The Man they called God (Asiaweek posthumous 1988 cover story on MGR)

mgr
At times, the grief of the crowd seemed almost palpable. Hundreds of thousands of weeping mourners lined the 10 km route of the cortege, in some places standing 20 deep. Many had clambered onto billboards or lampposts to bid a final farewell to their dead anna (elder brother). As the funeral procession departed from the stately Rajaji Hall in Madras, a cry rang out: ‘MGR vazhga’ (‘Long live MGR’). Women beat their breasts and sobbed bitterly as their menfolk picked up the refrain: ‘MGR vazhga, MGR vazhga.’ The body of the man they worshipped as a near-god lay on a spotless white sheet, covered by the flag of India. Still attired in his customary white shirt and dhoti, dark glasses and custom-made fur cap, Maruthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, chief minister of India’s Tamil Nadu State for more than a decade, was making his final journey.

On the pristine white sands of Marina Beach, the movie star-turned-politician who had captured the imagination of millions of Tamils was buried in a sandalwood casket with gold handles. The black marble slab that covered the grave was just a stone’s throw from the resting place of his political mentor, C.N. Annadurai. Although he had been a Hindu, MGR’s body was not cremated. Some say he was buried according to Christian custom because he died of a heart attack on Dec. 24, just a day before Christmas. Others believe it was because Annadurai, a co-religionist, had also been interred. ‘MGR didn’t leave any instructions,’ said M.P. Paramasivam, a long-time aide to the chief minister. ‘We thought it better to do it this way.’

As the smoke curled upward from a small fire of sandalwood and camphor, the crowd went out of control, pushing hard against a police cordon. Teargas canisters spewed fumes around the grave, but had little effect on the surging mob. Finally, worried about the security of assembled dignitaries, including Home Minister Buta Singh, the police levelled their rifles to restore order. At least twelve people died in rioting across the city; dozens more reportedly committed suicide in grief.

The scene had been equally violent the day before, outside the gates of Rajaji Hall, where MGR’s body had lain in state for a full day. At one point, more than 100,000 screaming, hysterical mourners tried to rush through the doors of the building, demanding to see their beloved leader. The numbers grew to an estimated 1.2 million as more wailing mourners joined the queues. Several women pulled at their hair in grief, others tore off stuck-on red dots on their foreheads in a gesture of mourning for a dead husband. ‘Why should I not weep?’ sobbed Mangayarkarasi, 45, ‘MGR was my brother. He was my father. He was my husband.’

There were few dry eyes among the members of MGR’s All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party who squatted on the steps at the foot of the bier. Jayalalitha Jayaram, an MP and propaganda secretary for the AIADMK, sat at his head, occasionally wiping his face gently with the pallav of her sari. The one-time actress, for whom MGR was rumoured to nurse a secret passion, had earlier been turned away from the Ramachandran residence at the insistence of his widow, V.N. Janaki. Inevitably, some humbug was mixed with the genuine grief. Several people seized the opportunity to be filmed next to the body or to issue statements of condolence.

Though MGR had been ailing ever since a massive stroke and a kidney transplant in 1984, the end was nonetheless sudden. On Dec. 23, he had retired to bed early. At about 11 pm, he woke up feeling nauseous but asked for soup. He had just sipped the last drop when he suffered a heart attack. His personal physician managed to revive him for a short while before he collapsed again. Three specialists then tried cardiac massage; one even ignored the sick man’s bad breath to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Finally in desperation they injected medication straight into the heart to kick it back to life. That, too, failed. Recalls one eyewitness: ‘Every time the doctors tried something, the monitor would start picking up signals [of MGR’s heart], but soon they would weaken. About 1:15 am [on Dec. 24] the signals stopped. It took some time for us to believe he was really dead.’

The news was promptly conveyed to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi. The ruling Congress (I) party is an ally of the AUADMK and is expected to play a pivotal role in deciding MGR’s successor. Besides acting chief minister V. Nedunchezhian, the top contenders are state food minister S. Ramachandran, Jayalalitha and R.M. Veerappan, whom MGR had rehabilitated from disgrace last month soon after the chief minister’s return from medical treatment in the US. Observers say Veerappan has already earned points by praising Gandhi for rushing down to share the Tamilians’ grief.

An AIADMK meeting scheduled for this week will discuss the issue, but highly placed sources told Asiaweek’s Ravi Velloor in Tamil Nadu that for the moment the party had decided to back the interim chief minister. The only problem is that Nedunchezhiyan does not have a mass base. Jayalalitha can pull the crowds, but her elevation would probably be resented by two other Tamil movie star-politicians: Congress (I) MPs Vyjayantimala and Sivaji Ganesan. New Delhi’s choice, however, would likely be S. Ramachandran, who negotiated on its behalf with Colombo for last July’s peace accord aimed at ending Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, MGR’s death was a grievous blow to the island’s militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. MGR had been the Tiger’s godfather, supplying them with refuge and military training in Tamil Nadu. But the militants soon grew out of control in the state, acutely embarrassing their sponsor. Many place a great deal of the blame for Sri Lanka’s current troubles at the chief minister’s doorstep. Finally, Gandhi persuaded MGR to cage the Tigers. After the Indo-Sri Lankan accord was signed, MGR began distancing himself from the militants. Their top leaders were placed under house arrest in Madras. When state police turned down a Tiger leader’s request to lay a wreath at MGR’s funeral, it signalled the end of Tamil Nadu’s support for the Tigers.

Good or bad, the political impact of MGR’s decade was profound. That was something recognised even by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, a virulent critics of the man. In a message of condolence to Janaki, he said: ‘Mr Ramachandran contributed much to South India and its people. His contributions to the people of Sri Lanka, too, cannot be forgotten.’ MGR’s concern for the poor was genuine, perhaps because he keenly remembered his own deprived childhood. Each year, for instance, he would distribute free raincoats to rickshaw pullers in Madras; later he even acted in a sympathetic movie about them, titled Rickshawkaran. The state became the benefactor of the underprivileged. Electricity was subsidised for farmers and school education was made free. In a scheme that benefited some 8.8 million children, state-run schools offered students a free midday meal. The drop-out rate fell.

Even is highly unsuccessful prohibition policy had an altruistic motive: he believed a ban on the sale of liquor would ensure that working class pay packets reached home. Prohibition failed miserably because surrounding states weren’t ‘dry’, thus encouraging liquor smuggling into Tamil Nadu. But when MGR, himself a teetotaller, reluctantly lifted the ban, it was partly to use the revenue from liquor taxes to finance his welfare schemes.

In the eyes of the common people, the chief minister became indistinguishable from the generous-hearted, larger-tan-life heroes he portrayed on screen. Few understood that his welfare schemes, however well-intentioned, were at the expense of developing the state’s infrastructure. Under MGR, Tamil Nadu slipped from second to tenth place among India’s 25 states in industrialisation. By some accounts, MGR virtually ran a police state, aided by his one-time intelligence chief, P.K. Mohandas. Overly centralised administration encouraged inefficiency and corruption. No decision could be taken without the chief minister’s go-ahead.

MGR brooked no challenge to his authority or to his eminence as a Tamil leader – a fact which was brought home firmly to Malaysian Indian Congress President S. Samy Vellu. In early 1987, the MIC chief had travelled to Madras to invite MGR to a world Tamil conference in Malaysia. But he made the mistake of also inviting MGR’s arch-rival, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, leader of the oppositionist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Peeved at being equated with any other Tamil leader, MGR refused to attend the conference.

To his adoring millions, however, the human foibles of Tamil Nadu’s ‘god’ were irrelevant. A combination of his superstar image, the opposition’s blunders and his own personal charisma catapulted MGR to the status of legend. As noted Tamil journalist and playwright Cho Ramaswamy put it: ‘These aren’t days when one expects political leaders to leave a philosophy or message behind them. In MGR’s case, the man was the message.’

Profile: Tamil Nadu’s ‘God’

His Tamil fans knew him by many names: Ponmana Chemmal or ‘Golden-Hearted One’, Makkal Thilakam or ‘Darling of the Masses’, and the one he encouraged in his later years, Puratchi Thailaivar or ‘Revolutionary Leader’. To the teeming millions in Tamil Nadu, Maruthur Gopalamenon Ramachandran was not merely chief minister of the south Indian state. He remained a larger-than-life celluloid hero who never lost a fight and always protected his woman. MGR, they called him fondly.

Interestingly, he was not a Tamil himself, although he tried to obscure the fact. MGR once wrote that his father was a magistrate, but biographers say he was the fifth child of a Sri Lankan tea plantation worker who hailed from Kerala State bordering Tamil Nadu. The actor-turned-politician was born in 1917 in a squalid tea estate ‘line room’ in Kandy. When he died Dec. 24, the people who still live in those dormitories stayed away from work for two days to mourn his passing.

When MGR was only 2, his father died and the family migrated to Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras State. His mother found work as a domestic helper but could not afford to educate her son. MGR was forced to quit school to earn money in a travelling drama troupe. It turned out to be his passport to super-stardom. In the late 1930s, he joined the glittering movie world and became an instant hit as a swashbuckling hero who could expertly fly a plane with his feet while slugging a villain perched on its wing. In a state where people put a high premium on light complexions, MGR’s fair skin helped make him a megastar – he featured in some 160 films.

The Indian National Congress, then fighting against British rule, gave MGR his first taste of politics. After independence in 1947, he was attracted to the secularistic ideals of E.V. Ramaswamy ‘Periyar’ Naicker, who had founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam movement in Tamil Nadu. In 1967, DMK leader C.N. Annadurai recruited the film star to contest state assembly polls. When MGR asked how much he should contribute towards the campaign, Annadurai is said to have replied: ‘I don’t need money. Your face is worth millions.’

MGR won, but spent the campaign in a hospital bed after being shot by screen villain and bitter real-life rival, M.R. Radha. Though the bullet damaged his voice permanently, it also heightened his charisma. For a month, thousands kept vigil outside the Madras hospital where he was convalescing. Some 30 people, many of them women, took their own lives in grief.

Five years later, he left the DMK in a huff and formed his own party, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The famous face launched the AIADMK ship with a landslide win in 1977 state assembly polls. But when Indira Gandhi returned to power as prime minister three years later, she sacked the MGR government and helf fresh polls for the state. The one-time matinee idol again proved politically invincible. Yet the years were taking a toll on that million dollar face: his trademark fur cap and dark glasses, it was whispered, were to hide his balding pate and the tell-tale crow’s feet around his eyes. There were other intimations of physical mortality: a massive stroke combined with kidney failure in 1984 left him with seriously impaired speech and movement. Only his immense will power kept him going in the end.

Twice married, MGR had no children. His first wife, coincidentally named Satya like his mother, died of cancer. A few years later, in 1956, he elped with actress V.N. Janaki, who was then still married to film makeup man Ganapathy Bhat. The lovers subsequently wed. In his later years, MGR’s name was linked to one-time co-star Jayalalitha Jayaram, now 39, an MP and AIADMK propaganda secretary. It was well known in Madras, where the Ramachandrans lived, that Janaki deeply resented Jayalalitha. Perhaps not without reason – the buxom young actress is reportedly now threatening to reveal details of secret nuptials with MGR if her position in the party is challenged. Tamil Nadu’s ‘god’, it seems, was only human.

About these ads

42 Responses to “The Man they called God (Asiaweek posthumous 1988 cover story on MGR)”

  1. The first black and white picture here is the ‘Iruvar’ shot!

  2. Very cool…thanks for putting this up.

  3. ‘Interestingly, he was not a Tamil himself, although he tried to obscure the fact.’ MGR always used Malayalam for conversing with his wife and his brother, who was very close to him. When he quit films and entered politics full time he was advised to use tamil in his home due to the increased presence of politicians and journalists around him all the time. He followed this advice, although I believe it was unnecessary.

    Film is a medium that has no barrier. It is beyond religions and languages. I believe nothing unites Indians more than films.

    • didn’t know he used Malayalam at home…

      • It is natural to use mother tounge at home. His wife Janaki was a Kerala Iyer and also knew malayalam.

        Ever since Ammachi stormed into our life in 1996, I have been wanting to speak in Malayalam. I try talking to my wife in malayalam(bits and pieces), but she always replies back in tamil, stating that it comes naturally to her; being from Kerala, she can speak both languages.

        • I actually didn’t realize that MGR thought of Malayalam as more of a mother tongue. I thought he’d moved to TN when he was a child or younger. And since he was born in SL I thought the connection with Malayalam might have become more tenuous over time. Clearly I wasn’t well informed on this. But in this sense Rathnam’s choice of Mohanlal for Iruvar seems increasingly fortuitous. Yes Mohanlal has a heavier accent for Tamil but there are people who claim that MGR himself never completely lost hints of his Malayalam.

  4. Nice article overall. MGR’s entry into politics also inspired NTR, who I believe met him for some advises/pointers before forming his own TD party.

  5. “In a state where people put a high premium on light complexions, MGR’s fair skin helped make him a megastar ” in black and white movies?

  6. JAYAPRAKASH Says:

    MR.MGR SIR LIVE IN OUR HEART FOREVER,{ JP BANGALURU }

  7. There can be no one like MGR.Kind hearted, victorious,merciful and young till his death

  8. An undiminshed popular man who set example for others
    and a trendsetter in tamil movies. Adored by millions and stand
    apart from other name sake heroes of todays actors.

  9. MGR was the single man, who had evergreen victory and respected women…. A Man who is just ike two other humans. One the dead and the other unborn….

  10. He no doubt had the TRUE public support unlike the media created support that exists in today’s world. Infact, he antagonized the media so many times and in spite of it nobody can defame the support he had from the masses. This article is a good attempt to portray defame MGR in a diplomatic way!! If you had forayed deep into his political failures line TN slipping into 10th position, then that would be more informative. Rather statements like “one even ignored the sick man’s bad breath to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation” are in bad taste. C’mn, how do you expect a sick man’s breath? To smell like rosses? Is that how you will smell when you die? Doctors/specialists go through this routine ‘resuscitation’ everyday and is part of their job. They don’t expect the patient to have brushed their teeth before getting a heart-attack. “in 1956, he elped with actress V.N. Janaki”, do you mean he “eloped”? That’s a new news which wouldn’t have been heard by many people!!!

  11. V.N.Janaki is only MGR’s wife.MGR had no relationship with Jayalalitha.Just because they had acted together it doesn’t mean that they have any relationship.The chemistry between them is good.That’s all.
    Don’t publish things like this about MGR.It is so bad.Many(including me) still consider him as god.And when you die even your breath would stink.Do you think you will smell like fresh roses?You will stink badly.MGR STILL LIVES IN OUR HEARTS AND WILL LIVE FOREVER.

    • actually you might want to take this up with Jayalalitha who used to proudly tell rallies in smaller centers that she’d been MGR’s mistress and that there was no dishonor in being a god’s mistress! I would urge you not to spurn your god’s love interest! as for all those rosy after-death scenarios you seem to be constructing this is why cremation is the best idea. No one has to put with anything for too long.

  12. Iruvar is an interesting movie, it covers everything this article reveals but does so beneath the veil. MGR’s infidelities are shown as genuine love stories, the political feud and power play between parties are shown under a pretext of love-hate relationship between friends, hunger for power is shown as desire to do good to common people .. even the myth that MGR is … an actor merely emoting verses composed by someone else … is indirectly shown.

    • It was a pity that Mani Ratnam did not state that Iruvar was a true story. We are quite aware of Karunanidhi’s style of politics. I take it that you are implying in your last sentence that MGR was not a good actor by stating it as a myth. I would urge you to see 3 of his films namely Paasam, En Thangai and Petral Thaan Pillaya. I am sure that you will change your opinion. Remember that MGR was awarded Padmasri before Sivaji. He refused to accept it due to the prevailing situation in TN And India at the time (I feel that it was in 1960).
      All humans have failings, including Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, from published reports available today. Therefore,pointing this as an issue does not get you anywhere.

  13. Sribalaraj Says:

    MGR is our Guru even after his death. The TamilNadu people should not forget his love and caring towards the younger generation in supplying free meals. This example was followed in Sri-Lanka too. MGR was instrumental in all the spheres of Poorest of the poor. We still honour and adore him. But the TV stations in TamilNadu even Jaya TV too nowadays do not telecast his films. It’s a shameful thing and due to this they suffer in losing at elections. MGR’s cut out banner was smaller than Jayalalitha’s always. MGR was the founder of AIADMK but not Jayalaitha.
    Please think and practise it by respecting the great leader of our age.
    Long Live MGR.

  14. MG from Malaysia Says:

    i dont think MGR knew to speak malayalam because as we know he was born in ceylon and moved to tamilnadu . his mother passed away while he was small and i am sure she would have spoken tamil to him and hence maybe he would have know few malayalam words as any tamilian will know .anyway is this topic important now ? i think even though he was not a tamil by birth he lived a tamil by speech and soul and surely would have done more than this so called tamilian cm ( Mr.KK) to save the tamils in sri lanka.sadly he is not around to save them . so lets just think of MGR as great Indian rather than fight if hewas tamil speaking or malayalam speaking ……..

    • I also don’t think he knew Malayalam..

      • This is very interesting. I have read articles that MGR would speak in Malayalam at home with his wife. Also, in the book, Man and the myth written by retired police chief, Mohandas, he mentions that MGR spoke to hime in malayalam.

  15. ashokkuar Says:

    mgr is a universal hero & loving god for all tamilns

  16. MGR is undoubtedly a revolutionary who is a Heartthrobe of every tamilian’s heart for he was a man born to and self-made through hardships. His reformrs are all so philanthropic and foresighted with a dedicated vision of uplifting the masses which he had tried to communicate so brilliantly through his movies which is highly inspiring and vibrant even today. The morals he has preached and the ideals he had educated was something that he has always practised in his day-to-day life and which is why he is just not a ” Evergreen Hero……” …but a “Evergreen GOD” too!!!!

  17. karthikeyan, pune Says:

    Ponmana Selvi Jayalalitha is administering Tamil nadu effectivly today. She followed the path of MGR in helping the people of TN. She suffered a lot in the past, now exactly know what to do to help people of tamil nadu who believes her.

  18. This chain of feedback is true evident that MGR lives & leaves foot print which is followed & worshiped by his “n” no. of followers. It never breaks like MGR pughal..Hat’s of to all MGR Fans.. Keep sharing..

  19. MGR is a legend who never dies he is a superhero in cinema and real life.He left his footprint no other actor has done that.he is the man of golden heart to give to others in love or material.how long canone can give but he made it until his death.thats our vathihar

  20. K.Joseph Irudayaraj Says:

    I read the article which tries to search for the truth at every inch.
    Mangayrkarasi aged 45 seem to have said MGR is her brother,Father and Husband. Pure stupidity. When MGR was shot about 30 people took their lives in grief another unmatchable stupidity. When MGR was dead many committed suicide intolerable ignorance. Our state will take another 1000 years to become a
    developed one if this continues. Why not follow the principle of CN.Annadurai the father of our state Duty, Dignity,Decipline surely these principles would lead us to Glory.

    K.Joseph Irudayaraj Rome,Italy

    • You illustrate the central divide of TN politics. The rationalist approach (which included that admixture of religious skepticism if not downright hostility) of the DMK and the more ‘family values’ (in the bourgeois sense inclusive of all the religiosity) focus of MGR’s intervention. In recent decades these distinctions haven’t been quite as pronounced as both parties have gone through different sorts of decay but not surprisingly MGR’s target voter was the Tamilian ‘housewife’, of course ultimate repository for all these ‘conservative’ formulations.

      On this score it’s fascinating to note how this more charged political discourse is absent from Ratnam’s Iruvar. And I don’t think it’s just a cynical gesture on his part to avoid controversy. Ratnam reads this difference as primarily one of political representation in its most theatrical sense. In other words between the ‘Karunanidhi’ figure and the ‘MGR’ one there are two competing versions of populism and the latter one wins out. Consonant with each kind of populism there is a different manifestation of political articulation and staging. And so the key moment occurs when Anandham addresses the crowd for the first time with a classic disclaimer of how he doesn’t know how to speak and so on. Of course this is the most effective way of ‘speaking’. But this divide also foreshadows in another sense the movement away from that greater intellectualism on the part of the DMK towards the more popular/populist or ‘common’ rhetoric(s) of the AIADMK (or ADMK initially). There is an interesting parallel move in Tamil cinema that would seem to track all of this except that there’s a twist. Balachander (who I continue to read as essentially conservative in his outlook) in some ways might be considered the cinematic analog to MGR while Bharthiraja fills a similar space with respect to Karunanidhi. On the one hand Tamil cinema has moved more towards a greater populism and privileging of the lingua franca and so forth. On the other hand between Bharthiraja and then Ratnam and more recently a Tamil new wave that seems to combine the two the MGR political formulations aren’t really dominant in any sense. At least over the last two decades. And undoubtedly this entire history isn’t completely withou also mentioning the all important intervention of Rajnikant. From this perspective along with everything else the latter causes an enormous rupture by displacing MGR and/or by reconfiguring that space in a much more left-oriented direction. A mass cinema then which is much more consonant with both Bharthiraja’s and Ratnam’s goals (Ratnam incidentally might be considered the supreme ‘rationalist’ cinematic heir to those foundational DMK or pre-DMK moments of Dravidian political thought). But with Rajnikant there is also already a response to the Bachchan event. Which is a whole other discussion though not unimportant to these histories inasmuch as I would argue that the true heirs of Bachchan’s politics reside in the South far more than they ever have in his ‘North’.

      • Great comment, Satyam.

      • Re: “…And so the key moment occurs when Anandham addresses the crowd for the first time with a classic disclaimer of how he doesn’t know how to speak and so on. Of course this is the most effective way of ‘speaking’. But this divide also foreshadows in another sense the movement away from that greater intellectualism on the part of the DMK towards the more popular/populist or ‘common’ rhetoric(s) of the AIADMK (or ADMK initially). …”

        And this rupture is, in a sense, the rupture (real and imagined) between writing and the realm of political action. In Tamilchelvam’s fascination with Anandam, may we not detect some of the (naïve) fascination of writers for “men of action”? Indeed the characters’ very first meeting involves Anandam picking up a sword and indulging in some swashbuckling fantasies (aside: somewhat portentous that he doesn’t really have anyone to fight – he isn’t in politics, and hasn’t yet invented his enemy; of course I would argue that a certain “emptiness” characterizes even MGR’s politics, like that of more than one populist). [The naivete isn’t limited to Tamilchelvam, of course – history is littered with such examples, and it is hard to believe that the liberal Ratnam is un-ironic in representing Dravidianist speeches where figures like Hitler and Stalin are held up, as they are in the film.] The writer is drawn (partly out of envy) to the politician because, even though both traffic in words, only one is conventionally held to be immersed in action. Of the two, Anandam is the naïf when he steps out on the political stage and says he doesn’t know how to speak; but Tamilchelvam is the naïf in believing that sort of “ordinariness” is more authentic, has greater access to “the people”. The people are drawn to the star, and not in spite of his rhetorical lack; the fact that he says he can’t speak* is irrelevant to them – stated differently, the people respond to the star’s aura, not to his words. We might see Iruvar as marking the passage of the primacy of the written word in favor of the visual dominance of cinema; as marking the moment when writers became secondary to the movie stars, at least where politics is concerned. [Let us return to that reference to Hitler and Stalin in Iruvar: the totalitarians appreciated, earlier than anyone else, the possibilities inherent in cinema; and they didn’t just need to make movies, as their whole political mode was cinematic; one has only to consider Mussolini and the enduring impact he continues to have on the world of fashion imagery, movie imagery.]

        *[This trope -- of the "un-schooled" man as not only more authentic, but of the lack of finesse itself being a marker of authenticity -- is of course an old one. We see it even in the foundational Islamic myth, when Prophet Muhammad tells Gabriel that he cannot "recite"; I read those lines as Muhammad telling Gabriel he is no poet.]

        • Extraordinary comment Q.. yesterday I saw Pablo Lorrain’s No, the final film in his Chilean trilogy. It’s an outstanding work that deals with the ‘No’ campaign that was launched against Pinochet in ’88 when under great international pressure he decided to have democratic elections (though obviously rigged in various ways) and called his campaign ‘Yes’. He of course eventually lost. But the film really deals with the conflict between traditional populist political messaging (even with the help of newer audio-visual technologies) and the very different logic of advertising language. The key tension in this sense revolves around those in the No campaign who wish to show footage of Pinochet’s atrocities and so on and Garcia Bernal’s character who designs syrupy uplifting jingles that completely ignore the same awful history. What he figures out is that cheerful advertising messages packaged as abstractions work much better. Of course there is an ethical quandary here that the film explores at different points but he does get the result he wants. But the question then is: what happens the morning after? The classic such recent moment is of course the ‘Yes We Can’ Obama campaign. Though Obama did lay out specifics at different points people weren’t really listening. The abstract sign of the ‘Yes We Can’ blocked out anything else he might have been saying. And so later many people were disappointed, even when some were groundbreaking bits of legislation were being put into place because of course if you’re invested in an abstraction you expect the world to change overnight.

          The reason I bring all of this up is because it dovetails into your discussion. Tamilchelvam still relies on traditional political rhetoric which in the age of cinema and mass media loses out to the ‘empty’ language (as you rightly have it) of Anandham. The film doesn’t really focus on advertising but there are many who’ve forcefully argued that the Mad Men moment (or the birth of modern American advertising) establishes a language (or set of semiotic codes) that changes everything forever. But this logic is already reflected in the Tamilchelvam/Anandham alternatives.

          The problem of course is that inasmuch as such advertising can simply make a ‘product’ out of politics (or the politician) anything can be ‘sold’ if messaged the right way (again we have the 1960 election that’s so crucial early on in Mad Men — mutatis mutandis Nixon-Kennedy are a bit like Tamilchelvam-Anandham). In the more traditional sort of messaging even the most totalitarian dictator would have to establish a certain political orientation, a set of contours, and then begin the propaganda. But in this other discourse Modi can be packaged as Mickey Mouse. The ‘specifics’ don’t matter as much or these can be kept at a level of generality that no one would oppose. And so again in No at one point someone asks the Bernal character why he’s made such inauthentic ads showing tall people when most Chileans are short and small-built or showing certain kinds of bread that isn’t normally consumed by people there and so forth. In each case the response of course is that the specifics don’t matter. People will just related to the general mood of the advertising.

          • Aside: I’m happy to read such an endorsement of “No” — the New Yorker review led me to expect a trivial and rather hollywoody film…

          • Aside 2: interestingly enough the logic of advertising some times backfires, convincing the advertisers but no one else. This at least seems to have happened to the Pinochet regime, or to Indira Gandhi in 1977 — or, if advertising is too anachronistic a word for the propaganda in those cases, we may think of the NDA’s “shining India” campaign. In all these cases, being part of the closed loop proved self-defeating. In the first two cases, the lesson is sobering: Although usually held up as triumphs of democracy, these moments resulted from the self-delusions of dictators. Had Indira Gandhi believed she would lose, who knows how long the emergency would have continued?

          • In the India Shining example they might have been afflicted with the Bollywood multiplex problem or assuming that some key cities were the entire market. Bollywood blocked out the rest for a while. Harder to do in politics! The same thing happened to Naidu who within Hyderabad was as popular as Modi in Gujarat but elsewhere in AP it was a different story!

          • Saw “No” this past week myself, and loved it. One of the best films from the past year, easily. Quite liked the choice to shoot it using the camera tech of the age. This could have risked gimmickry but I think it was particularly thoughtful because here you had a visual choice that not only resurrected the time period in a uniquely evocative way but in doing so supported the central argument of its protagonist; that the history of a moment can most effectively (or “truthfully”) be captured by presenting it in the popular aesthetic of its age.

          • complete agree with this entire point.

          • Oh, and this was a really great exchange between you and Q.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s