The death of a young woman, Subhashri, is not the right time to digress on the social practice of cutouts and banners in Tamil Nadu. Like all tragic deaths on Indian roads, Subhashri’s was waiting to happen. In this age of information overload, it is apt to recall that the 23-year-old died when a truck ran over her on a busy Chennai road after she fell off her scooter as a cutout fell on her.
Subhashri’s death is fuelling an outrage against the political classes, the main culprits of the cutout and banner culture of Tamil Nadu, but they too would intelligently join the outrage and blame it all on small-time functionaries. The political parties would send in their middle class-friendly faces to TV stations to douse the fires. They would all condemn the incident, want action to be taken and ask their cadres to not put up cutouts or banners. Some might even warn of taking action, but one has to wait and watch. Such warnings had been issued before to be forgotten soon.
Cutouts and banners in Tamil Nadu have a long tradition. They come in different shapes and sizes and fulfil different political and social needs. It is the rise of filmi politicians from MGR to Karunanidhi to Jayalalitha, which led to the trend. But the larger society too has cottoned on to the phenomenon.
However, it is the political parties, both big and small, who are among the prime culprits. Second in line are fan clubs of the various movie stars and it has become so pervasive across other sections in the state that weddings, birthdays, deaths, even puberty ceremonies are announced with a banner or a cutout.
All good and bad things in Tamil Nadu politics would have begun with the DMK, Tamil Nadu’s distinctive political formation. But it was during the first reign of Jayalalitha during 1991-96 that the cutout culture reached obscene levels. When she was due to attend any meeting in the city, the cutouts would be kept starting from her residence and all the way to the place where she would be addressing a gathering. The intention was never to publicise the political meeting or gathering but to humour the leader. Small cutouts would be placed every 15 feet all across the 6 or 7 km long journey. These would basically be Jayalalitha smiling and waving hands. The only intended audience was Jayalalitha and no one else. It would also be tilted at an angle so that the leader could watch herself waving to her at short intervals of 10 feet. These would be the smaller ones waving to the leader and at periodic intervals and at busy intersections would be the larger ones ranging from 40 feet to a record-breaking 150 feet.
This endorsement from the leader let the genie out of the bottle with the party going overboard with cutouts and banners. District level leaders and ministers started replicating it at the events they graced. Only that it was Jayalalitha all over again in the cutouts and the minister would find a smaller but respectable place in the cutout. The organisers too would be there in the cutouts; smaller images befitting their role in the party.
There is a certain grammar in political cutouts with the nuances of hierarchy and clout within the party, which only a trained eye could read. There are unsaid rules on who can put up a cutout and for what time and how big it can be. It is part of the enforcement of street-level control that political parties and fan clubs enjoy.
Grammar apart, the action is on the ground. And if you have any doubts on who the local toughs are, they would all be there on the political cutouts. The local shopkeepers know them well, the local civic officials and the police know them too well. It is in a sense an announcement of their arrival on the political scene, and warning to the cops and other officials to look away or keep off. This ‘cutouts’ practice is not going to go away any time soon as it is embedded in the political culture of the state.’ It is also perhaps a grassroots political expression indicating the arrival of the new set of cadres in top-heavy parties. It is a who’s who for the parties, at the local level and no party can now walk away from this culture, without taking up some deep reforms in the party.
Second, comes the fan clubs, announcing the release of a film or celebrating the birthdays of their ageing heroes. Mind you, it is a very male domain. It is genuine enthusiasm and devotion to the star’s persona and an announcement too of their arrival on the local social scene. At times, the names on the political and film cutouts are the same, and one seamlessly moves from films to politics. Never the other way around.
To the third category belongs those who announce their birthdays, the death of their loved ones, their weddings, puberty ceremonies; the commoner who wants to be heard. And if he invites the local VIP, he needs to prove that he has some standing in the community and only a cutout can decisively prove it.
It is such a subaltern social phenomenon where the lower and lower-middle classes announce their newfound importance or prosperity. It also has such a wide social acceptance that the sneering upper middle classes are hopelessly outnumbered.
Subhashri’s death is tragic, but will the outrage matter on the ground is the moot question.