Performative Film Practices In Tamil Politics, Part 2 (Giulia Battaglia)

The following article is the second installment of a two-part series.  The first installment appears here.

Sundararaj Baskaran’s assumption that traditional popular songs and dramas did not much affect south Indian cinema until the coming of sound in 1930s is contestable. While at the beginning of the 1920s popular songs started to be reproduced, standardized, and therefore commercialized by the gramophone, traditional theatre halls were already transformed into cinema halls.

Cinema started in India at the very beginning of the 20th century and the first south Indian “indigenous” typology was the silent cinema performed in traditional theatre halls. As A.P. Hughes has widely argued (in 2000, 2003, and 2006) since the beginning of the 20th century, touring exhibitors specialized themselves in shows dedicated merely to film screenings by keeping the same characteristics of traditional variety performances. Hughes states:

Beyond the musical accompaniment of piano, percussion or gramophone recordings, these early shows consisted of a series of unrelated and widely varied short films. Newspaper advertisements for film shows promised a balanced programme which included coloured, comic, historic, dramatic, tragic, travel, trick, scenic, sport and animated gazettes. Within this variety format every cinema show was itself a composite of all film genres, usually only one reel length. Once a film was completed, there was a short break while the reel was changed in the projector, and then the show moved on to something completely different (36).

The early 1920s in south India were therefore characterised by two important phenomena: the mechanical reproduction of songs and the development of exhibition places. These phenomena formed the background for the growth of the ‘talkies’ which, from the 1930s onwards, became a fundamental vehicle for political communication and for the major urbanised modern performances that constituted a Tamil cinema culture.

While the mechanical reproduction contributed to the spread of nationalist tunes and political programmes – reaching a wider audience but losing its traditional performative aspect – film exhibitors contributed to the ‘safeguarding’ of these performative aspects of traditional drama. Therefore, the beginning of the century laid the foundations for the succeeding development of the two main features of south Indian commercial cinema – that is, its multi-media and multi-senses performative social aspect and its relationship with politics. If gramophones reproduced songs, films reproduced drama subjects and performativity.

Mythological film was one of the main genres of the silent era which reproduced on the screen already known stories, facilitating the construction of a cinema clientele or what has been called the figure of ‘filmgoer.’ Baskaran claims that “through wandering minstrels, kalatchepam bhagavathars, the popular stage and the therukoothu performances, the audience was familiar with all the mythological episodes” (88). Since the filmmakers did not need to devise ways of telling mythological story, their role was merely to transpose a well-known drama into a different medium.

However, the new medium did not work as a mere ‘reproducer’ or ‘adaptor’ of an already familiar mythological content. Thanks to the ability of its exhibitors, it became a performative event itself which could recreate a similar performative social event typical of traditional popular performances. The silent era had therefore to be considered as the beginning of a well-built articulation between exhibitors and their audiences.

According to Hughes,

Each film screening of genre is like an utterance, a performative act that presupposes a particular audience at a definitive time and place, under definitive historical conditions. Film performances are constructed through the sociality organized and reciprocal relationships between the promoting exhibitors and the paying audiences (34).

Thus, it is not only the narrative structure which creates connections between films and cultural traditions, but also the unique interaction between audiences and film projected on the screen in a special place and occasion, claims Hughes. Special places and occasions became the exhibitors’ weapon. For instance, Hughes states that mythological films were screened as special events during popular Hindu festivals. Additionally, action serial and short drama before, and historical and social films later, worked as ‘educators’ – through exhibition practices – for the not already formed category of filmgoers.

The staging of films, music, narration, live entertainments, intervals and advertising all helped to frame the experience of films together with the practising of vending and consuming refreshments and snacks, tobacco, paan, soda, etc. In addition, the social atmosphere within cinema theatres themselves made up of noise, talking, intimacies, disruptions and pranks significantly helped to shape a shared sense of films, according to Hughes.

To sum up, while the gramophone created a new mass music market, giving higher recognition to drama music, silent cinema created a new social event, transforming theatre and cinema hall in which there were no more caste and gender distinctions but where the traditional performative aspect of popular culture was kept. This popular aspect could be possible also because the ticket price of cinema halls was relatively accessible for everyone, claims M.S. Pandian. In reality, consequence of this was that while dismantling castes and gender divisions, cinema created class distinctions.

As I have anticipated before, these two separate aspects of the early 20th century were crucial from the 1930s onward, for the development of both a peculiar cinema culture – that is, a complex performative system of production, distribution and consumption of films in which everyone is more or less involved – and a new strong vehicle for political communication. These are two features that, up to the contemporary time, have strongly characterized both politics and society in Tamil Nadu and with whom I believe contemporary documentary filmmakers have also to confront.

The coming of sound cinema in India took place in the middle of the 1930s and it was a gradual process. Given the Indian regional linguistic differences, it immediately raised problems. However, given the already formed cinematic language coming from the silent era and given the strong music market commercialized with the gramophone, a new cinematic language gave “a new aural universality” to the Indian talkies characterized by film songs and music, according to Hughes (13). Film songs from the earliest Tamil films, indeed, were not only performed in Tamil but in more than one language, depending on the song or on the vocalist’s linguistic abilities. Besides, Tamil gramophone and cinema started to work together. Hughes states:

Instead of working in competition with each other, the recording and film companies learned to work together, and they laid the commercial and institutional foundation for producing and sustaining the music of Tamil cinema, both as a filmic necessity and as an accompanying mass culture of music (22).

As a result, once there was sound, a great demand for singing actors along with stage-actors, song-writers and set-artistes came as well, and a new political interest grew. Throughout the 1930s, films reflected popular attitude of the time, giving a “definite shape to vague political inclinations,” according to Baskaran (100). They easily fell into political film.

As noted by J.L. Godard in Baskaran, “the filmmakers of this period did not make political films but made films politically” (98). By that time, indeed, anti-Brahmin movements were already formed, and the Self-respect Movement already gained mass appeal. Tamil cinema therefore became involved in the nationalist movements. “At the time of the appearance of the Tamil talkie, the political atmosphere in Madras was such that no performing art as mass-based as the cinema could remain unaffected by it for long” (104). Hence, politics was already moving to the countryside through cultural performances.

Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, there were the first figures of Tamil cinema that began to take active roles in nationalist politics. M.V. Mani was one of the first who, as a popular actor, began to support political leaders by appearing on political platforms. As a result, “the participation of cinema in political propaganda forced the intelligentsia, which had so far looked upon the cinema as a cheap and contemptible popular art, to take a closer and more serious look” (120). And the Dravidians soon transformed cinema in their principal political medium.

In 1949, outstanding members of the DK such as C.N. Annadurai and Mu Karunanidhi broke with Naicker’s party (Justice Party transformed into Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944) forming the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – that is the “Dravidian Progress Association,” or DMK. The difference between the two parties was in understanding Dravidian identity, Tamil cultural history, and religion’s social role.

The DMK left behind the idea of a separate ‘Dravidanad’ and moved away from the anti-castes and atheistic messages. Instead, it concentrated on a softer Tamil cultural nationalism by turning to an “assertive populism” within Tamil society and becoming the party of the Backwards Castes (BCs). Narendra Subramanian states that “while the DK appealed to an aggregate of megacastes, the DMK envisioned a territoriality rooted nation” (142). And the difference could be seen also on the respective party names: Dravidar Kazhagam refers to a group of people, the Dravidians, while Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam refers to a country, Dravidam.

Playwrights and film scripts became vehicles of political dissemination. Both Annadurai and Karunanidhi were script writers for plays and films and, by the late 1950s, many popular litterateurs, singers, theatre, and movie actors were DMK people. For Subramanian, their campaigns’ tactic was to write and act in many nationalistic plays as well as to organize oratory, debate, workshops (pattimanram) or ‘talk shop’ mainly around little private activities where people gathered together to gossip or discuss social issues.

While journals, short stories, and novels reached literate people, theatre and films reached the illiterate and semi-literate majority. Through the years, cinema for the DMK became a fundamental vehicle of propaganda strengthened also by the prominent cinematic-political figure of M.G. Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR) who, since the early 1950s, began a tense relationship with the DMK.

The use of double meanings in dialogues was DMK’s forte, claims Hardgrave. Within this strategy, MGR built up his image as an actual hero (cinematic and political) combining ‘real’ publicized donation to charities with cinematic heroic roles, states Dickey. He continuously blended ‘real’ and ‘not real’ events while spreading the idea that, according to Forrester, DMK did in real life what he did in his films – that is, loving and serving the poor, battling with the evil, and delivering the oppressed.

Whether or not there was some truth behind his figure, it is no doubt that he was the most popular spokesman of that time becoming ‘the idol of the masses.’ MGR kept supporting the DMK party until 1972 when he broke from the DMK and created, with his fan clubs, his own party, the ADMK (where the ‘A’ stands for Anna), re-proposing the original Annadurai’s paternal populist ideals.

Though, according to Subramanian, at that time MGR had already imprinted in the popular Tamil imagination an image of himself as an example of paternalistic populist values, by playing in his films “the roles of champion of the oppressed who promote[d] the rights of the weak and defend women’s honour” (247).

As observed by Vaasanthi, although the political content of Tamil films downgraded through the time and the relation between cinema and politics became less intimate than it was before, “the myth of MGR forever inspires the political aspirant to dream the impossible” (41). The ADMK was carried by J. Jayalalitha (actress as well as politician) who later transformed it in the AIAMK (where ‘AI’ stands for All-India), giving to the party a new national status connotation.

In 1988, Shivaji Ganesan, cinematographically MGR’s antagonist, split from the Congress which he supported up to that time. He announced the formation of his own party, the Tamilaga Munnetra Munnani (Tamil Progressive Front), followed by other actors and actress. Even though the party easily failed, it confirmed a new trend of a most contemporary politics which sees a less Dravidian power in favour to more little coalition parties, according to Pandian, but which still sees a connection between actors and cinema industry (see for instance the 2005 Vijayakanth’s party DMDK).

In this section, I have tried to highlight the way in which history and different contexts have continuously articulated a certain Tamil identity throughout time. This identity had been mainly manifested through traditional and modern cultural performances. And these cultural performances, on the one hand, became vehicle of political propaganda, and on the other hand, had been encompassed in a stronger performative cinema culture.

While Tamil political strategies can be interpreted as a strategic hegemony given by a tacit mass consent, the performative aspects of the well-established cinema culture in Tamil Nadu can be read as an unconscious form of ‘resistance.’ As I have tried to illustrate, Tamil society has been able to partially keep up traditional performances by adapting, transforming, or, to borrow from Milton Singer, ‘indigenizing’ or ‘traditionalizing’ modern urban centres.

This active-performative aspect of Tamil society, mainly manifested through ‘cultural performances’ (in which everyone takes part in, to different extents), has unconsciously worked against the hegemonic media power of the Dravidian parties. Whether it be a drama performance, a political pattimanram, or film screening, Tamilians have always been active members by participating and performing the event while consuming it.

In this respect, two contemporary phenomena become interesting to me: (a) how, over time, Dravidian parties have lost their political ‘monopoly’ due to an ongoing system of coalition parties; and (b) the not yet investigated phenomenon of marginal practices of filmmaking that, since the early days of cinema, tried to have a voice everywhere in India.

As Pandian has recently highlighted, “during the 1980s and the 1990s, politics in Tamil Nadu underwent a major reconfiguration with multiple identities and interests jostling for recognition” (2182). In other words, he said, “the old historic block of non-Brahmins or Tamils […] has developed irreparable fissures during this period.” Although DMK won the election of the 1989, a coalition government constituted by alliances was already the future of Tamil politics. Tamil Nadu witnessed the assertion of multiple interests in the political domain. However, the new parties and coalitions did not forget the historical Dravidian dominant idioms of poignant communication.

During the May election of 2006, PMK “frustrated by the inability to expand its support base beyond the Vannyar belt in the north Tamil Nadu,” joined the DPI to form the Tamil Protection Movement with the aim of ‘purifying’ Tamil names of Sanskrit influences, and Tamil films of English words. As Pandian highlights, this was a clear way to transcend their prior caste-based manifesto “by invoking a sanitised and inclusive Tamil identity,” similar to what already happened at the time of E.V. Naicker.

On the other hand, according to Baskaran since the beginning of the 20th century, also in south India, there was a growth of documentary filmmaking. They mainly covered important happenings and they were referred to as ‘review’ films. Baskaran gives credit to Joseph A. David of Madras as the first self-thought documentary cinematographer of the south. (However, according to Stephen Hughes, there were already other people before J.A. David who made documentary films in south India. These films were screened in cinema halls as a ‘warm-up’ before the feature film screening: Personal communication.)

David worked on typical south Indian subjects (like temple sculpture and festivals), but, due to lack of printing facilities, he sold all his films to companies in the United States and never saw them again. According to Baskaran, this may have been one of the reason why ‘indigenous’ documentary filmmaking had not had the chance to influence south Indian cinema. Citing the Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee 1927-1928, Baskaran states:

Since none of his films on the culture of India and on nature topics was screened in India, there was no chance of David’s work influencing south Indian cinema at all. But the foreign documentaries that were screened here with every show did give the Indian filmmakers the idea to use the screen for propaganda (75).

If, during colonial time, ‘indigenous’ documentary filmmaking had not been articulated in south India, what happened when after independence the documentary sector was recognized also by the Government? The history proves that after independence documentary filmmaking began to have a significant socio-political role in other parts of India. What happened in Tamil Nadu?

Many scholars have put attention on the mutual relation between politics and cinema in Tamil Nadu, but nobody has taken into account these marginal practices of filmmaking that, since the advent of cinema in India, had worked in the shadow of the mainstream cinema. Can we consider documentary filmmaking as another performative practice? And can we talk about a digital documentary filmmaking as a way in which minorities try to have a voice in local Tamil politics?

Giulia Battaglia is a researcher in anthropology of visual/art/media practices specialized in documentary film in India. Her work is interdisciplinary and draws from a range of academic fields, including visual/media anthropology, documentary studies, visual and material cultures, art and anthropology, Indian cinema, cultural studies and film history. She wrote Documentary Film in India: an Anthropological History, published with Routledge in 2018. At present, she lives and works in Paris in the field of anthropology, arts and media. She is  part of the laboratoire de recherche IRMECCEN, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3) and the laboratoire de recherche IIAC, at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). For the latter, she is also responsible for a funded international project between art and social science, called ‘L’invention des formes de représentation à l’ère de la mondialisation.’

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