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Sunday, November 29, 2020

From films to life, Tamil Nadu’s cult of the mother

The extraordinary devotion of fans that makes Amma the AIADMK has its roots in MGR and his cinema.

Written by Amrith Lal | Updated: May 22, 2015 8:32:10 am
Jayalalithaa, Jayalalithaa court verdict, AIDMK, AIADMK MLAs,  Jayalalithaa court judgement, Amma AIADMK, M G Ramachandran MGR, the politician, portrayed himself as an extension of his screen persona.

AIADMK MLAs are set to meet today to seek the return of their chief J Jayalalithaa as Tamil Nadu chief minister.

With the High Court overturning a lower court verdict declaring her guilty in the assets case, this was inevitable. In the week following the HC order, seven people have reportedly killed themselves. The party said they could not bear the delay in their beloved Amma reclaiming the chief minister’s office. A total of 244 persons have committed suicide in Amma’s name since her conviction on September 27. The party has paid Rs 7.32 crore as solatium to the families of the dead.

A rational explanation for this political loyalty is near impossible. But it is important to recognise that the AIADMK cadres stand apart in their display of “affection” for their leaders. The cult of the leader has been central to Tamil politics since the 1970s, but barring the AIADMK founder, M G Ramachandran, not many leaders have attracted the same level of slavish obedience and adulation that Jayalalithaa does. MGR, mentor to Jayalalithaa in films and politics, built the AIADMK around himself. Thrice chief minister, he attracted intense devotion and loyalty. The man was the leader, movement and ideology for the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa has followed the script he wrote for the party.



After MGR’s death, she claimed his legacy and established a continuity of heirship. Today, Amma is AIADMK.

The late social social scientist MSS Pandian used the phrase ‘The Image Trap’ to explain the MGR phenomenon.

Cinema was the DMK’s vehicle to take its message to the masses. DMK founder C N Annadurai himself scripted films in the 1940s that focussed on political propaganda. They highlighted the core message of the DMK — atheism, social justice, Tamil nationalism, etc. — and linked everything that was good in society to the party. The hero, obviously associated with the Dravidian ideology, symbolised hope and championed the party agenda.

By the 1940s, MGR became an integral part of this propaganda machine, and after joining the DMK in 1953, became a close aide of Anna and the party’s chief crowdpuller. In many films, MGR was a subaltern hero, representing the rickshawpuller, fisherman, peasant, worker. Pandian writes that “by employing a carefully constructed system of mise-en-scène, these films celebrate the hero’s subalternity and create an ambience that makes it possible for the audience to identify themselves with him”.

Over the decades, MGR carefully turned the films into a projection of his own hero-self. The rasikar mantrams (fans associations) began to come up in his name the 1950s. Roos Gerritsen in the study Fandom on Display says that though the fan clubs had been founded by MGR’s film fans, political support was part and parcel of the club’s subsequent activities. The more than 10,000 MGR mantrams provided him with a readymade cadre when he split the DMK and formed the AIADMK in 1973. By 1984, according to a study, the mantrams had expanded to 15,000 branches with nearly 11 lakh members. MGR remains a live presence in large parts of Tamil Nadu and his fans continue to be loyal to his party, the AIADMK.

The fan base, forged on the basis of the films’ populist message, transcended the caste and communal divide. The films and the hero directly addressed the poor, especially poor women. MGR, the politician, portrayed himself as an extension of the screen persona, the all-powerful hero who battled all odds to serve his blood brotherhood (rathathin rathamana udanpirappukal), the whole of the Tamil population. Every government scheme got portrayed as the revolutionary leader’s benevolence. If the government failed to deliver, that was despite the leader. The ministers and bureaucrats took the blame. In the absence of any ideology, the blood brotherhood bonded on loyalty to the leader.

Since she took over the AIADMK after a short inner-party struggle, Jayalalithaa has followed her mentor’s leadership style. She too keeps a distance from the cadres, but always reaches out from a distance as their benevolent mother.

All government schemes bear her stamp. The poor love them. Like MGR, she too makes it a point to reach out to the women’s constituency.

In the 1990s, Jayalalithaa focussed on establishing herself as the heir to MGR’s legacy. Photographs and stills from their films were used for the purpose. Since then, she has emerged on her own with her own hagiography. Posters, photographs, songs, street murals that portray her in different avatars — as a Hindu goddess, Mother Mary, Tamil goddess — are common in Tamil Nadu. A hoarding that was raised during the last Lok Sabha election had her seated on a throne with a row of world leaders including President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao standing before her. She was then projected as India’s prime minister-in-waiting.

The cult of the powerful, strict and benevolent mother has been carefully nurtured to invoke awe, fear, love and devotion. And, on and off, the mother delivers — rations, canteens, water, saris, wedding needs for girls from poor families, even cement. She cracks down on criminals and speaks for Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Cauvery delta.

There has been no radical critique of this populist politics. The absence of a sacrifice is an integral part of mother cults. Devotees are only happy to offer themselves. No point in blaming the mother goddess.

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