Cinema as politics, politics as cinema
14 February 2014
A new book on Telugu film shows that the cultural industry was tied up with caste and regional politics.
To the grossly underexplored field of Telugu cinema, S V Srinivas’ Politics as Performance: A Social History of the Telugu Cinema is a significant contribution. As one of the first works on the topic it is likely to gain historical value and become a reference book. Andhra Pradesh, too, is under-studied within the social sciences and humanities in India. The Telugu film industry is the second largest in India, but there had previously been no full-length books written in English on Telugu cinema, except for one on Telugu film star Chiranjeevi (popularly known as Megastar) by the same author, Srinivas. But under-representation aside, scholarly work on Telugu cinema at this time is important: Indian cinema is usually reduced to Bollywood, and South Indian cinema to Tamil cinema.
Politics as Performance is not written in the style of a specialist ‘film history’, which falls within the ‘film studies’ genre in a narrow, conventional sense. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, it studies film culture not in isolation but in the intersection of history, economy and politics. It provides a detailed account of Telugu cinema and argues that this cultural industry is directly implicated in the emergence of a new idiom of politics. By specifically focusing on the career of one of the most charismatic stars of Telugu cinema, N T Rama Rao (NTR), who became, in 1983, the first non-Congress Chief Minister of one of the largest Indian states, Andhra Pradesh, Srinivas tries to demonstrate that cinema is crucial to understanding politics in India, particularly the south. In doing so, the author also claims an autonomous role for cinema in constituting modern identities rather than simply reflecting the existing ones.
With its readable prose and simple style, the book differs from the existing books on Indian cinema which tend to be infused with heavy doses of film theory. That does not mean it has no theoretical grounding. The author’s theorisation is supported by many very significant details – largely sourced from unconventional and unexplored materials, such as film posters, film song books, ‘yellow’ journals – combined with empirical details, analyses of filmic texts, and so on. Thanks to the Bangalore-based MaNaSu Foundation, which has been digitising Telugu books, journals, and newspapers, Srinivas was able to include 209 images in his 431 page book. These make Politics as Performanceeasily comprehensible and enjoyable even to people who have no formal training in understanding cinema, and Srinivas has missed no opportunity in providing his reader with some of the most unusual and least-known facts: for instance, Kankara Chandraiah, the dalit entrepreneur from Telangana who went on to own eight cinema halls in Hyderabad, began his career as a ‘gravel breaker’.
The “peasant industry”
The book covers a long and crucial period of Telugu cinema history, almost half a century, from the 1930s to 1980s. There are several interrelated reasons that make this period important. In post-Independence India, particularly in the south, a certain kind of elite rose to power. K Balagopal, Marxist scholar and human rights activist, has called this elite the “provincial propertied class” which, according to him, had strong links to agriculture and constituted a major proportion of India’s exploiting classes. Balagopal argued that this class was the “enemy of the masses.” Srinivas traces the emergence of this class to the 1930s and redefines their origins as “non-brahmin, non-vaishya and non-zamindar” (more specifically the Reddy and Kamma castes).
In the past three decades or so, scholars in India have increasingly become aware of caste as a crucial category in the analysis of life-worlds, and the credit for this largely goes to vibrant Ambedkarite Dalit movements. Reflecting such awareness, Srinivas has made a conscious effort to bring in the caste dimension in his analysis of Telugu cinema. The second factor that makes the 1930s-80s an important time is that from the 1930s, Telugu films underwent a substantial increase in viewership. And thirdly, the NTR period witnessed a particular idiom of mass politics, which Srinivas calls “performative politics”. The author identifies the culmination of such a politics in 1983, with NTR becoming Chief Minister.
Srinivas traces the growth of NTR and also, to some extent, Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR), who hail from the coastal Andhra region of Andhra Pradesh, and belong to one of the dominant peasant castes, Kamma. Their growth as stars and entrepreneurs at the same time is read by the author as “symptomatic of the domination of the industry by the new elite.” A substantial section of the book focuses on what the author calls “the peasant industry”. However, the ‘peasant’ here is not to be confused with the Marxian peasant, or the figure of the subaltern rebel. ‘Peasant’ is used to indicate the fact that the major investors in the Telugu film industry had roots in agriculture, whether they were small or medium landowners, or wealthy landlords. The argument is not that these peasant-caste entrepreneurs constituted the essence of the industry, but that they managed to keep the industry and its economy under their control. This new elite (starting from the two pioneers of early Telugu cinema, Gudavalli Ramabrahmam and B N Reddi, who rose to prominence during the pre-Independence period, and their contemporary L V Prasad, to the later key players from the 1950s to ‘80s, such as B Nagi Reddy, Chakrapani, D Ramanaidu and so on) invested their agricultural surpluses in the film industry. Their investments were combined with incentives such as loans and subsidies offered by the state after the formation of Andhra Pradesh. Besides producers and directors, all major stars belonged to the agrarian castes and rose from modest status to positions of enormous wealth and prestige.
By the 1950s, this elite successfully managed to take control of the industry by replacing Madras Presidency zamindars belonging to the Kamma, Reddy, Kapu, Velama and Raju castes, who in the 1930s and 1940s had established studios and other cinema production infrastructure in the province’s capital, Madras. While the zamindars made an important contribution to the film industry as moneylenders and financiers, they also blocked the generation of surpluses in the regions under their control by collecting huge taxes from farmers. However, the domination of the industry by the zamindars ended with the passing of the Abolition of Estates Act in 1948, paving the way for new entrants in the film industry, especially the “capitalist-farmers” from the Andhra region, who accumulated surpluses as a result of the post-Independence economic boom. Srinivas shows that investments in cinema soon made their way from village and agriculture to the small town and to the Madras studios.
While the first few chapters of the book map such larger socio-economic realities of this culture industry and its association with politics, the later chapters mainly revolve around NTR, who, with his peasant origins, rose to power as a star politician.
The second crucial issue that Politics as Performance raises is the question of how Telugu cinema had to come to terms with the idea of Teluguness or Telugu nationalism. Srinivas makes the observation that with the arrival of the talkie-era in the 1930s, the Madras-based film industry began to experience a “linguistic reorganisation of sorts,” and cinema assumed the role of the bearer of a linguistic culture. Soon, prominent Telugu film-makers in Madras, such as Gudavalli Ramabrahmam, along with prominent film commentators such as Kodavatiganti Kutumbarao (KoKu), began to comment in the Telugu media that the city, with its predominantly Tamil culture, was unsuitable for representing Teluguness on the screen. They also claimed that films made in Madras with non-Andhra art directors failed to show Telugu culture.
The 1930s and ‘40s was also the period when ‘mythologicals’ gave way to ‘socials’, the genre associated with realism. Srinivas argues that the industry had to find a way to combine the aesthetic with the economic. Relocating the industry to an Andhra town – Bezawada, Rajahmundry or Visakhapatnam – was proposed as the possible solution. Such a move would not only ensure ‘Teluguness’ but also cheaper production, as local talent could be sourced for modest salaries.
With the formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1956 and Telangana (the Telugu-speaking region of the erstwhile Hyderabad state under Nizam’s rule) becoming a part of it, both economic and cultural/aesthetic integration (read Teluguness) were made possible, and the state began to play a major role in determining what it meant for films to be Telugu. As a result, Srinivas argues that the place of film production (meaning the geography of the new state) displaced cinema’s Teluguness from its aesthetic domain. In other words, once Telugu cinema managed to reach out to all Telugu people, it was no longer anxious about being Telugu. As Telangana opened up as a new market, Telugu cinema now addressed Telugus as a single unified community, even claiming to speak for the Telugu nation, although Srinivas believes that this was only an “unintended consequence.” It was during this period (from the 1950s to ‘80s) that NTR emerged as a star and finally decided to enter politics, using his populist films, which cast him as the representative of the masses, to his advantage.
Srinivas is largely unconvinced by the existing explanations of how NTR attained his phenomenal political success. By defeating the Congress party headed by Indira Gandhi in 1983, NTR became the first non-Congress Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. This happened just one year after he had formed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). However, unlike the Tamil film star M G Ramachandran (MGR), who had had a long innings in politics before he finally became the Chief Minister, NTR had no prior association with politics or any political party. Analysts have variously attributed NTR’s political success to the divine roles he had played in Telugu mythological films, his cashing-in on the Telugu nationalist sentiment, his promise of populist welfare schemes such as subsidised rice for the poor, and the decline of Congress. All of these factors Srinivas finds unsatisfactory. He argues that although NTR had claimed to represent the Telugu nation, he had nothing to do with the Telugu cause. Even in the early days after the formation of Andhra Pradesh, NTR preferred to stay in Madras and was reluctant to relocate to Hyderabad. Even more, NTR had gained notoriety for playing sexually-charged numbers with heroines and cabaret dancers, and yet he succeeded in claiming that he was the true representative of Teluguness. How did that happen? One of Srinivas’ aims in this book is to find a more convincing answer to this question than those previously put forward.
The author’s alternative explanation is that NTR’s performances had an emotional appeal. The star had the capacity to invoke affect, which he carried over into public life from his screen career. As NTR became the master of mythological roles, he came to be associated with “theatrical speeches” and a variety of “neo-classical Telugu”, invented for the purpose of cinema, which gave him immense popularity. He successfully deployed these skills in his electoral campaign speeches, and the star managed to create a link between those speeches and contemporary politics. Srinivas also points out that NTR directed and produced his own (mythological) films and used them as commentaries on socio-political affairs. For instance, the famous film Dana Veera Sura Karna, starred, directed and produced by NTR, “frames the story of Karna as a struggle against caste oppression.” Moreover NTR, the star-turned-politician, carried over a mode of excessive performativity to his election campaigns, derived from theatre and mediated by cinema. However, Srinivas clarifies, NTR rallies were not focused on the transition from film spectatorship to political community, since the listener-participant/political subject was addressed as if he were at the movies watching a film. NTR’s public meetings were centred on his performing skills, through which he carried cinematic pleasures into the domain of politics. As Srinivas points out, it was as if the audience were offered an entertaining performance in exchange for a vote, constituting spectator-political-subjects in the process.
However, the cinematic medium did not singlehandedly produce the star-politician. There were other factors that contributed to the NTR phenomenon. Srinivas shows how newspapers like Eenadu (owned by Ramoji Rao, a Kamma-peasant entrepreneur from the Andhra region), played an interventionist role in mobilising NTR’s star persona and authenticated his nationalist claims, helping him gain political power.
While some scholars have suggested that NTR revived an older version of Telugu identity that existed in the 1950s, Srinivas endorses the opposing view that there was nothing in common between earlier articulations of Telugu identity and the NTR brand of Telugu nationalism. Drawing from Laclau’s notion of populism and Thomas Blom Hansen’s idea of political performativity, Srinivas argues that NTR had a vague and all-encompassing notion of Telugu community, unlike the Presidency Telugus (Telugu people from the Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra regions who were part of the Madras Presidency prior to the formation of a separate Andhra state in 1953) who conceived of their identity in contradistinction to Tamilians. For Srinivas, NTR’s electoral campaigns were empty of substance. Laclau points out that vagueness and imprecision are characteristic of any populist mobilisation because popular identity is always articulated and constituted on disparate demands. Thus, popular identity functions as an empty signifier, as it is not constituted in the process of representing a particular social or political demand. On the other hand, it simply claims to represent a large chain of interests.
Srinivas believes that NTR and his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) emerged from no particular ideological orientation or an identifiable social base. The TDP constructed and defined its members and others belonging to the Telugu linguistic group as ‘Telugus’, who were presumably its supporters. This is what Hansen would call political performativity. Thus to understand the politics of mass mobilisation during the NTR moment, Srinivas turns to mass-circulated cultural commodities such as ‘yellow’ journals, audio cassettes, red films (also known as ‘naxalite films’) and, more importantly, some of the leading newspapers of the time. The latter not only addressed the masses as objects of mobilisation, but also extensively reported NTR’s election campaign details and, through cartoons, editorials and photographs, created a new idiom of performative politics around the star.
Srinivas, like many other scholars, lacks a deeper understanding of the relation between Telugu nationalism, especially during the early 20th century, and pan-Indian nationalism. For instance, he chooses to translate Ramabrahmam’s term jateeyata as ‘linguistic culture’, and goes on to equate jateeyata with Telugutanam, or Teluguness. We must note that jateeyata primarily meant Telugu nationalism and the term had already been in circulation well before Ramabrahmam used it. The idea of Telugus constituting a nation was first popularised by C P Brown and other British scholars in the late 19th century, but it was the native intelligentsia who forged Telugu nationalism by giving it a new currency with all the necessary cultural and political ingredients. For instance, they established printing presses, publishing houses, newspapers, literary journals and organisations, through which they modernised and standardised Telugu and used it to consolidate Telugu national identity. Andhra Mahasabha, for instance, was a political platform formed by the Telugu elite, which played a major role in sculpting Telugu identity and spearheaded the movement for a separate Andhra Province in the early 20th century.
However, what is more important for the purpose of our discussion here is that serious attempts were made by Indian nationalists to reduce Telugu nationalism to a mere cultural phenomenon, leading to ideological clashes between Telugu nationalism and Indian nationalism. While Indian nationalists accused Telugu nationalism of being divisive, the supporters of Telugu nationalism argued, as early as 1913, that India as a nation was unviable as it lacked a single common language and literature. As the well-known cultural theorist Madhava Prasad has rightly noted, the Congress defined Indian nationalism “as a substantive and distinctive thing in itself, rather than as the sum of a complex of nationalities. The nationalist aspirations of the major linguistic regions were thus sought to be subsumed under an overarching Indian nationalism.”
The seamless interweaving of Teluguness (through a careful representation of cultural geography such as rural locales, peasant protagonists, and by staging dialogues in regional dialects and naming that fictional universe as Telugu) and Gandhian nationalism (temple entry by Harijana Seva Sangham, political meetings with Congress flags and images of Gandhi) in Ramabrahmam’s films such as Malapilla and Raitu Bidda is testament to such a hegemonic politics. Significantly, while these films – which were made at a time when the separate Andhra movement was quite vibrant in the elite Telugu public sphere – openly exhibit their loyalty to Indian nationalism, they make no references to Telugu nationalism per se.
After Gandhi took charge of the Congress party, more and more leaders from Andhra were drawn towards the Indian nationalist struggle and abandoned the movement for a separate Andhra province. Increasingly, the Andhra Mahasabha itself came under the influence of Gandhi’s swaraj. Those who stayed away from Gandhian politics and declared loyalty to Telugu nationalism felt betrayed, as they believed that Gandhian Indian nationalists were trying to sabotage the cause of Telugu nationalism. They even felt humiliated when they were accused of promoting divisiveness among fellow Indians. Although there is ample evidence of this history, most historians choose to ignore it. When NTR attacked Congress for humiliating the Telugu jati, he was reviving such old memories. Thus the idea of humiliation of the Telugus was not simply an invention of NTR or Eenadu. It existed in abundance in the first half of the 20th century among sections of the Telugu cultural elite of Andhra region, when the Congress high command repeatedly ignored their political demand for the formation of a separate Andhra province or state.
Although the author sets out to disprove some of the existing explanations on star politics, the way the book is structured is in some ways similar to arguments made in one of the very early books on Tamil cinema, The Image Trapby M S S Pandian. For instance, the way the visuals are organised to show the convergence of cinema and print, especially in relation to NTR’s election campaigns, and the arguments concerning NTR’s theatricality and the production of affect, are somewhat similar to what we see in Pandian’s book about MGR. There are strikingly similar passages in both books which explain how mass mobilisation was enabled by the careful representation of the film persona of the two stars in the print media, and how both MGR and NTR deployed film-like performances in their election campaigns. While Pandian argued that MGR always played up “emotional oneness” between himself and the common people, Srinivas has utilised similar terms, such as NTR’s “emotional appeal” and the star’s creation of “affect” to describe the process of mass mobilisation.
The main arguments of the book are interwoven with many important details pertaining to the Telugu cinema industry. Crucial information on its major stars and singers, famous directors and producers, studios, sources of investment, production and exhibition networks, its intimate connection to politics, and the industry’s long journey from Bombay and Calcutta to Madras, and later from Madras to Hyderabad, was only accessible to Telugu readers until now. Yet even Telugu readers did not have ready access, as such details are scattered in old newspapers and journals, difficult to find in good condition even in major libraries and archives. For the first time, they have been put in a historical and scholarly perspective and made available to readers of English.
~N Manohar Reddy is guest faculty at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, India.