Why Kannada actors say ‘politics beda’

While the Tamil and Telugu film industries have produced chief ministers, the Kannada film industry has fought shy of politics
Last Updated : 22 April 2023, 05:02 IST

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A strong connection exists between cinema and politics in south India. In Tamil Nadu and undivided Andhra Pradesh, regional parties were launched by film stars to uphold linguistic pride and resist the hegemony of the north. Film stars have had a successful run in electoral politics in the two states. But the story is different in Karnataka.

Even in the early days of Tamil cinema, producers like K Subramaniam made films with a political message. The Kannada film industry has largely maintained a distance from politics and ideology. Tamil cinema played a vital role in the evolution of Dravidian politics, and did not hesitate to deliver political messages. Since the second half of the 20th century, it has influenced Tamil society and politics in a big way.

Underlining identity

The Dravida Kazhagam, founded in 1944 by E V Ramasamy Naiker (Periyar) aimed to achieve an egalitarian society by eradicating the hegemony of the upper castes and instilling self respect among the less privileged. The Dravidian movement regarded cinema as a vehicle to propagate its ideology. Playwrights like C N Anna Durai, script writers like M Karunanidhi, and actors like K R Ramaswamy, N S Krishnan, M R Radha S S Rajendran used their art in the cause of politics. The most popular among the actors of the time was M G Ramachandran, who went on to become chief minister (1977-1987). Sivaji Ganesan, MGR’s contemporary, was initially with the Dravidian movement but later allied with the Congress. The first DMK government was voted to power in 1967 and Dravidian politics has come to stay. All the way from Anna Durai to Jayalalitha, chief ministers of Tamil Nadu have had a strong association with cinema.

The Kannada film industry has not shown a comparable interest in politics. Even when it made films with a message, it never attempted to drive home an electoral message. That was not the case in Telugu. Even before he entered politics, N T Rama Rao, the Telugu star who also became chief minister, used his social and mythological films to send out powerful messages promoting social justice.

When Indira came

It is true that no regional movement took hold in Karnataka, like it did in the neighbouring states. For nearly four decades after Independence, the state remained a stronghold of the Congress. When Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 general elections, she chose to contest from Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka. The Janata Party and the opposition, led by the fiery George Fernandes, decided to field the Kannada star Rajkumar against her. Rajkumar had no interest in electoral politics. He went incognito till the last date for filing nominations had passed.

After Gokak movement

In 1982, N T Rama Rao launched the Telugu Desam as an alternative to the Congress. He fought elections on the plank of Telugu pride. Many Kannada writers and intellectuals, such as P Lankesh, Poornachandra Tejaswi, and Chandrashekhara Patil appealed to Rajkumar, a star whose hold over the masses was undisputed, to enter electoral politics and help the state overthrow the authoritarian rule of chief minister R Gundu Rao. Rajkumar’s popularity had peaked in the wake of the Gokak agitation for primacy of Kannada in education, they felt the time was ripe for a regional formation in Karnataka.

But Rajkumar again stayed away from politics. Later, he explained his reluctance—he was unwilling to undertake any work he was not proficient in. He also feared by joining a party he would hurt the sentiments of fans in other parties. He also rejected an offer from A K Subbaiah to lead Kannada Nadu Paksha, which the firebrand leader from Kodagu had just launched. Rajkumar dissociated himself from a fans’ association when its office-bearers decided to contest elections in 1985. His sons have continued in his footsteps, and remained wary of party politics.

The scene changed in 1985. Actors Ananath Nag and Shankar Nag declared their support for the Janata Party led by Ramakrishna Hegde, and toured the state to campaign for the party. The party was voted to power. After the death of Shankar Nag, Ananth Nag unsuccessfully contested the 1991 Lok Sabha elections from Uttara Kannada on a Janata Dal ticket. In 1994, he won the Malleswaram seat in the Assembly elections, and got a berth in the J H Patel ministry. He was defeated in 2004.

Here and there

Actors like Mukhyamantri Chandru and Shashi Kumar, who also won elections, have switched parties. Many artists dabbling in politics have been wanderers, with no ideological moorings. Shashi Kumar represented three parties in as many elections. Chandru has been with four parties.

The support extended by actors Darshan and Yash for Sumalatha, who was elected MP in 2019, is an example of how the industry views its relationship with politics. She contested as an independent, and enjoyed the sympathy of voters grieving the passing of her husband Ambareesh.

She has now transferred her sympathies to Modi. Ambareesh, also active in politics, was a member of Janata Dal initially, later contested and won on Congress tickets.

Actors, with the rare exception of Chetan Ahimsa, rarely talk about their political convictions. Sudeep has declared his support for Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, calling him an affectionate uncle. He says his support is limited to Bommai as an individual and does not extend to the party he represents. Only a political novice can come up with such a justification.

Upendra’s world

Actor Upendra has thrown his hat into the fray, with the nascent Uttama Prajakeeya Party, but it hasn’t made any impression on voters yet. His ideology, a mix of laissez faire and civic self-interest, has found no resonance with the masses. Voters can’t fathom what he is offering, and how Prajakeeya can grapple with the big players. To his credit, he hasn’t got into opportunistic arrangements with other parties.

Kannada cinema has a long way to go before it can define a distinctive politics for itself. Its actions now are prompted more by the exigencies of elections than by any ideological conviction.

Published 21 April 2023, 19:32 IST

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