Lights, Camera, Election

Why are so many Tamil politicians ex-film stars?

by ‘The Economist,’ London, June 8, 2013

WHEN the film “Parasakthi” was released in Tamil Nadu in October 1952, it played for over 100 days to rapt audiences…

During the past 50 years, five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters. To this day, power still ricochets between Mr Karunanidhi’s party, the DMK, and the AIADMK, a breakaway faction started by M.G. Ramachandran, another film star. Jayaram Jayalalitha, the 65-year-old current chief minister, was one of Mr Ramachandran’s former leading ladies.

Some of the state’s newer parties have starry credentials too. Vijayakanth, a former action hero nicknamed “Captain”, launched a party in 2005 that now has the second-largest showing in the state assembly. R. Sarath Kumar, a bodybuilder turned actor, has an assembly seat and a small party.

South Indians’ devotion to their film stars forms a good base for any aspiring politician. “The first thing is the recognisability of the face,” says the mustachioed Mr Kumar. His and Mr Vijayakanth’s tens of thousands of fan clubs have been converted into party branches. Tamil stars, who command millions of dollars per film, also have the cash to bankroll their entry into politics.

While Tamil Nadu’s “Kollywood” industry produces politicians (the K comes from Kodambakkam, the suburb where most films are made), television is increasingly the medium for propaganda. Rising incomes and party freebies mean even many poor families own a gogglebox. The main parties (or their supporters) all run their own channels too. But biased news bulletins do not rouse the public like the old films.

Ms Jayalalitha has other ways to try to ensure favourable coverage. One is defamation cases. She has filed several against her critics. Another tactic is perhaps more surprising for an ex-film star: making herself inaccessible to the press. “It’s my democratic right,” she said in a rare interview in 2004 with the BBC.“I don’t have to answer every question you put to me.”


by ‘The Economist,’ London, June 12, 2013

Propaganda in India

Straight to television

In the print edition of The Economist this week, we look at the high number of film-stars-turned-politicians in the large and prosperous south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. From the 1950s onwards, actors and scriptwriters with political ambitions often used their films as promotional vehicles. While some of today’s Tamil film-stars continue to swap their trailers for the campaign trail, television is increasingly the preferred medium for propaganda.

IF YOU want to make it in the politics of Tamil Nadu these days, you’ll need not just your own hit film but your own television channel. Every large party in the state now has an affiliated station, often owned or co-owned by the party leader’s followers or relatives. Jayaram Jayalalitha, the state’s chief minister and a former film actress, has Jaya TV, which is owned by a group of her party’s followers, according to a senior executive at the channel. The mouthpiece for M Karunanidhi, a former scriptwriter who leads the main opposition party, is Kalaignar TV, launched in 2007. Mr Karunanidhi’s wife and daughter have stakes in Kalaignar TV that total 80%, according to charges filed by India’s central bureau of investigation. Bribes for the family, it has been alleged, were routed through the channel (the family denies having any involvement with the channel’s day-to-day affairs). Political newcomers seem to feel they need bugles of their own—Vijayakanth, for instance, another former film-star, launched Captain TV to promote his party in 2010.

Television is an increasingly powerful means of reaching Indian voters. “TV is more dangerous in many ways,” says Uma Vangal, a professor at L.V.PrasadFilm & TVAcademy in Chennai, the state capital. “With a film, you have made a conscious choice to go and see it, but with TV it just comes into your living room.” Rising incomes mean that almost half of all households have a television, according to the 2011 census, up from less than a third in 2001. Mr Karunanidhi handed out free TV sets in Tamil Nadu during his most recent term, from 2006 to 2011.

Tamil politicians have been at this for a bit longer than their counterparts in many other states, due to their long experience in pumping out propaganda. Politicians across the country—or their supporters—are starting to set up their own channels. In Gujarat late last year, while the chief minister, Narendra Modi, was seeking re-election, a channel called NaMo TV popped up temporarily. Broadcasts featured Mr Modi greeting schoolchildren and the like. In Andhra Pradesh, a former chief minister’s son, who has in recent years also entered politics, owns a newspaper and a TV channel. From a fixed corner of the screen, viewers are treated to a constant image of his late father being showered with animated petals.

Publicly, the Tamil channels’ editors say their only biased activity on their news programmes is that they devote a greater share of airtime to the party they support. Jaya TV’s bulletins, for example, are filled almost exclusively with staid reports of the chief minister doling out awards and announcing welfare schemes, to which parliamentarians applaud. Privately, the channels’ journalists mention that they are not free to cover their parties’ faults in detail. On Jaya TV there is little said about power shortages during Ms Jayalalitha’s current term, nor is there much on Kalaignar TV about the graft that was alleged during Mr Karunanidhi’s last term.

It is not a formula for riveting news coverage. Indeed, given the zeal to establish these channels, they do not seem to confer much benefit. The executive at Jaya TV says the mouthpiece-channels make modest profits. They all struggle to compete with the Sun Group, a Chennai-based conglomerate with 32 channels of its own and 45 radio stations. Sun, which is run by Mr Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew and itself embroiled in politics, also owns one of the more lucrative parts of the television industry—a cable-distribution network.

The biggest surprise may be that so many Chennaites say the channels do not even sway voters. Canny Tamils are happy to watch their favourite soap operas on the political stations, clicking the remote control when the biased news comes on. An independent news station launched in 2011 is proving far more popular. “People are way too smart,” says one film producer. “I don’t think the channels have influence at all.”

No Responses to “Lights, Camera, Election”

  1. C T Thambyraja

    Recently I read in an Indian daily that India is NOT ruled by laws but by loop holes. That sums up the corrupt politics. It is no coincidence how the democratic process ‘works’ in a country where the masses are ill informed and largely illiterate.

  2. ttpian

    Who Knows Comedy actors,Kavundamani,Senthil,vivek may become the prime minister of India and comedy actress, kovai sarala,will fill up india,s rashtrapathi bhavan as President of India!