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(ARCHIVE) Vol. Vol. XVIII No. 19, january 16-31, 2009

The freedom struggle
the performers waged

(Notes from a Theodore Baskaran lecture)

At the beginning of the 20th Century, after Gandhiji had appeared on the national scene, the politics of reasoned debate was replaced by the politics of mass demand. At a time when society was predominantly illiterate, how did political ideas spread? That too when there was oppressive censorship of the media? It is in this context that popular drama, songs and gramophone records and films became carriers of political ideas. It is during this period that interaction between politics and the entertainment media, between cinema and politics, began in the Madras Presidency that was to be whittled down to Madras province and, then, Tamil Nadu.

K.B. Sundarambal as Avvaiyar

By the end of the 19th Century a few local entrepreneurs, musicians and entertainers in the Madras Presidency joined together and formed travelling drama companies. For groups operating in the Tamil-speaking area, Madurai became the headquarters. The repertoire of these companies consisted mostly of mythological episodes. The plays themselves were mere packages of songs and the main component of a drama show was music. They were like opera. (Now you know where the tradition of songs and dance in Indian films comes from.)

The educated and the upper class distanced itself from such company drama. It formed exclusive drama clubs, came under the influence of Shake­speare and enjoyed the patronage of the ruling British.

A number of companies travelled as far as Rangoon, Colombo and Jaffna. In these companies, the artistes and musicians all lived together. A troupe stayed in one place for a month or more to perform. Soon, company drama became the most popular form of entertainment. There were nearly 250 drama companies performing in the Madras Presidency. As the productions of these travelling companies became popular, permanent drama halls were built in many towns. Otraivadai Drama House in Mint was one such centre of activity.

One historical incident politicised them. That was in 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It electrified every group. And the drama companies expressed their views in song.

Bharati had set the example. His famous poem on the trial of Va.Wu.Ci. became a model. The use of songs inspired the Vedaranyam marchers. Now patriotic songs found a place on the stage. Then patriotic plays were staged, nationalistic plays like the Triumph of Khaddar and Banapurathu Veeran.

The next phase saw direct political action by the stage artistes. They took part in the Civil Disobedience Movement. They campaigned in elections, addressed political meetings. The salt satyagraha in San Thomé  was conducted by drama actors like M.M. Chidambaranathan.

By the 1920s and 1930s, company dramas had become highly politicised. Most of the plays were nationalistic. M.G.R. acted in nationalistic plays and was a khadi-wearing Congress sympathiser. Sivaji Ganesan, in his pre-Parasakthi days, acted in a number of these patriotic plays.

The entertainers had another major incentive in getting into active politics. The status of the artistes gained a new respectability, which they had till then missed.

Meanwhile, cinema appeared and took root. The first feature film was in 1916 by Nataraja Mudaliar. Nearly 125 silent films were made thereafter in the Presidency. The men who acted in these movies were mostly stunt men. The women were dancers, rather than singers, as long as cinema was silent. There was no interaction between the world of drama and cinema.

But once sound was made possible, the scene changed dramatically. There was a great demand for singing actors and musicians to work in the talkies. And there was a ready-made supply. Stage-actors, song­writers, and musicians from the commercial stage all moved into the talkie studios.

Most of the films made during the first decade of the sound era were plays that had proved popular. The normal practice was to engage a drama troupe, make it enact the play, and shoot its production head on.

The drama artistes who moved into the cinema studios brought with them to the film world their political activism and ideology. Cinematically speaking, this exodus had a disastrous effect. The films turned out to be merely photographed dramas. But this development infused early Tamil Cinema with a political flavour.

In 1931, the first sound film, Kalidas, was released. It coincided with the Civil Disobedience Movement. It began with a patriotic song Gandhian kai ratiname.

It was in this period that censorship was at its worst. The Dramatic Performances Act of 1879, the Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act of 1931, the Newspaper Ordinances in 1930, and the Indian Cinematographic Act of 1918 all had a stifling effect.

When cinema first appeared, the educated classes neglected it and despised it. The stigma attached to the popular stage was extended to cinema. The respect given to music and dance was not extended to cinema. This elitist apathy to cinema continues.

In this story of interaction between cinema and politics, one Congress leader played a crucial role. Satyamurthy, a dominant figure in Madras politics in the 1930s, was himself an amateur actor and a member of a leading theatre club in Madras. Satyamurthy was the President of the South India Film Chamber of Commerce and Mayor of Madras. He believed that the performing arts should be utilised for political purposes. He saw its potential. At a time when the elite was condemning cinema as culturally demeaning, Satyamurthy’s support to cinema projected it in a different perspective.

Following Sathyamurthy’s example, many other Congress leaders associated themselves with the world of cinema and encouraged film-makers. They appeared on stage during premieres and took part in functions marking the inauguration of shooting a new film.

When the popularly elected government headed by C. Rajagopalachari was formed in Madras Presidency following the elections in 1937, nationalistic propaganda in films became explicit. A series of patriotic films were released, like Anandash­ramam, Thyaga Bhoomi, Desa Munnetram and Mathrubhoomi.

The British saw cinema as an instrument of political propaganda, a challenge to their rule. But the direct participation of actors in political action continued. K.B. Sundarambal campaigned for Congress in the 1937 elections. M.V. Mani also spoke at election meetings. Later, during the Quit India Movement, a number of film actors took part in direct political action and suffered imprisonment. Nagaiya was a delegate to the Gauhati Congress. K.B. Sundarambal was the first film star to enter the legislature.

The Dravidian Movement, a reformist movement, had started using the stage for propaganda. After the death of Satyamurthy, the artistes, leaderless and directionless, gravitated towards the Dravidian movement, whose leaders offered them recognition and patronage. Many of the leading lights of the movement, including Annadurai and Karunanidhi, were themselves playwrights and often acted in plays.

It was they, the Dravidian leaders, bitter political enemies of Satyamurthy, who eventually inherited the force that he had assiduously nurtured and they used it in their journey to power, creating the phenomenon of star politicians.

In official versions of the freedom struggle, the role of plays, actors and films is not mentioned. That story needs to be told one day.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Baskaran stated this to some extent in his splendid book, The Message ­Bearers, which is due to be ­released shortly.


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