C.S. Amudhan’s parody film Tamizh Padam 2 (2018) begins with the hero (Shiva) driving a flying car that hits a coconut tree. A shower of coconuts falls on a grateful farmer, and the hero tells the latter: “Every coconut barfi I eat has the sweat of farmers like you. I can never stand by and watch a farmer suffer.” While there is nothing funny about the suffering of farmers in real life, this scene is very much a spoof. By the time Tamizh Padam came out, so many Tamil films had incorporated dialogues about the farm crisis that it became a trope to be lampooned.
Five years later, this overdone plot thread from Tamil cinema has found resonance with the Hindi audience in Jawan (2023), the Shah Rukh Khan action thriller directed by Tamil filmmaker Atlee. In the film, Khan looks straight at the camera and talks about the power of democracy. Raising his forefinger, the Bollywood superstar asks the audience to demand accountability from the political class. The speech has generally been welcomed with loud cheers in theatres, and several Hindi film critics and reviewers have applauded the film for its “boldness”.
In the recent past, the action genre has become extremely popular in Tamil cinema, with films like Vikram (2022) and Jailer (2023) shattering box office records. Made by young filmmakers like Lokesh Kanagaraj and Nelson Dilipkumar, these films aren’t issue-centric and steer clear of political messaging. “I don’t think the younger crop is inclined towards such political ideologies. They may not want to take a risk by incorporating such dialogues or scenes in their films because they can get it horribly wrong too,” said Amudhan, citing the example of a film led by a star where the parai – a musical instrument associated with the Dalit community – is linked to the antagonist. “I don’t think it was intentional, but if it’s pointed out, they’re more likely to stay away from getting into any political representations because they’re worried about burning their hands,” said Amudhan.
Still, mass cinema in Tamil Nadu has rarely shied away from political messaging. From the days of MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan to contemporary stars like Vijay, several heroes have faced the camera and questioned the powers that be through their films.
Journalist Kavitha Muralidharan pointed out that Tamil leaders like C.N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi and to a certain extent M.G. Ramachandran used cinema to effectively propagate the ideology of the Dravidian movement. “For me, the most influential film in that sense is Parasakthi (1952). The film’s heroine was educated and politically aware – and she teaches politics to the hero. That way, Vimala (Pandari Bai) of Parasakthi is radical even for our times,” said Muralidharan. Parasakthi, directed by Krishnan-Panju, was written by Karunanidhi, and is an anti-establishment film that was critical of the government. It also called out the evils of Hindu caste society. It marked the debut of actor Sivaji Ganesan, and his fiery dialogue delivery created such a ripple that the Congress government ruling the state wanted to ban it.
The pro-rationalism ideas in a Hindi film like PK (2014), Muralidharan said, were already familiar to the Tamil audience that had seen such films from the Fifties. “Take V. Sekhar’s Onna Irukka Kathukanam (1992). Comedian Goundamani plays a grave-digger who sends his son to school. A Brahmin priest (SS Chandran) asks him who will dig graves after his time if his son goes to school. Goundamani’s character promptly says the Brahmin priest’s children can do the job for some time,” said Muralidharan.
Amudhan believes that it is this uninterrupted history of questioning authority on screen that has kept alive the anti-establishment spirit of Tamil cinema. “I’m not a big consumer of Hindi films, but in my opinion, post Karan Johar, Bollywood began making more and more films that offered a romanticised view of life. These films largely catered to the NRI audience. The rawness was gone,” said Amudhan. Tamil filmmakers, on the other hand, have continued to highlight issues that are relevant to the common people in their films, openly mocking and questioning government policies such as demonetisation, GST, digital India, promotion of Hindi over other Indian languages, and so on.
In Tamil Nadu, mass movies are often a platform to launch politicians (though not everyone has succeeded in such ambitions). From the days of MGR, Karunanidhi, and Jayalalithaa to Vijayakant, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and now Vijay (who is said to be keen on entering politics), several stars have tried to marry their onscreen image with their political avatars. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) scion Udayanidhi Stalin’s latest film Maamannan (2023) is also viewed by many as a statement that acknowledges the flaws within the existing social justice politics of the state.
In that sense, the political dialogues uttered by these stars have always come with a subtext that the audience was keen to read. For example, AR Murugadoss’s Sarkar (2018) is about a dynamic NRI modelled on Google CEO Sundar Pichai. He returns to his home country to cast his vote and becomes invested in cleaning up the political system. Vijay played the lead in Sarkar, and the film was seen as the star thumbing his nose at the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party that ruled the state at the time.
In Jawan, Khan plays Azad, a jailer who moonlights as a vigilante. Along with a group of women prisoners who were wrongfully convicted, Azad takes on the corrupt system and delivers instant justice. From farmer suicides to a broken government healthcare system, cash for votes and corporate lobbying, his outrage is cathartic and thrillingly new for the current Hindi audience. But those who are familiar with Tamil cinema have noted that these issues have been represented repeatedly in Tamil films. Jawan’s vigilante hero harks back to the Shankar template invented in the Nineties with Gentleman (1993), which later directors like Murugadoss and Atlee have liberally borrowed.
While the AIADMK objected strongly to Sarkar, accusing the film of vilifying Jayalalithaa, Muralidharan feels that governments in Tamil Nadu have generally been tolerant towards criticism in cinema.“There have been biopics like Iruvar (1997) that were made on politicians who were alive at the time. After Jayalalithaa’s death, there were web series and films about her life. Even those who were shown in bad light in these productions didn’t make an issue out of it. Maybe they didn’t want to give them additional publicity,” reasoned Muralidharan.
Amudhan said dialogues on social issues are a surefire way to grab eyeballs. “Virality is very important in today’s age. There’s nothing like pop culture and current political references – material that will be meme-ified – to promote a film. I think Tamil directors have understood that,” said Amudhan. The “bete ko haath lagane se pehle… (before you reach for my son…)” dialogue from the Jawan trailer, for example, became instantly popular, with the public reading it as a reference to the unlawful arrest of Khan’s son.
Atlee’s previous vigilante film Mersal (2017), which is about corruption in the healthcare system (which is also a sub-plot in Jawan) only deals with the issue in broad strokes. However, the appeal of such films is in the figure of the avenging one-man army whose victory is the ultimate wish fulfilment for audiences.
These anti-establishment vigilante films, however, tend to be populist and simplistic. For instance, Gentleman, which came out following the protests over the Mandal Commission overtly dealt with corruption, but was also anti-reservation. The film suggests Brahmin and other forward caste groups are treated unfairly by the education system, without seriously looking at systemic caste discrimination that holds back oppressed caste groups. “In that sense, these films are very tactfully done, taking up issues that appeal to all sections of society and without ruffling any feathers,” said Muralidharan.
Although Tamil cinema has filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran, who make films with strong political moorings, there are challenges to having an ideological framework in a film. Amudhan pointed out the looming fear of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which has the authority to prevent a film’s release. “When I made Tamizh Padam 2, there is a line that says that the PM (Prime Minister) went on tour to Kazakhstan before announcing demonetisation. I was asked to remove the word ‘PM’ completely. What is that if not the state interfering with my freedom of expression?” asked Amudhan. He pointed out that the CBFC’s decisions often seem whimsical. “There’s no published criteria that they go by, and the response varies from one CBFC committee to another. So, even if you ask why something was allowed in one film but not in another, they will just say that it was another committee that decided on it,” said Amudhan.