NOTA, Bharat Ane Nenu, Nene Raju Nene Mantri: Tracing South Indian cinema’s obsession with political drama

Ask any Tamil film buff about Tamil movies with a political storyline and chances are that he or she will mention Amaidhi Padai (Silent army) as one of the favorites. This 1994 film, starring Sathyaraj (Kattappa of Baahubali-fame to the modern day audience), was the story of a commoner who becomes a politician. Over a period of time, it has been seen as a cult film. Its sequel Nagaraja Cholan MA, MLA in 2013, however, did not do as well.

Sathyaraj is back in a pivotal role in NOTA, a Tamil-Telugu bilingual political thriller that releases this Friday. Featuring the rising star of Telugu cinema, Vijay Devarakonda in the lead role, this will be the actor’s foray into Kollywood. NOTA will be yet another one in the conveyor belt of movies with a political premise to test their luck with the audience in Tamil and Telugu cinema.

Unlike Hindi cinema, where politicians figure as characters only to play the bad guys and movies with a politician as the central character are few and far between, South Indian cinema has delved into the political space far more often.

“In recent years, only Rajneeti and Indu Sarkar stand out as two Hindi movies with central political characters. The reason perhaps is that the politics of the south is regional and therefore more suited to political writing and creating central characters. The focus, when it comes to national politics with its wider landscape, is not so sharp,” says Suresh Babu, Telugu film producer.

South Indian stars have recognised the huge appetite that audience down south have for political subjects. Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu played the chief minister’s role in Bharat Ane Nenu (I, Bharat) this year. The movie, that was also dubbed into Tamil and Malayalam, grossed Rs 230 crore.

Rana Daggubati’s debut movie in 2010 was Leader, in which he played the role of an upright politician. Rana did a U-turn with his choice of character when he returned to his self-confessed favourite genre of politics with Nene Raju Nene Mantri (I am the King, I am the Minister) last year, this time playing the role of a devious politician who murders his way to reach the top of the political ladder. The success of both movies was a commentary on political awareness and fondness for political films among the Telugu audience. This year, Humble Politician Nograj, the story of a corrupt corporator who manipulates his way to move up in politics, was one of the biggest grossers in the Kannada film industry.

Tamil actors Dhanush and Trisha played competing politicians of rival parties in Kodi (Flag) in 2016. The film is a gripping tale of the lack of scruples among the political class as ambition trumps love. Another Tamil film, Ko, mixed journalism with politics in a thriller that had the audience hooked to their seats. Last year, Malayalam superstar Dileep’s Ramleela cast him as a politician who is accused of murder and ironically, released at the same time when he was sent to judicial custody in connection with the molestation case of a fellow actor.

“Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, in particular, are two states where cinema and politics have been closely connected, with three chief ministers coming from the cine field. So the interest in political cinema will always be there,” says Mahesh Koneru, Telugu film producer.

Movies like Sandesam (The Message) in Malayalam and Mudhalvan (The Chief Minister) in Tamil are political movies that have been a favorite through generations. South Indian movies that do not cast the leading actor in a neta’s role still ensure there are politically loaded dialogues to mouth. Megastar Chiranjeevi’s Khaidi no. 150, a remake of Vijay’s Kaththi (The Knife) took a position on contentious issues of the day while Vijay’s Mersal (Zapped) landed in trouble with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) protesting the comments made on the Goods and Service Tax (GST) in the movie.

“In the last two to three years in Tamil Nadu, in particular, there has been a lot of political developments that have frustrated the people. Cinema is a space to vent anger and frustration. The filmmakers also want to cash in on this which is why you are suddenly seeing a lot of political movies,” says actor RJ Balaji, whose LKG, a movie with political humour at its core, releases on Pongal eve in January 2019. LKG is the hero’s name in the movie that funnily enough expands to Lalgudi Karuppaiya Gandhi.

Interestingly, films have been used in the past to both boost and harm political fortunes. NT Rama Rao, in his 1982 Telugu movie Naa Desam (My country), which released after he had entered politics, had dialogues tailored to boost his new career. Four years later, actor Krishna, who was associated with the Congress, starred in Naa Pilupe Prabhanjam (Clarion call). The movie was a piece of political satire that lampooned the confusion during NTR’s reign with thinly veiled characterisations of the chief minister and his coterie of family members.