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Benevolent Super Stars and Subaltern Audiences: The Markers of Post Coloniality in Tamil Cinema

The notions of benevolence and benevolent subjectivity have been serving as important theoretical constructs in relating to the conditions of subalterneity in diverse cultural contexts. Gayatri Spivak‘s theoretical addresses concerning the above have elevated the purportedly centuries-old feudal marker of benevolence into a post colonial marker par excellence. This seems not only a theoretically sound mode of understanding the conditions of subalterneity and their sources, but a pragmatic one as well, particularly in the post colonial contexts of countries like India. The markers of post coloniality in such contexts are as widely populated as the subaltern groups and their detractors. The public spheres in which these divergent markers of post coloniality are made visible and influential are structured by the subaltern groups and their detractors in an intensely collaborative mode. One such public sphere is Tamil cinema. This is the plane where celebrity colonialism finds its subaltern subjects, the Tamil film fans. This is the plane where the formation of subalterniety hinges more upon the formation of benevolent subjectivities of the stars and super stars of Tamil cinema than the real world conditions in which subalterns find themselves.

Tamil cinema and its socio-cultural milieus have their roots in complex layers of feudal, colonial and post colonial histories. These layers are difficult to relate to in their entirety, but one can see a microcosm of the feudal, colonial and post colonial worlds in one plane. This is the plane where the subalterns encounter the sources that are seeking a collaborative mode of existence with them, not withstanding the socio-economic realities that separate them. The benevolent super stars of Tamil cinema and their subaltern audiences have been existing in this collaborative mode of existence since 1940s, when Tamil cinema saw the birth of its first super star in M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. The post colonial markers of benevolence, exploitation and subalterneity have their influences writ large in each and every of the hundreds and thousands of Tamil films and the relationships these films sought to foster between their subaltern audiences and their benefactors, the stars and super stars of Tamil cinema.

These markers took a great leap forward during the 1950s and 1960s, when the DMK (the political party that sprang from the Dravidian political movement) sought to construct a public sphere where the subaltern consciousness was made to come alive politically on the screens where Tamil films espousing the cause of Dravidian socio-political ideology started rolling. The core of the then Dravidian ideology had strong Marxist layers sandwiched by appeals to Tamil ethnic identity and signals against the threats to Tamil language and economy. There could not be a more fertile ground than this for the subaltern consciousness to emerge on the lines suggested and controlled by the public sphere that they did not create in the first place. They were made willing accomplices of the stars and the party ideology that promoted the stars in a journey that has metamorphosed to other interesting post colonial trajectories in the post-Dravidian cinema era. Tamil cinema is no longer avowedly political as it was during 1950s and 1950s, but it still bears very strong imprints of the post colonial subjectivities it sought to foster in the subaltern film audiences with the active collaboration of the stars who were born with Tamil political cinema.

One super star of yesteryears, MGR personified the logic of benevolent subjectivity remarkably well in his addresses to his subaltern fans. The benevolent subjectivities of film stars and the subalterneity of their audiences are rooted in a collaborative mode of existence where denial of difference is as much an acknowledged fact as acceptance of difference between the subalterns and the stars who seek to personify subalterneity in all their words and deeds, on screen and off screen.

Benevolence as a post colonial marker also exists in a peculiar location in Tamil cinema. It is a Pontean location where the subjects of benevolence and objects of benevolence seem to exist on a plane where distinctions between them are blurred because of the rapidly fused manner in which the subjects and objects exchange their acts of benevolence. It is a Pontean location because the causes and effects of benevolence of stars and their fans are feeding on each other to the point where it becomes difficult to locate them separately. Stars as subjects or sources that cause benevolence have their basis in the objects of benevolence, film fans, as effects, which in turn seek to reconstitute themselves as subjects of benevolence in their acts of adulation of the star. In the later position, the stars exist more as the objects of benevolence or recipients of the goodies from the fans. For instance, the benevolence of Rajinikanth on screen and off screen gets matched by the benevolence of his fans in numerous ways. The various acts of the Rajinikanth fan club members are carefully orchestrated to acknowledge not only the benevolence of the star, but also express the benevolence of the fans. When fans of Rajinikanth repeatedly urge the star to plunge into politics, it must be read as a crucial point in the Pontean post-colonial location where Rajinikanth is turned into an object of benevolence by his fans. In such a location, what becomes of the distinctions between subjects and objects can be related only phenomenologically and through the logic of Merleau-Ponty on subject-object continuum.

The planes of Tamil cinema where benevolent super stars and subaltern film audiences seek to exist in a collaborative mode is a post colonial game where the loser (subaltern film fan) is made visible to the winner (the star-turned politician) in myriad ways, but is not made visible to himself. Subalterneity grows with every losing points gathered by the subaltern film audiences and the unhindered progression of stars as super stars and super stars as political supremos.


1.Spivak, G.C. ‘ Can the Subaltern Speak’? in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossburg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana, Il: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

2.Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Smith, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

1 comment

1 selvaraj Velayutham { 10.02.08 at 2:20 am }

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