Academic journal article Post Script

Stars and Mobilization in South India: What Have Films Got to Do with It?

Academic journal article Post Script

Stars and Mobilization in South India: What Have Films Got to Do with It?

Article excerpt


The cinema in India is characterized by the complex if tenuous linkages between film viewing and a range of other publicly staged activities that include participation in conventional political activities. Film stars today are a considerable presence in election campaigns. However, it is only when we shift our focus to south Indian cinemas that we can tell the difference between the overall trend to buttress political parties with charismatic figures drawn from various walks of life (cricket players, television personalities, singers) and the considerably longer history of the film star's imbrication with mobilization.

I will propose that the problem posed by the 'south Indian' variety of stardom is brought into sharp focus by the presence of highly organized fan clubs dedicated to the promotion of film stars. These organizations, which are unique to the region, came under critical examination only in the wake of the Tamil star M.G. Ramachandran's (MGR) success in electoral politics but have had a history that pre-dated his political career (Hardgrave and Niedhart 1975). Neither the degree of organization of fan clubs nor their involvement in politics, by way of campaigning for stars or parties they stood for, had any precedent. Major films stars in south India have thousands of associations dedicated to promoting them. These associations are almost always formed by young urban men who engage in a range of activities from providing free publicity to their idol's films to group viewing of his/her films to charitable work in the name of the star. (1)

Also characteristic of south Indian stardom is its close linkages with the politics of linguistic identity. In three states of the region film stars have emerged as major public figures (and on occasion as successful politicians) as representatives of the interests of a linguistic community. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh the film industry's leading male stars M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) formed their own political parties that were avowedly dedicated to protecting the interests of their respective linguistic communities. In neighbouring Karnataka the star Rajkumar, whose death in April 2006 from natural causes triggered riots in Bangalore, didn't enter the electoral arena but nevertheless remained one of the most visible symbols of Kannada linguistic identity for over two decades. (2)

The linkage between fans' associations and the politics of linguistic identity politics is obvious on many counts. We know (or at least strongly suspect--due to the paucity of concrete evidence to the contrary) that historically speaking they are a direct outcome of MGR's involvement in linguistic identity politics. The location of all south Indian film production in Madras surely facilitated their spread to other stars like NTR. We also know that for the most part fans organize around stars who speak their (fans') own language on screen. (3) In spite of this excessive obviousness of the linkage between fan clubs and linguistic identity politics it is possible that the umbrella category of 'language politics' is at best a convenient short hand (which the stars themselves presented themselves as engaging in) and tends to obfuscate the complex processes at work in the double acts of mobilization around film stars.

The south India film star is positioned at the intersection of two kinds of mobilization, both of which point to the production of a surplus of signification, by the cinema, which has in fact become available for political deployment. Stars of the region have had the ability to fuse together mobilization for film consumption and related cinephiliac activities (which virtually any fan club in the world is engaged in) with mobilization for political purposes. Complicating matters is the ways in which the cinema of this region is imbricated with linguistic identity politics. I will deliberately ignore the sociology of the fan club as well as the broader context of linguistic identity politics in order to draw attention to the specific contribution of the cinema to the emergence of the fan who is an object of mobilization on the one hand and the star as the agent around whom this mobilization takes place. …

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