Now Playing: Film, Power and Politics in South India

By Brian Stoddart - 11 June 2024
Now Playing: Film, Power and Politics in South India

Brian Stoddart on the interconnections and tensions between South Indian politics and film.

The world has showered India with justifiable praise for its successful conduct of the massive  national elections that slowed the Narendra Modi-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut and enlivened a hitherto ponderous political opposition. Over nine hundred million registered voters (though the actual turnout was lower than anticipated) defied pre-poll predictions with the BJP aiming to lift from 303 seats to 400 but instead retreating to 240, well short of an outright majority. That included a stunning setback in the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh heartland where Rahul Gandhi, the Indian National Congress and its complex INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) group won unanticipated support.

Outside India, much of the “a win for democracy” celebration carried a whiff of the country having met a Western system and process standard and, to a degree that is true – the Election Commission of India and its electronic voting system outstrips its counterparts anywhere (although there are ongoing legal battles about its efficiency). In Australia, we struggle with an upper house voting paper so large it might well have destroyed a tree per voter.

That celebration, too, reflects the burgeoning international desire for India to be playing by the same international “rules” as a major global force that has marked the rush to Delhi by the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe, Australia and others as part of the search for a counter to China. As Satyajit Das points out in the manufacturing and defence areas, India might never become what all those other players want it to be.

Further to that point, we might also suggest that inside this apparent East-West bonding through “democracy”, there reside flavours and features unique to India and that surprise or even look unfathomable to outsiders.

An immediate example concerns one of the “local” parties now assisting Narendra Modi and his BJP to remain in government. After Independence, Andhra Pradesh was the first new state created on the basis of language (Telugu), then in 2014 was redrawn into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Language and culture being at the heart of state formation both before and after Independence led directly to the emergence of a major film industry.

In the early 1970s, my first stay in Hyderabad was at a hotel next to a theatre screening Telugu movies. The first showing was at nine in the morning, the last for the day at one the next morning. All sessions were packed. That enthusiasm began in 1909 when Ragupathi Venkaiah Naidu charged entry to a short film exhibition, then the first silent feature appeared in 1921 and the first Telugu talkie in 1932. That enterprise was based first in Madras (now Chennai), capital of the British India Madras Presidency that incorporated what we now know as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and part of Odisha.

All those language regions produced significant film industries and the Andhra one, known as Tollywood, is sometimes reckoned bigger than Bollywood, the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai. In 2023 Tollywood saw approximately 240 million admissions yield $US300 million in ticket sales from a population of approximately 54 million (remembering that Telugu-speaking populations are not confined to Andhra Pradesh, and that Telangana has around 38 million with approximately 75% speaking Telugu).

But why is this significant for Narendra Modi?

Because his new ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that allows him to continue as Prime Minister has the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) as a major constituent, holding sixteen national seats and arguing hard for key Ministerial posts. The TDP’s national success matched its sweep in the simultaneous Andhra Pradesh state voting where the incumbent government slipped from 151 seats to just 11, the sort of swing rare in other “democracies, even if some see similar possibilities in the upcoming UK polls.

The new Chief Minister in Andhra Pradesh is state veteran N. Chandrababu Naidu, a former Congress member gone over to the TDP founded by his father-in-law, NT Rama Rao, one of Tollywood’s early gods and renowned for playing portraying Hindu deities in over 300 films. He was writer, actor, producer, director and the father of several children, most of whom are in the film industry. Daggubati Purandeswari, his daughter, for example, is another Congress turned TDP turned BJP politician newly elected to the national parliament from Andhra.

NT Rama Rao put the film industry at the heart of Andhra politics, recognising its vote bank drawing power and ability to carry contemporary political messaging. The West has seen this in limited cases like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger who went nowhere near the Indian phenomenon where political advertising and movie posters are almost interchangeable and political rallies resemble film sets.

That film-politics nexus in Andhra Pradesh is further boosted by the election of K Pawan Kalyan of the Jana Sena Party (People’s Army Party) to the national assembly. He founded the JSP and branded it with a red star flag like that of Che Guevara. Aligned now with the TDP, his party’s ruling tenets downplay caste, emphasise Telugu culture, stress anti-corruption and pro-people policies. A karate black belt holder, he is also younger brother to an even bigger movie star, Chiranjeevi.

Often described as “bigger than Bachchan” (Amitabh Bachchan of Bollywood fame),  Chiranjeevi has appeared in more than 150 films. With a net worth north of $US200 million, he formed the Praja Rajyam Party (People’s Rule Party) that initially lined up with Congress and he became Minister for Tourism in a Manmohan Singh-led government. As his brother rose in the BJP sphere, though, Chiranjeevi has openly supported Narendra Modi and taking his film fans with him.

These recent elections also produced a Kerala film and politics connection when Suresh Gopi won a first-ever seat for the BJP and rewarded with an appointment as Minister of State for Tourism, Petroleum and Natural Gas. Prominent in Malayalam language films for years, he has also appeared in Bollywood,Telugu and Kannada productions. His father was a film distributor, so he appeared first as a child actor before becoming a star, and started his political life in the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) group before moving towards Congress then later more leftist organisations.

But that film and politics nexus film is  as pronounced in Tamil Nadu. Very early post-independence leader CN Annadurai, who formed the Tamil-based DMK party, was a playwright with a heavy film involvement that he openly promoted  as a realm of political influence. The DMK later became the power base for M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister on several occasions and a leading screenwriter of major films and for actors like MG Ramachandran, the first big name actor to become Chief Minister anywhere. He led the rival AIADMK formed by Annadurai, and  was followed later by big name actress Jayalalitha whose 2016 death precipitated a major political crisis.

The DMK presently holds power in Tamil Nadu, led by MK Stalin, a son of Karunanidhi who bitterly opposes the BJP. He crafted a local alliance of several parties to oppose the BJP which won no national seats from Tamil Nadu. That alliance is part of the INDIA opposition, so very different from the Andhra film-led camp now part of the BJP coalition. That Tamil Nadu pushback includes linguistic opposition to the BJP’s emphasis on Hindi, a more relaxed approach to the primacy of Hinduism compared to the BJP’s fierce attacks on Islam, a more technology-based approach to economic development, and a keen sense that southern states fare poorly in national development schemes. So why does the TDP support the BJP so strongly when it shares commonalities with the DMK on language and social development.

There are two conjoined answers.

First, there is an Andhra-specific financial dimension. When Telangana split off and severely dented the Andhra economy, then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu believed he had assurances of compensation from Modi. So the TDP joined the NDA in 2014 but, compensation not forthcoming, left in 2018. Now, though, he has a more powerful hand to play with Modi and is already pushing hard for compensation.

The second reason concerns Chandrababu Naidu’s personal position. While in opposition, the then ruling government pursued him on corruption charges and he spent time in jail. The Modi alliance will stave off those still unsettled allegations, and as a now stronger national powerbroker he will gain greater following and status at home.

And that is why Pawan Kalyan’s movie-driven presence has become more significant. It is a strong reminder of the NT Rama Rao and Chandrababu Naidu extended family network that stretches now into the elected ranks of the BJP. We should also note that other members of the Kalyan-Chiranjeevi family fold are also prominent actors and political presences.

There may also be a deeper vested interest for southern film industries. Throughout its time in government, the BJP has pressured Bollywood to produce films that align with the party’s Hindutva ideology. Because the northern industry’s leading figures include Muslims like Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, that remains contentious. As that most knowledgeable of India observers Robin Jeffrey notes, that has allowed south India to transform into the more progressive film centre which it’s leaders will want to continue. Having a strengthened political position in Delhi will help.

As if on cue, events at Cannes Film Festival this year confirmed the connection between Indian politics and film. For the first time an Indian, Payal Kapadia, won the Grand Prix for All We Imagine Is Light featuring women nurses living in Mumbai (Bombay). But she still faces court charges from 2016 when she led protests at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India’s against Modi’s appointment Gajendra Chauhan as Director. Though a lesser regarded actor, Chauhan was the BJP’s cultural advisor so influential in it’s approach to the industry.  

Predictably, though, FTII congratulated Kapadia on her win and essentially claimed credit for developing her skills. Those claims were challenged immediately, confirming there is much more to come on this issue of film in the politics of India.



Photo by Keith Lobo

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