The Populists: Prime Minister Indira with Chief Minister MGR.


"‘Benevolent god of the masses"?

For six million children, MGR became known as Annam itta kai, notwithstanding the fact that the funding for the ‘Nutritious Noon-Meals Scheme’ came from the state coffers.

The cover of an issue of Asiaweek published immediately after MGR’s death speaks for itself.

Annakkilli ushered in the period of the Neo-Nativity genre as Tamil cinema moved away from melodrama.

The most famous film in the Neo-Nativity genre was Pattinaru Vayatinile. Besides its technical excellence, it also starred future Hindi film star actress Sridevi, Tamil star actor Kamalhaasan as a slow-witted and crippled villager as well as Rajini in an early role as an antagonistic village bully.

Sridevi in Pattinaru Vayatinile.

In Sigappu Rojakkal, Kamalhaasan plays a misogynistic serial killer who seduces young women and then proceeds to murder them. With an anti-hero as the lead, the film shocked filmgoers in Tamil Nadu.

Rajini as the lumpen Devu, causing a riot and breaking up a political rally in Thappu Thalangal.

Unlike MGR’s puritan characters, who never smoked or drank, the anti-heroic Rajini-persona was characterized by bad habits and negative traits.

Vijayakanth was another dark-skinned star who became popular in the early 1980s in low-budget films of the ‘AYM’ genre.

Bachchan introduced the brooding loner hero in Zanjeer.

However, it was Bachchan’s role as the gangster Vijay in the epic Deewaar, which popularized the figure of the angry hero.

In Thai Meethu Sathiyam, Rajini plays Babu, a sheperd whose parents are killed in cold-blood by robbers. Babu vows to take revenge on the perpetrators.





Having nurtured his image as an exemplar of “paternal populist” values through his work in film, MGR was able to successfully translate this into a political idiom.[60] [open endnotes in new window]Paternal populism encouraged party cadre and supporters to believe that the leader’s munificence directly brought them the benefits they received.[61] The spirit of paternalist populism was exemplified by “The Chief Minister’s Noon-Meals Programme” ushered in July 1982 by MGR. Under this program at least one meal each was provided for over six million underfed children; and it later included, pensioners, military veterans and destitute widows—totaling up to over twelve million beneficiaries by 1986.[62] As a result, MGR’s image was greatly enhanced by praises such as the “benevolent god of the masses” and metonymic sobriquets like Annam itta kai (the hand which has given food)—incidentally also the name of an MGR film from 1972.[63] This program was accompanied by other populist schemes such as the availability of rice at subsidized prizes for low and middle-income earners in ration shops.[64] Puratchi thalaivar (revolutionary leader) MGR’s populism solidified his cinematic imago from films to create a formidable political image —these films included Nadodi Mannan (“The Vagabond King,” Dir. T. V. Sundaram, 1958) where a revolutionary becomes a benevolent king. The successful fusion of cinema and politics ensured that only death in 1987 would end MGR’s term in office.

In spite of any populist efforts to end poverty, research by the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) suggests that over 40 percent of the people in the State continued to languish below the officially defined poverty line.[65] Furthermore, between 1972-1973 and 1983, the rural male unemployment rate in Tamil Nadu increased by 86 percent, higher than the 17.8 percent national level, while the urban unemployment rate from 1977-1978 to 1983 increased in Tamil Nadu at the same time it decreased at an all-India level.[66] To use film terms, populist measures by the MGR regime only gave the “illusion of change” as MGR continued to “perform” even while in office.[67]

Many see MGR’s eleven-year rule as one of the darkest periods in Tamil Nadu’s contemporary history.[68] MGR created a despotic regime that violently repressed trade unions and opposed NGOs.[69] The state of Tamil Nadu also acquired the “distinction” as a “ruthless police-raj” amongst other shortcomings.[70] Unchecked police rule was further granted legal sanction by the Goondas (Thugs) Act of 1982, which empowered the District Collector (the most powerful government official in the district of a state) to detain anyone suspected to be a potential violator of the law for a whole year without trial.[71] Any restive opposition that used newspapers as its mouthpiece to criticize the AIADMK government was silenced through the Anti-Scurrility act of 1982 or illegally by party thugs. Atul Kohli shows that MGR and his entourage “ruled the state as a personal fiefdom” and brought it to near economic and administrative collapse.[72] This personal form of rule compounded the large-scale corruption that belied the anti-corruption platform upon which MGR rode on in the 1977 election campaign against Karunanidhi.[73] All-pervasive corruption, from MGR at the top to the police at the local level, crippled effective state functioning. Contrary to the radiant aura that surrounded his filmic incarnations, Chief Minister MGR instituted a dark period in the state’s history.

Any resentment held towards politicians targeted middle-level mandarins for condemnation but never the charismatic figure of MGR, who successfully deflected criticism away from himself. He could

“distribute the causes for the ever increasing corruption and oppression in his rule among others—the officials, ministers and lower-level party functionaries.”[74]

Most people continued to glorify the cult of the leader but blamed their woes on his underlings. The obvious state corruption that the poor faced every day, in fact, allowed MGR to escape accusations of irresponsibility because of his incorruptible film image.[75]

Despite his government’s shortcomings, the cumulative effect of MGR’s paternalist populism granted him a god-like stature. This kind of deification was aided by his fan clubs and “popular biographies” that obliterated any difference between his film imago and actual life philosophy.[77] When he suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984, at least twenty-two people immolated themselves or cut off their limbs, fingers, or toes as offering to various deities, praying for the ailing leader’s recovery.[78] When MGR died in December 1987, thirty-one of his followers committed suicide in grief.

For a decade, MGR had perfected the truism of ruling with an iron fist in a velvet glove—aided by his image as cinematic superego. By exacerbating what Indira activated, MGR’s leadership contributed to the conjunctures that delegitimized the state. The political situation had its effects on the cinematic realm as film narratives, through the persona of an angry young hero, exposed the state as an atrophied system.

Historicizing the “Angry Young Man” genre

I hope that my somewhat tedious analyses of the preceding sections serve to situate the reader firmly in the socio-political context in which the “AYM” genre thrived. I am using a “reflectionist” perspective, which considers a genre’s popularity as depending on the extent to which it addresses and negotiates contemporary concerns.[79] The “AYM” genre clearly operates within the matrices of the “social film,” a typology that varies from the mythological and historical films of Indian cinema. The social film seems based on life “as it is lived at the present time.”[80] As such, the genre encourages vicarious identification with the righteous indignation of an anti-hero. Through its kinds of characterization, narrative forms, iconography, idioms, ideology and auteurship, the genre’s conventions were used to develop fictions symptomatic of its time.

First, I want to justify using the term “AYM” genre. I find the term “social film” to define a genre too broad because almost all contemporary films are social. With genres such as the historical and mythological all but gone by the mid-1970s, the “social film” lacked these as a counterpoint to differentiate itself as a genre on its own. The term genre is appropriate in describing the “AYM” films because only genre simultaneously addresses

“the industry’s investment in standardized narratives for commercial use on the one hand and the spectator’s pleasure in genre films with their stock narratives structured around repetition and differences.”[81]

While each individual film may fit into traditional categories of genre such as "melodrama," "drama," "action," "thriller" or a fusion of a number of categories of genre (a common practice in Indian cinema), the repetition of key conventions and/or shared thematic preoccupations that appear to relay similar messages film after film, also legitimizes the use of the term genre to describe the "AYM" films.

In his book on the history of Tamil cinema, film director and industry insider Muktha V. Sinivaasan categorizes four phases of development in Tamil films between 1931 and 1993:

  • the first period was dominated by Hindu mythology and folk stories (1931-1950);
  • the second period was inundated by high melodrama (1951-1975);
  • the rise of realism, anti-sentimentality and anti-establishment films defined the third stage (1976-1985); and
  • the final period was marked by gratuitous violence and sex (1985-1993).[82]

The changes the Tamil film industry underwent between the second and third stages are necessary to understand the "AYM" genre. The star-system, dominated by the swashbuckling hero MGR and the thespian Sivaji since the 1950s came to an end in the mid-1970s—as the former took office as Chief Minister and the latter’s films began to fail at the box office. According to Sundar Kaali, the end of the star-system that had thrived for twenty years unabated, affected the studios and the producers, and plunged the industry into a “period of profound crisis.”[83] However, by the early 1980s, a new star-system based on the duopoly of the superstar Rajinikanth and the method actor Kamalhaasan revived the industry. During this intervening period, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, new modes of representation emerged that introduced hitherto unexplored characterizations.

New modes of representation—defined by increasing narrative realism—were a hallmark of the genre known as neo-nativity films. Nativity films are stories set in rural Tamil Nadu, valorizing the rustic and foregrounding the lives of villagers. Neo-Nativity films like Annakkili (Dir. Devaraj-Mohan, 1976), Pattinaru Vayatinile (“At the Age of Sixteen, Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1977), Rocappu Ravikkaikkari (“Woman with the Rose-colored Blouse” Dir. Devaraj-Mohan, 1978) and Puttata Puttukkal (“Dysfunctional Locks, Dir. Mahendran, 1980) were popular in this period. The Old Nativity films, prior to the period, were distinguished by the phallic affirmation of the rustic hero and his victorious journey to eliminate social evils in the village and the city, while triumphing over the modern woman whom he successfully tames.[84] In contrast, the male protagonist in the Neo-Nativity film evidenced arrested development, mental inadequacy, physical failure and needed to be supported by a dominant female character. The portrayal of the village also changed in the Neo-Nativity films with greater care for verisimilitude and detail, as directors like Bharathirajaa, R. Selvaraj, K. Bhagyaraj, J. Mahendran, Balu Mahendra and the duo of Devaraj-Mohan took the Tamil film out of the studios and into the countryside for location shoots in searching for more authentic cinematography.

A by-product of the shift away from melodrama after the embrace of the Neo-Nativity film was a transition towards more controversial interpretations of heroism and bolder subjects. New genres were explored and fresh new directions were taken in Tamil cinema to reinvigorate it after the crisis that occurred with the end of MGR-Sivaji star system. Young actors like Kamalhaasan—who was starting his career at this point—were willing to experiment and move away from hackneyed ideas of heroism. The success of the suspense thriller Sigappu Rojakkal (“Red Roses,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1978), a film ahead of its time, introduced as protagonist the hitherto unseen figure of a psychotic and demented anti-hero (played by Kamalhaasan).[85] The avant-garde drama Aval Appadithan ("That’s How She is," Dir. C.Rudraiah, 1978) was another critically acclaimed film released during this period. An unsentimental feminist film about a fiercely independent woman, and her difficult relationship with men, Aval Appadithan uses a fluid narrative style and music to “[mix] flashbacks with vox-pop and glossy pictorialism.”[85b]  Such stylized techniques of story telling were a new innovation in Tamil cinema. By shedding its melodramatic excesses, Tamil cinema became more receptive to unorthodox themes and unconventional filmmaking.

The representational space opened up by Rajinikanth, or the Rajini-persona, similarly recoded conventions of heroism in Tamil cinema. Rajini introduced the figure of a forceful, menacing, macho anti-hero, as seen in the drama films Mullum Malarum (“Thorn and Rose,” Dir. J. Mahendran, 1978) and Thappu Thalangal (“Wrong Beats,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1978). Having begun his career as a stylish villain with gimmicks such as flicking a cigarette into his mouth, catchy one-liners, quick movements and swaggering mannerisms, Rajini fit into the mould of what was known in the industry as a “negative hero.” [86] Sinivaasan explains that the “negative hero” was celebrated because he was a refreshing change from the melodrama’s use of the self-sacrificing hero who renounces every personal advantage.[87] The audience, it seems, no longer found such representations believable. Rajini instead excelled in glamorizing and humanizing the lumpenproletariat in roles such as these—alcoholic, local gangster, gambler, henchman—but always a man with a fundamentally good character beneath a tough exterior.[88]

In Mullum Malarum, Rajini plays the angry and intense Kaali, a subaltern who is suspicious of authority figures and resents the upper class elites.

Despite being an aggressive and violent figure Kaali shares a special bond with his younger sister in Mullum Malarum. However, she falls in love with Kaali’s boss, the engineer, whom Kaali detests.

The popularity of the Rajini-persona was such that even when this stylized “negative hero” made a cameo, albeit an important one, as in Naan Vazhavaippaen (“I Will Sustain You,” Dir. D. Yoganad 1979) audiences thronged to watch. One journalist noted that many who bought tickets for the thriller Naan Vazhavaippaen only arrived after the interval (or intermission)[89] when Rajini appears as Michael De Souza, the chain-smoking thief with a heart, even though Sivaji was the leading actor and hero.[90] This persona was manipulated to great effect in Rajini’s first blockbuster Billa (Dir. Balaji, 1980), a shot-for-shot remake of the Hindi film Don (Dir. Chandra Barot, 1978). In Billa, Rajini plays both a ruthless mafia don and a virtuous but unpolished street-dancer who takes the former’s place to help the police infiltrate the underworld. Rajini’s capacity to straddle convincingly both illegality and benevolent innocence ensured Billa’s box-office success. His idiosyncratic display of anti-heroism thrust Rajini from the status of fringe actor towards superstardom.

Rajini as Michael De Souza, the chain-smoking thief with a heart of gold, in Naan Vazhavaippaen. Though Sivaji was the main-lead in Naan Vazhavaippaen, most audiences only arrived after the intermission to catch Rajini in an extended cameo.
The main reason for the success of Billa was Rajini’s talent in portraying both the villainous gangster Billa ... ... and the virtuous and brave but unpolished street-dancer Rajappa who takes Billa’s place to help the police.

The multiple levels of signification that encode the Rajini-persona bestowed it with legitimacy and accentuated its enunciation of defiance against established power relations. Despite being an outsider—Rajini was an ethnic Marathi born in the city of Bangalore in the neighboring South Indian state of Kannada—he became a superstar because the Rajini-hero closely adhered to the definitions of appropriate Tamil masculinity. Markers such as “wearing of a moustache, physical prowess, authority, sexual virility and the capacity to control women” epitomize Tamil masculinity.[91] Rajini’s characters displayed these localized markers of manhood with panache. Another factor, which made Rajini unique, was his dark complexion. Dark Rajini was strikingly different from his predecessors like MGR and Sivaji, who were fair heroes whose radiance on celluloid was assisted by thick pancake make-up.

MGR was a fair-skinned hero whose on-screen radiance was assisted by thick pancake makeup. Compared to MGR, Rajini was strikingly dark and appeared almost black in complexion.

If MGR, for instance, did appear as a dark-skinned character, it was to portray a criminal doppelganger in films like Kudiyiruntha Kovil (‘Temple of Refuge’, Dir. K.Shankar, 1968), and Naalai Namadhe (‘Tomorrow is Ours’, Dir. K.S.Sethumadhavan, 1975), usually alongside another fair-skinned, good MGR character as foil. Even Rajini’s contemporary, Kamalhaasan, was fair in complexion. The socio-cultural significance of skin-color is that for a long time Tamil cinema, like other cinemas in India, perpetuated the stereotype that black is blemish, where dark skin is thought to be the skin color of the lowest castes, lower classes and the traditionally subjugated people. In contrast, fair skin, is associated with the ruling elites (the Mughals and the British were fair skinned rulers), upper castes and a higher social class.[91b] Rajini broke the deeply entrenched colorist stereotypes to become the first dark-skinned superstar and the true representative of the oppressed. Rajini’s entry into cinema also allowed another dark-hued actor Vijayakanth to become a star. Film academic Rajan Krishnan recounts that Vijayakanth—who also played mostly vigilante roles in the lower budget films of the “AYM” genre—was considered to be a “low budget substitute to Rajini” in the initial phases of his film career.[92] The Rajini-persona hence, embodied an authentic, subaltern Tamil masculinity that would become a potent symbol of rebellion.

To understand the trope of the “AYM,” it is essential at this juncture, to look at the ur-text, Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan first acted as the brooding loner hero in Zanjeer (“Chains,” Dir. Prakash Mehra, 1973) and epitomized it after the success of Deewaar (“Wall,” Dir. Yash Chopra, 1975), Sholay (“Ember,” Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and Trishul (“Trident,” Dir. Yash Chopra, 1978). The Indian press at that time gave the title of “Anti-hero” and “Angry Young Man” to this character, which became synonymous with Bachchan after other similar portrayals in later films.[93] This anti-hero character time and again was scripted for actions that went against institutional norms but were the right thing to do.[94] In that way Bachchan’s characters represented a

“unified understanding of civil society after the Emergency that institutions have failed [and] that old paradigms of civility will not work.”[95]

The angry hero’s violence and rebellion against the state made these films "anti-establishment."[96]

Significantly, the Rajini-persona also became the voice of a new sensibility, best described as cynical and anti-political. Where Bachchan was laconic in his articulation of rage, Rajini was sardonic. In the drama film, Mullum Malarum, the protagonist Kaali’s status as subaltern accounts for his distrust of all forms of establishment and so he sings:

“Raman aandalum raavanan aandalum enokkoru kavalai illae” (I don’t care if the epic hero Ram rules or or the evil demon Ravana rules).

The counter-hegemonic principles embedded within these lyrics and the song's popularity and widespread distribution were said to have earned the ire of the ruling AIADMK party.[97] Likewise, in another dramatic film, Thappu Thalangal, the lead character Devu begins the narrative as a lumpenproletariat hireling of politicians. He does their bidding, intimidating and injuring opponents, and from this position he sardonically praises the political system that sustains him. The first indications that Tamil cinema was responding to popular political skepticism began to be registered in terms of the irreverent Rajini-persona.

The subversive charisma of the Rajini-persona found an especially willing audience amongst marginalized men. Art historian Preminda Jacob’s informs us that the Rajini-hero was an object of fantasy and desire for “thousands of economically disenfranchised youths,” many of whom watched the same Rajini-film a number of times over.[98] While more concrete empirical evidence needs to be gathered to affirm this point, there is a possibility that Rajini’s being dark-skinned enabled male fans from the subaltern classes and lower castes in Tamil Nadu, most of whom are dark-skinned, to relate with ease to Rajini’s characters. The dark Rajini-hero’s stylized irreverence encouraged what anthropologist Frederick G. Bailey calls the

“supreme trick of identification in which the [masses] see the [the hero] not only as an ideal above them but simultaneously as one of them.”[99]

This manner of relating to the characters effectively contributed to the idealization and subsequent idolization of the superstar, as Rajini became known as thalaivar (leader) to his legions of fans. Vicarious identification for the audience is therefore facilitated when phenotypical signifiers reinforce the screenplay to demarcate the hero as an everyman or man from the masses.

Concomitant with his performances as an anti-hero, Rajini acted in films that reconfigured this persona as an avenging hero driven by sheer rage. “AYM” genre narratives focalized around two motifs. One was the metamorphosis of either a virtuous idealist or an innocent simpleton into a hardened, vengeful vigilante. This metamorphosis into militancy is justified as a necessary transformation the hero must undergo in his fight for justice in a time of social disintegration and moral decay. Themes centering on vendetta that were hitherto the mainstay of the sub-genre of “idli westerns” like Ganga (Dir. M. Karnan, 1972), an indigenized pastiche of Hollywood Westerns, were reconstituted in mainstream action films.[100] The “idli western” was briefly revisited in Thai Meedhu Sathyam (“Upon Mother I Promise,” Dir. R. Thyagarajan, 1978) in which the protagonist Babu, played by Rajini, is a village hick whose parents are murdered by bandits. Under the tutelage of another cowboy gunslinger, Babu becomes a sharpshooter who pursues and ruthlessly executes the perpetrators. Though the “idli western” ended after the less successful Naan Potta Savaal (“The Challenge I Made,” Dir. Puratchidaasan, 1980), motifs of metamorphosis and vengeance were reworked from “idli westerns” to became the dominant narrative device in action films like En Kelvikku Enna Bathil (“What is the Answer to My Question?” Dir. P. Madhavan, 1978), Kaali (Dir. I. V. Sasi, 1980), Polladhavan (“Ruthless One,” Dir. V. Srinivasan, 1980), Garjanai (“Roar,” Dir. C. V. Rajendran, 1981), and the martial arts film Paayum Puli (“Springing Tiger,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1983). With the success of these films, Rajini carved out for himself a niche in vendetta roles.

Babu undergoes training in shooting skills from a gunslinger and becomes a sharpshooter and competent horseman. Babu sets off on his mission, determined to uphold justice and find his parents’ killers.
With the help of his loyal dog Ramu, who has seen the murderers and can identify them, Babu searches for his parents’ killers. Babu is merciless in sentencing his parents’ murderers to death and in the style of the Western film, kills them in shootouts.

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