergency were ostensibly framed in nationalist-populist terms, as a measure to defeat

“the deep and widespread conspiracy which had been brewing ever since [she] began to introduce progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.”[41]

The Indian Emergency therefore came about through process in which a crisis-laden ruling elite drew the party, governmental system, and eventually the state itself, into a crisis.[42]

From 1975 to 1987 the general tone of people’s thinking in India became darker, moving from “political disquiet to a deeper historical pessimism.”[43] Sudipta Kaviraj attributes to the Emergency years of 1975-1977 this sense of apprehension about Indian democracy and gloom over the tasks that Nehru’s state had undertaken.[44] During these two years, the state unleashed the full measure of its coercive powers against the populace. Under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and the Defense of India Rules (DIR), from 1975-1977 nearly 110,000 people were detained.[45] For the first time since Independence, freedom of speech and press were severely curtailed. Emergency rule became a virtual “bureaucracy-cum-police raj” with many instances of blatant misuse of power.[46] The forced sterilizations of around 8.2 million men and women between 1976 and 1977 and forced slum clearances, organized by Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi and the Youth Congress, became among the worst memories of the Emergency.[47] Such draconian actions aroused strong opposition to the government after a brief period of support for the stability that the Emergency brought.[48]

 By January 1977, the authoritarian interlude ended. But politics and the state, “once seen as the prophylactic that would invigorate the country, were now seen as the disease,” a disease set in process by the expedient politics of populism.[49]

The MGR phenomenon

Indira faced a political backlash from the Emergency in the elections of 1977. For the first time in the history of independent India, a non-Congress government under the Janata party alliance captured power at the center. However, in Tamil Nadu, Congress (I)’s position was strengthened through a coalition with the “Robin Hood of Tamil movies,” MGR.[50] Matinee idol MGR exploited the film-politics nexus like no other before him, and he rose to the highest office in Tamil Nadu, only to entrench a regime mired in corruption.

The cinema industry occupied an influential position in Tamil Nadu’s post-colonial history. When the DMK dislodged Congress from the helm in the Tamil Nadu state’s Fourth Legislative Assembly elections in 1967, the widely acknowledged reason for the DMK victory was that its intimate association with both theatre and cinema helped the party to spread its ideology and gain mass support.[51]

During the silent film era (1917-1931), films produced in the South Indian film production capital of Madras (now known as Chennai) were mostly mythological films, which brought stories from Hindu myths and epics to the screen. After the first Tamil sound feature, the mythological film Kalidas (Dir. H. M. Reddy, 1931), the introduction of talkies accelerated the Tamil film industry's development. However, by the mid-forties, the public’s interest in mythological films began to fade.

For fresh ideas, the film industry capitalized on the popularity of playwrights from Tamil theatre, who were associated with the Dravidian movement. Tamil Nadu’s first non-Congress Chief Minister, C. N. Annadurai, was a scriptwriter who had first established the DMK in 1949. The DMK was a political offshoot from the anti-Brahmin, anti-Congress and anti-North Indian cultural and social reformist movement Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Federation). From the late 1940s, Annadurai and his successor as Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi—who held the view that “art should be for propaganda”—scripted a series of socially themed melodramas heavily politicized in their rejection of North-Indian domination and Brahmin supremacy.[52]

The Hollywood film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) was adapted by Annadurai into a Tamil screenplay as Nallathambi, starring actress Bhanumathi and comedian N.S.Krishnan. in his debut role as Gunasekaran in Parasakthi, Sivaji Ganesan plays the oppressive society's victim. In a famous courtroom scene Sivaji, speaking Karunanidhi’s alliterative monologue, powerfully harangues against upper class elitism, caste oppression, and the hypocrisy of religion.

Malaikkallan (Mountain Dacoit, Dir. S.M. Sreeramula Naidu, 1954) was an action adventure blockbuster and early MGR - Karunanidhi collaboration.

Immediately after the film’s title-card, the credits establish the film’s illustrious dialogue writer.

Malaikkallan’s box-office success made MGR a superstar in Tamil cinema and established him as a swashbuckling romantic hero. He plays a Robin-Hood type figure who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

In Nadodi Mannan, another early MGR blockbuster, he plays a vagabond revolutionary who looks like the king. When the vagabond takes the kings’ place he introduces a series of reforms like those in the DMK party manifesto.

In these ideological films, such as Nallathambi (“Good Brother,” Dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1949), Veilaikaari (“Servant Girl,” Dir. A. S. A.Samy, 1949) and the controversial Parasakthi (“Goddess,” Dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1952), DMK’s themes centered on issues such as

“widow-remarriage, the injustices of untouchability, the self-respect marriage, zamindari abolition [zamindars were members of the landed gentry who were absentee landlords], Prohibition and religious hypocrisy.”[53]

Thus, since its early history, Tamil movies have politicized art.

The DMK propaganda machine found an emblematic figure in MGR. First, the red and black DMK party flag and the party symbol of the rising sun inspired anagrammatic references placed in MGR films.[54] Typically, MGR’s characters appeared in a red shirt and a pair of black pants in the opening scenes of color films like Nam Naadu (“Our Country,” Dir. Jambulingam, 1969) or in important scenes in films like Rickshawkaran (“Rickshaw-man,” Dir. M. Krishnan, 1971). In black and white films, MGR’s characters had names like uthaya suriyan (rising sun) and kathiravan (sun) as in Chakravarty Thirumagal (“Princess,” Dir. P. Neelakantan, 1957) and Puthiya Bhoomi (“New World,” Dir. Tapi Chanakya, 1968) respectively. In addition, the Manichean Weltanschauung of MGR’s films often centered on the conflict between the upper-caste men/women or the feudal landlords/rich industrialists versus MGR, the proletarian representative of the subaltern classes and lower castes.[55] MGR was also the archetypal Tamil hero: irresistibly handsome, brave, warrior-like, and unselfish.[56] As such a hero par excellence, MGR monopolized popular imagination as the swashbuckling champion of the downtrodden while allegorically representing the DMK.

The opening scene of Nam Naadu introduces the villains to be wealthy businessmen, who masquerade as social workers to steal from the unknowing masses.

After the unscrupulous villains are introduced in Nam Naadu the voice-over narrator says the people need “a true servant of the masses.” At that point the camera fades out from the laughing villains to capture MGR walking. MGR's entry is brought to focus using a long to medium shot. He is in the DMK colors of red and black, reading a book with pictures of Gandhi and DMK-founder Annadurai on its front and back covers.
In a crucial scene in the fantasy adventure film Adimai Penn, MGR meets his mother (the enslaved queen of a fictional kingdom) and promises to liberate the oppressed womenfolk of the kingdom. Here, MGR is again in the colors of the DMK.

In the 1960s, MGR acted more in melodramas set in the present rather than historical films or fantasy adventures. In socially themed melodramas, like Thozhilali (‘Worker’, Dir. M.A.Thirumugam, 1964), he played the proletarian representative of the subaltern classes and lower castes.

Though MGR was strongly linked to the DMK for most of its history, he left the party in 1971 and was able to thrive independently as a politician with his own offshoot All India Anna-DMK (AIADMK) party. MGR’s success stems from the “symbiotic relationship” between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu.[57] MGR was able to employ performative idioms within his campaign rhetoric. For instance, an important motif in MGR films was that the thaaikulam (mother community) was regarded as preeminently weak and especially worthy of protection.[58] Consonant with characterizations in popular MGR films like Thai Kaatha Thanaiyan (“Son who Protects his Mother,” Dir. M. A.Thirumugam,1962), Enga Veetu Pillai (“Child of Our Home,” Dir. Tapi Chanakya, 1965) and Adimai Penn (“Enslaved Woman,” Dir. K. Sankar, 1969) MGR in his election tours depicted Indira

“as a poor mother wanting to do good to the downtrodden being hounded on all sides by evil men.”[59]

Through the effective fusion of the virtual and the real, MGR became an active promoter of Indira’s populism and thrived in the new political environment that she created as Chief Minister.

The most iconic image of MGR is from the film Enga Veetu Pillai, when MGR’s character threatens to whip the Landlord with the very whip that the Landlord used to discipline his workers and servants.

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