In Cine-Politics: Film Stars and Political Existence in South India, film studies becomes politics, but also society, identification and desire. Prasad’s book contains six well-thought-out chapters, and reappraises the context of focus upon the well-known names and stars of ‘regional’ cinema from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Larger-than-life political icons MGR, NTR and Rajkumar will need no introduction within India, yet, from this book, the outside reader will also get sufficient detail and a good idea of the kinds of films, from ‘mythologicals’ to ‘socials’, that made up their cinema careers. However, the chapters also present the political trajectories of these stars, and the book’s significance is that the turning of film into politics demands a wider scope than any film studies’ focus has hitherto provided. The book importantly goes beyond any mechanical understanding of how film stars might use the cinema for political gain.
The first chapter shows how central government initiatives, especially the States Reorganization Commission of 1953, had deep ramifications for regional film, reflected both in the organisation of cinema as an industry and in the role accorded its emerging stars. The phenomenon of the ‘star-politician’ in South Indian films uniquely impacted upon politics there. Successive chapters then discuss MGR in Tamil Nadu, NTR in Andhra Pradesh, Rajkumar in Karnataka, and ‘fan Bakhti’, with an appendix on Jayalalithaa (see below). MGR, NTR and Rajkumar are so famous that we recognise them by their familiar initials or single names (Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran aka MGR; Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao aka NTR; and Singanalluru Puttaswamayya Muthuraju aka Rajkumar). Yet, even though each of them played a significant political role in his respective state, he did so in quite different ways and reflecting different political developments and changes. MGR was already a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party activist before starting in films, and his film roles helped his party to success in 1967, before he formed a new party in 1972 to continue on as chief minister of Tamil Nadu until his death in 1977. In Andhra Pradesh, NTR’s entry into politics and film was through the Telugu language and Telugu nationalism; this gained him status and prestige in the state, but was less readily translated beyond the regional. Similarly, Rajkumar was identified with the identity politics of Kannada. As a political investment, this identity politics suggests a wider path and pattern, indicating a parallel organisational format between his political persona and his screen personality.
It is Prasad’s contention (and not inconsequentially Freudian in analytic reach) that ‘an adequate explanation for the cine-political phenomenon…cannot really be found in the content of the relevant films’ (p. 57). He makes this claim at the very end of a chapter on the cinema strategies of the DMK party in Tamil Nadu, whereby a kind of commodity logic is expanded. Prasad gives us the truism that, certainly in the last ten years, Bollywood has become ‘an appendage of the consumer goods industry via advertising’ (p. 22) and ‘a reflexive commodity, consciously produced in conformity with its own image’ (p. 23). It is not beyond the readers of this book to recognise an anti-commercial and regional argument that Bollywood is shaped by and yet also subsumes the regional. While not ‘any’ South Indian film will do to establish this point, a preponderance of star persona films, and the accompanying film marketing strategies, are identifiable and discernible as influences in, of and on Bollywood.
All the same, a question about content might clarify some issues for us. Do we need to have seen the films of the larger-than-life MGR for Tamil Nadu, or NTR for Andhra Pradesh, to know that there is something different going on with the star-persona film vehicles here than in that ‘other’ dominant Indian film tradition that regionalism necessary backs up against? In Prasad’s discussion of comparative cinema, the scope is larger than the screen. At stake is history itself when he develops a point from an earlier essay in which ‘modernity continues to be identified with the historical concretion of Western modernity, [and so] it will always seem that every other form is a deviant, or not yet modern’ form.11. Madhava M. Prasad, ‘Singular But Double-Entry: Paul Willamen’s Proposals for a Comparative Film Studies’, in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 14, no. 1 (2013), p. 9.View all notes This deviation is important because where once Hollywood, even at a remove, was regarded as ‘a source of knowledge and values that hold the promise of a better life’—and its ideas were ‘stolen’ and inserted into Bollywood films—today, instead, we see ‘an epochal change in cinema [that] comes in the wake of opening up of the economy in the process of liberalization and globalization’.22. Ibid., p. 10View all notes This gives us the rationale for Prasad’s new book as a development beyond his own 1998 scene-setting work on the melodramatic in Ideology of the Hindi Film;33. M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988).View all notes it is by going beyond melodramatic narrative content that the political appeal of an MGR or NTR is activated in a wider context.
Cine-Politics asserts that after a distinct period in which writers were dominant in the movies, the celebrity star system took hold, and this star persona system now acts like a contagion. In the past, and consistent with melodrama, the fragmentary and episodic form of stories and plots existed within an abstract whole. Subsequently, the movement from writers to star system evident in Tamil films and in the discussion Prasad offers of MGR, means the writer’s message-communicating model has been hollowed out. The message is now the star. It is revealing that the phrase used to warn against dismissing this transition is that of the haunting spectre of denial. To take cinema as transparent is to remain caught within a communicated messages model that had already been warded off as a mere propaganda tool, thus inviting ‘positive or negative valuation depending on one’s agreement or disagreement with the content of the propaganda’ (p. 46). The cultural content that haunts here is not a contained narrative or plot; MGR is not seen to be significant in any particular film, but across all films. Grand narrative returns as embodied persona. MGR plays the gods in general, and in the ‘socials’.
Cine-Politics is not just a fan book on the extraordinary and curious phenomenon of larger-than-life film stars, it is also a commentary upon issues of such long-term interest that the book will surely become the standard reference for persona studies and a major contribution to film theory, significant well beyond its subject area and location. In Ideology of the Hindi Film, the discussion of screen kissing and subsumption, the conjunction of melodrama and Marx, made that book an indispensable reference; now Prasad recaptures his pre-eminence via a regionalism that reaches out to place region at the centre of an already full field. This is the peculiar brilliance of a study that thereby changes everything at the same time, such that arguments about melodrama as the presentation of the ideology of the nation as family drama are now worked through not only Mother India, but via the regional cousins too. The family resemblance of subsumption, even as a difficult theoretical framework, is explained and reinforced with local detail. The films are described with a film buff’s affection, but the analysis relocates MGR, NTR and Rajkumar, and with a passing mention of Rajinikanth and Jayalalithaa, conceptually in the mainstream.
Along the way, the too-quick judgements of journalists and sociologists, who should know the context better, are exposed as inadequate. MGR was indeed a heart-throb and hero through many films, but the viewing public is not simply programmed or predetermined to worship personalities. Nor, despite NTR’s penchant for portraying deities, do these film stars somehow ‘replace’ the gods in the public’s estimation. Prasad displays a healthy scepticism here; even if there is some truth to the adoration and identification observed in such commentary, it does not in any way satisfy or explain the political appeal of personalities, or the persona role, for the stakes are higher than that. Prasad offers substantiation via statistics to show that, for example, NTR’s roles in ‘mythologicals’ were secondary and subsequent to his roles in ‘socials’, films about issues and themes of social relevance. Playing gods was not typecasting of him (p. 76); his ‘star’ recognition had already been established long before his first appearance as Lord Krishna in K.V. Reddy’s Mayabazar (1957).
Some questions remain for debate: is NTR’s election as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh subsumed under a greater regionalist Telugu politics, or is Telugu regionalism subsumed in NTR’s star narrative? Is how the theatre tradition gives way to mass popular film, where the allocation of roles within theatre groups moves towards a different kind of logic in that the central character acquires an importance, beyond the symbolic importance accorded to the drama itself (p. 99)? Does film technology figure deeply here, in close-ups, tracking shots and audience responses to stars, persona and life, and in ways relevant to ‘star systems in every popular cinema industry’ (p. 100)?
Gaps in the text can leave these questions open, and this might help us think for ourselves. What perhaps is needed is a larger chapter on MGR’s co-star and political successor, Jayalalithaa Jayaram. We can perhaps understand why she only receives a short discussion in the appendix, but it could be fruitful to consider how continuity might have played out if the book had taken on her mastery of self-presentation and indeed ‘fan Bakhti’ in both film and politics. Here, regional analysis of the particularity of South Indian films of a specific time and context shows that the figures of MGR, NTR and Rajkumar, as well as Jayalalithaa in particular, can be understood as ‘roles’ or personas who extend beyond the film text into the socio-political in unprecedented ways. The ‘socials’ too contain specific characters for whom patronage and clientelism prevail, but also in which uplift projects and social programmes are initiated in the generic name of the star. The cine-political is not star charisma at the ballot box, nor is it a propaganda vehicle, but a moment in the history of cinema when specific audiences have been prepared to follow the leadership of on-screen political investments orchestrated by adept political operatives—and then act to consecrate such figures as leaders. It is with this that Prasad’s text is full of suggestive insights inviting further analysis. For example, he notes how an actor’s persona across films ‘begins to communicate through other channels than the films’ and even in ‘parallel to the diegetic content of the narrative’ (p. 142). His commentaries centre on enthusiasm, sovereignty, language, ideology and the commodification, and even mass reproduction, of star persona effects (p. 184). With these openings, Prasad’s thoughtful and thought-filled volume should become a classic of film studies, and not only for its regional specificity.