A Day To Remember and the Strange Political Economy of Media in Tamil Nadu
Today (October 01) is a day to remember in Tamil cinema for two varied reasons. It marks another birth anniversary of Sivaji Ganesan, the doyen of Tamil cinema who passed away in 2001. It was Sivaji who gave a great boost to the political cinema of DMK during the 1950s. His first film, Parasakthi, 1952, was a scathing statement against the evils of exploitation, superstition, and moral depravity. Sivaji Ganesan was an impoverished theatre artist when he was chosen by the producer of Parasakthi on the recommendation of DMK party leadership. He quietly became a good replacement for K R Ramasamy, the first party actor. Sivaji Ganesan at one time became too popular to remain wedded to the ideals of the party which propelled his career. The party too was fairly orthodox to be a mute spectator when Sivaji Ganesan started acted in a series of mythologicals, causing a direct conflict with the atheistic stand of the party. This breaking moment for Sivaji Ganesan provided a great break for the third party actor, M G Ramachandran, who went on to make films on his own espousing the party’s cause. His good samaritan roles proved to be a great hit among the masses in Tamil Nadu and, among other factors, his charismatic roles on/off screen helped the party to capture the seat of power in Tamil Nadu in 1967.
M G Ramachandran broke away from DMK during early 1970s and formed AIADMK which also captured the imagination of voters and the seat of power in later years.
Today also sees the much publicised release of a mega Tamil film, Enthiran, a Rajini starrer. Produced by SUN Pictures, an affiliate of the multi-media conglomerate owned by the Maran brothers. Last few days have seen the telecast of countless number of promo trailers on SUN TV every hour and news stories masquerading as promos for the film in both SUN TV and Dhinakaran, a tamil daily owned by the group. Likewise, promos-in-loop have also hogged the airtime on the radio channel of the group (Suryan FM) and the space in the magazine, Kungumam.
The grapevine has it that many films waiting to be released were postponed fearing poor collections in the face of the massively orchestrated release of Enthiran. These are widely seen as skewed times in Tamil film industry. The past fears of corporate takeover of the industry also seem absurd and ridiculous in the face of the alleged near monopoly of the film industry by the SUN Pictures and other entities (Red Giant and Cloud Nine) promoted by members of the first family in the state. Insiders talk about large scale leasing of the nearly 1400+ theatres in the state by these entities, effectively foreclosing the prospects of many independent film projects. Tamil Nadu also holds the rank for the largest number of channels owned by political parties in India. Majority of the mainstream tamil television channels are owned either by political parties or the families of the top leadership. And promotion of the films produced by the interests close to channels appears to be the primary function of many film-based programmes. The innocent song and dance programme of the Indira Gandhi era Doordarshan has mutated into multiple contemporary avatars such as Top Ten films wherein the film that scores the first rank is always the most predictable winner, one made by the interests close to the channel.
What started during the late 1940s as Tamil political cinema belonged to an entirely different plane of political economy of media. Political films were not made by the party nor by the major studios of the day. They were indirect forays for the party sympathisers and the party actors for the larger cause of a socio-political movement and its ideology DMK represented. The political media scenario was tightly regulated, particularly by the Central Board of Film Censors. And both the censors and the sponsors of Tamil political cinema were challenged by the tasks they were imposing on each other. What is strange about the political economy of media in Tamil Nadu in contemporary times is the complete absence of a regulatory authority that can check the implications of cross-media ownership at the central and state levels in India.
The rise of the cross-media ownership in an essentially political plane and in a state where the subaltern masses have also been swayed by the power of the media requires a larger frame of research than what the conventional political economy of media approach permits. The conventional approach would be inadequate to deal with factors other than ownership patterns of media, distribution networks and markets. There is a stronger need to devise an enhanced political economy of media approach that can uncover the linkages between the feudal structures and political structures in the age of globalisation, expanding media economy and rocketing media monopoly, growing audience numbers and dormant/dead regulatory response. There is also a need to pitch an anthropological and sociological examination of the contemporary Tamil society as the site of the strange contours of television and cinema in Tamil Nadu.