M. G. Ramachandran

In a special issue of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, Steven Vertovec suggests that, while there have been a variety of uptakes on transnationalism, there has “not surprisingly [been] much conceptual muddling”, which has led to an unproblematic articulation of transnationalism as referring “to multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states” (1). Such a proposition has been taken up in several different disciplines, including film studies. Hence, we hear the call to reconsider cinema beyond the borders of the nation-state, as a transnational cultural industry, as the forces of globalisation has made it impossible to speak of cinema within such a categorical schema.

Transnational cinema, as a conceptual category, thus emerged in response to the perceived insufficiencies of existing categories such as National Cinema, Third World Cinema and Third Cinema to correspond with, and respond to, the conditions of the globalised world. In effect, therefore, transnational cinema was mobilised as a response to a shift in the economy of exchange from national to global, coupled with increasing economic globalisation and the acceleration of technological developments. Against this current of theorising transnational cinema, this article turns to postcolonial Tamil cinema between 1947 to the late 1970s as proof-text to argue that we can reconsider the notion of a transnational cinema without necessarily conceptualising it as a corollary of globalisation. In setting up this proposition, the article also seeks to problematise the categorisation of Tamil cinema as a regional cinema, which took place after the arrival of sound in the early 1930s, intervene into the idea of a postcolonial Indian nation, normatively constituted under the umbrage of a North Indian, majoritarian Hindu identity, and reconsider the notion of an Indian national cinema, normatively articulated through the optic of Bombay cinema.

Underwriting the concept of transnational cinema are a number of clusters/themes that can be delineated as such: transnational cinema is defined and used in reference to cinema made by displaced filmmakers living in exile or diaspora; used as a mode of expressing the interstitial and artisinal modes of production, distribution and consumption; marked by the use of a hybrid stylistic forms, patterns of identification and ideological concerns; and “defined by [… the] affirmation of difference” (2) as a mode of resistance to the homogenising forces of globalisation. In one sense, we can think of these clusters/themes as providing a framework for articulating the notion of transnational cinema to (cor)respond to the traffic and forces of globalisation. On the other hand, these clusters/themes also function to bracket transnational cinema within the jurisdiction of globalisation, thus limiting it. Such a view, as suggested by Marvin D’Lugo, is rather amnesiac. In his historicisation of Latin American cinema, D’Lugo disrupts the categorisation of such a cinema as a regional cinema and demonstrates that Latin American cinema has always-already been transnational: here the conception moves away from views affirming transnational cinema as “merely the mixing of local and foreign elements, characters, styles, and speech in particular films” toward one that sees it as involving “a deeper interrogation of the modes of cultural production […] that involves […] a rethinking of the hierarchy between center and periphery” (3). The proposed suggestion dismantles the notion of transnational cinema from its historical specificity (as a response to globalisation) and opens the category so that cinematic productions that were transnational in both form and content, prior to the emergence of contemporary globalisation, can be conceptualised within the schema. At the same time, it calls for a reconsideration of transnational cinema as disrupting and contesting established centre-periphery relations, again opening the category so that it is not simply couched in terms of the contest of centre-periphery relations such as local-global and national-global.

It is these suggestions that I wish to latch onto to propose the need to rethink the category of transitional cinema, the categorisation of Tamil cinema as a regional cinema, the notion of a pan-Indian national cinema and the normative construction of the nation in postcolonial India. In other words, postcolonial Tamil cinema functions to contest the legitimacy of a multiplicity of centre-periphery relations: the regional-national cinema distinction and the unproblematic imagining of the Indian nation in specific terms. In making such an argument, this article then suggests that the proof-text participates in transnationalising both the idea of an Indian nation and of an Indian national cinema.

In her report on the inaugural conference on Tamil cinema held in Chennai for the journal Screen, Lalitha Gopalan foregrounds the relationship between Tamil cinema and cultural nationalism in Tamil Nadu in these terms:

self assertion of Tamil culture has persistently interrogated the centrifugal forces of Indian nationalism […] nowhere else in India has cultural nationalism worked so successfully to dislodge upper caste hegemony, to carve out a non-Brahminical public sphere. (4)

That is to say Tamil cinema articulates, mobilises and dismantles the hegemonic conception of the postcolonial Indian nation as fostered by the apparatus of the nation-state through an appeal to a sense of Tamil cultural nationalism that is antagonistic to the national imaginary. The point here on the intimacy of the media form to the production and circulation of a sense of (antagonistic) cultural nationalism is precise: Tamil cinema, in particular, has had a central role in the postcolonial re-construction of the nation and national identity. The suggestion that Tamil cinema participates in the construction and negotiation of a sense of nation and nationalism in the postcolonial period in India must also address “the question of national cinema” (5), because the concept of national cinema

privileges ideas of coherence and unity and stable cultural meanings associated with the uniqueness of a given nation. It is imbricated with national myth-making and ideological production and serves to delineate alterities and legitimize selfhood. (6)

Taking up this suggestion opens up another line of argument and this has to do with the problematisation of an Indian national cinema, particularly since Tamil cinema has been unproblematically labelled a regional cinema since the arrival of sound in the early 1930s, which served to mark out linguistic and cultural differences within the nation. The ‘regional cinema’ tag is “a label given to films in any language besides Hindi or English” (7). The regionalisation of cinematic forms through linguistic differentiation served not only to marginalise the heterogeneity of Indian cinema and affirm Bombay cinema’s special location as paradigmatic of Indian national cinema, but also crystallise the colonial and later postcolonial imagining of the Indian nation under the umbrage of a North Indian, majoritarian Hindu identity. The regional/national cinema separation that occurred with the arrival of sound is symptomatic of the way in which the postcolonial Indian nation has imagined itself through the official recognition of Hindi as the national language. And it has remained as a naturalised, taken-for-granted approach to dealing with the heterogeneity of Indian cinema, and which has led to an unproblematic privileging of Bombay cinema as national cinema.

Such a view circulates even though Tamil cinema has been particularly concerned with the idea of the nation, most overtly and powerfully during the period that witnessed the strategic use of cinema for political purposes by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK or Dravidian Progressive Front) and later by the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK or Anna Dravidian Progressive Front), which did not support any form of national commonality and which problematised the official version of the nation. Both the DMK and ADMK’s ideological thrust, of championing Tamil cultural nationalism, was founded on the Dravidian movement led by Periyar R. Naicker, the founder of the Justice Party in 1917. The radicalisation of the Dravidian ideology took place in the 1930s, particularly after the “the introduction of compulsory Hindustani in 1938” (8), which saw the Dravidian movement engage in agitation politics against the Congress Party, which it had been supporting to date. The antagonism surrounding the compulsory introduction of Hindi, as national language, marked the beginning of the affirmation of Tamil identity “rooted in the Tamil literary movement of the early nineteenth century” (9). Such a political position, one that strongly affirms Tamil nationalism as a separatist discourse, and as antithetical to the idea of a singular nation, was taken up and played out through cinema to set up an alternative version and vision of the nation, to break up established centre-periphery relations. It is this rupturing that calls for a conception of Tamil cinema as a transnational cinema and not simply as a regional cinema

The foregoing commentary demonstrates that it is problematic to conceptualise an undifferentiated notion of a national cinema, that the classification does not do justice to the impact of Tamil cinema on the national imaginary and that there is an urgent need to rethink the idea of Tamil cinema as a transnational cinema. In line with such a proposition, this article examines the various ways in which the nation is constructed and negotiated within the domain of Tamil cinema, particularly the period after independence to about the late 1970s to offer a critical survey of the various ways in which ‘India’ is negotiated in Tamil Cinema to make the argument that, over time, there has been a shift within Tamil Cinema from a pan-Indian construction of the nation, that was part of the anti-colonial cinema of British India, to the call for communally centred, closed, ethno-nation, premised on a discourse of Tamil cultural nationalism. The redefining of centre-periphery relations, the contest over the semiotics of ‘India’ and the special location of Bombay cinema further affirm why it is crucial to conceptualise Tamil cinema as a transnational cinema.

The use of cinema for political purposes, namely the construction of an imagined community based on linguistic homogeneity, was one of the central themes that preoccupied postcolonial Tamil cinema up to the late ’70s. The close relationship between film and politics has been the subject of academic discussions which examine the ways in which both the DMK and ADMK mobilised cinema and disseminated the ideology of Dravidianism through the cinematic apparatus in postcolonial India. Such discussions taken various routes – through an analysis of fandoms and fanzines, textual analysis of specific films, star analysis, auteur theory, and ethnographic approaches – but nevertheless arrive at a similar conclusion, one that describes the relationship between Tamil cinema and Tamilnadu politics as symbiotic. (10) The argument here suggests that this was a period in which the relationship between cinema and politics was most explicitly shored up. More crucially, this period signalled the robust contestation over the terms upon which the idea of a postcolonial Indian nation is constituted and the terms upon which such collectivities are constructed. It must be emphasised that while

Tamil film became politicized as early as during the all-India national struggle, [… it] remained for long inaccessible to wider audiences. DMK’s mobilization phase coincided […] with rapid rural electrification. (11)

In effect, therefore, the use of the visual medium for political purposes during the DMK period was in large part an effect of the postcolonial nation-state’s modernisation imperative as Nehru had imagined it. This is one side of the argument, however, because, while there were approximately 1,500 cinema theatres in Tamilnadu by 1971, “it was only [the] DMK who initially saw and took advantage of cinema’s potential for propaganda use” (12). The DMK’s strategic use of cinema, its symbiotic relationship with Tamil cinema, is significant insofar as it called into question the version of the imagined national community set up in and through the anti-colonial struggle. As Hardgrave reminds, “it was only the party of Tamil nationalism, the DMK, that took film seriously as a vehicle of political mobilization.” (13)

The brand of Tamil cultural nationalism resurrected through the institution of cinema by the DMK can be traced to the second half of the 19th century and the rise of the Dravida Tamil national movement of the first half of the 20th century, and was officially articulated at the first “Tamil Nadu for Tamils” conference held by the Dravida Kazhagam (DK or Dravidian Front) on 10 December 1939. The goal of this movement and its later offshoot, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was an independent Dravida Nadu (Southern India, which included Tamil Nadu), which was separate from the Congress-led officially imagined India. This call for a Dravidian State, “corresponding to the linguistic divisions (Madras, Kerala, Mysore, and Andrha), each having residuary powers and autonomy of internal administration” (14), remained the official party proclamation until 1963, when the Congress Party Government announced a ban on all parties and individuals demanding independence (separatism or secession) from India, to which the DMK – which was in power in Tamil Nadu then – acceded. While the secessionist rhetoric was officially banned, the “Tamil Nadu is for Tamils” discourse continued to dominate the celluloid screen. The active campaigning for recognition and independence through cinema, while primarily premised upon differences of ethnicity, language, and culture, also demanded the uplift of the non-Brahmin community in South India founded upon an anti-north, anti-Hindi and anti-Brahmin ideological footing. Quite clearly then it can be suggested that postcolonial Tamil cinema, particularly during the phase of extrovert ethno-communalism, can be conceived as a transnational cinema insofar as it drew from and expressed a sense of Tamil nationalism that radically subverted the discourse of officially driven Indian nationalism, contesting established postcolonial centre-periphery relations. In other words, during this phase, not only was the formation of a hegemonic ethno-communal discourse through the instrument of cinema taking hold, but more crucially, there was a “transform[ation] of cinema [itself] at least in Tamil Nadu […] into an instrument of propaganda without parallel in “the cinematographic world of other democratic countries” (15). The kinds of interventions that we see taking shape within postcolonial Tamil cinema, both at the thematic level (through the engendering of a radically different version of the postcolonial nation) and at level of deploying the instrument of cinema as the forum for political communication, opens the possibility of conceptualising Tamil cinema as transnational cinema.

Agraharathil Kazhuthai

The first is evident in a number of films such as Velaikkari (Servant Maid, 1949), Manthiri Kumari (The Minister’s Daughter, 1950), Parasakthi (The Goddess, 1952), Madurai Veeran (The Soldier of Madurai, 1956), Sivagangai Seemai (The Land of Sivagangai, 1959), Veerapandiya Kattabomman (The Hero Kattabomman, 1959), Parthiban Kanavu (Parthiban’s Dream, 1960), Pavamannippu (Forgiveness of Sins, 1961), Kappalotiya Thamizhan (The Tamil Who Launched a Ship, 1961), Tangaritinam (Precious Stone, 1967), Engal Thangam (Our Beloved, 1970) and Agraharathil Kazhuthai (A Donkey in the Brahmin Enclave, 1977), which returned to the general theme of “caste and language [which] were the principal bases of Tamil nationalism” (16). Velaikkari, which was a film adaptation of a play by C. N. Annadurai (the leader of the DMK), was released with “the founding of the party” (17) and shores up the main tenets of the DMK: “the film is laced with anti-caste, anti-religious and socialistic rhetoric” (18). The narrative functioned to critique the caste-based, religiously driven, capitalist imperative that informed the postcolonial Nehruistic construction of the larger Indian nation.

Supplementing such a narrative thrust, which appeared in other films such as Manthiri Kumari, Pavamannippu and Engal Thangam, is another ideological projection: that of glorifying Dravidian cultural heritage. The use of the cinematic medium to affirm the hegemony of Dravidian culture has been well documented, particularly in the works of Dickey and Hardgrave among others. (19) The arguments advanced here focus upon the centrality of the medium to the political culture of Tamilnadu, particularly the way in which cinema was used to champion “the Dravidian Movement for non-Brahmin uplift in South India” (20). In other words, the arguments concern themselves with the ways in which the celluloid screen was used to project a discourse of Tamil nationalism but do not go on to explore the ‘regional’ cultural industry’s disruption of the centre-periphery relations that inform both the construction of a pan-Indian national cinema as well as the idea of a postcolonial Indian nation. This is what concerns this article as it opens the necessity of conceptualising Tamil cinema as a transnational cinema. The reinterpellation of the origin of the nation, through the glorification of Dravidian culture, seeks to suggest, as “many Tamil scholars [have] pointed out, that Saiva Sidhanta, a specifically Tamil or Dravidian religion, predated the spread of Sanskritic civilization and establishment of Brahminical priesthood in India” (21). While any affirmation of a narrative of origin(inary) is highly suspect, an appellation to a different point of origin is, nevertheless, poignant insofar as it interrupts the hegemonic version of the origin of the nation. The way in which Parasakthi, for example, draws upon Dravidian culture and politicises it can be seen through the opening film song which reiterated the splendour of Dravidian heritage, the main themes of the film (triumph of rationalism over religiosity, anti-priesthood and self-respect), and comments by M. Karunanidhi (one of the founding members of the DMK who wrote the screenplay) stating that the “intention was to introduce the ideas and policies of social reform and justice […] and bring up the status of the Tamil language as they were called for in DMK politics” (22). The recoding of the status of Tamil language and its relocation as central to the formation of a Tamil-nation became foundational not only to the political strategies of both the DMK and the ADMK, but also became the mainstay of the ideological thrust of much of Tamil cinema. Here, the references to the legends and heroisms of the deities of Tamilnadu (as in Madurai Veeran and Veerapandiya Kattabomman), and the anti-colonial triumphs of Tamilians (as in Sivagangai Seemai and Kappalotiya Thamizhan) dominate.

Similarly, as the study conducted by Pandian, which can be categorised under the rubric of star studies, demonstrates the centrality of the figure of M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) to the production and dissemination of a specific form of Tamil nationalism articulated through the DMK and later the ADMK cannot be underestimated (23). Here is Dickey at length on a similar point:

Annadurai [founder of the DMK and architect of the secession from the DK] asked the young M. G. Ramachandran to star in one of his movies in the early 1950s. Ramachandran was a great success, and soon became a member of the DMK party. He and other movie stars were utilized to ‘decorate’ party functions and draw crowds. MGR began to use the DMK colours of red and black in his movies (after the switch to colour in the late 1950s) and made frequent allusions to party policy and rhetoric, much of it anti-Congress. Injections of political spice became very popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and it was said that no movie could succeed without some reference to the DMK. MGR, the main star allied with the DMK, gained a large and devoted following and soon controlled many aspects of his movies, using himself as the saviour of the poor. (24)

Nadodi Mannan

Films such as Nadodi Mannan (Vagabond King, 1958), Enga Vitu Pillai (The Son of Our Home, 1965), Nam Nadu (Our Country, 1969), Adimai Penn (Slave Girl, 1969) and Engal Thangam reproduced a stereotypical image of a philanthropic, everyday hero: “typical roles, like that of a vagrant who becomes king due to his exploits and who decides that each citizen should get a house and livestock” (25). The success of this formula is evident: MGR entered politics in 1953, used cinema strategically as a means of political communication and then held the post of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu between 1977-86. At the same time, the shifts in political dominance of parties that MGR was associated with testifies to the success of the cinematic formula. The DMK, which MGR was aligned with until 1972, dominated state politics until the declaration of Emergency in 1975, lost the 1977 state elections to ADMK, the party that MGR founded. This shift in power block manufactured through the star status of MGR (and the off-shoots such as fan clubs) further testifies to the way in which the manufacturing and interpellation of an ethno-communal nationalism which confronts the nation-state’s subscription of an Indian nationalism through the instrument of cinema takes place. In other words, it prises open the surety of the nation, built on the idea of a ‘people’, and “turns the reference […] into a problem of knowledge that haunts the symbolic formation of modern social authority” (26) that takes place through the machineries of the nation-state. More precisely, in cataloguing the list of films above, which is by no means exhaustive, the article has strived to demonstrate that the postcolonial rendition of the idea of the nation, as reflected through Tamil cinema, intervenes both into a specifically ordered version of Indian nationalism and problematises the notion of a national cinema as “an object of knowledge […] put into discourse: narrated, discursively represented by tropes, words, phrases, archives, verbal associations, texts” (27). If a national cinema is engaged in discursively constructing a sense of a national people, such a project is interrupted by Tamil cinema precisely because the strategies of discursivising the nation through Bombay cinema remains inadequate: Tamil cinema returns to interrogate the national cinema-Bombay cinema equation of the legitimacy of the tropes of representations employed in the construction of the idea of a national people. It is precisely such a role, as intervening both on the national question per se and the question of pan-Indian national cinema, that Tamil cinema can be conceived as a transnational cinema.

In arguing that postcolonial Tamil cinema, specifically after independence and up to the late ’70s, be conceptualised as a transnational cinema, as a cinema of subversion, the argument draws attention to the ways in which cinematic form and style as well as the technology of cinema itself has been strategically employed to articulate and engender an interruptive notion of the nation and, at the same time, question the authority of an Indian national cinema expressed through the optic of Bombay cinema. To this end, I wish to suggest that it would be productive to conceive of Tamil cinema as a transnational cinematic form through its powerful commitment to intervening into the established centre-periphery relations that inform postcolonial Indian’s construction of the nation and the national-regional cinema divide.

This article has been refereed.


  1. Steven Vertovec, “Conceiving and researching transnationalism”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1999, pp. 447, 448.
  2. Martin Roberts, “Baraka: World Cinema and the Global Culture Industry”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1998, p. 78.
  3. Marvin D’Lugo, “The new identity of Latin American cinema”, in Anthony Gunerate and Wimal Dissanayake (Eds), Rethinking Third Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), p. 104.
  4. Lalitha Gopalan, “Tamil Cinema Conference”, Screen, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1998, p. 196.
  5. Wimal Dissanayake, “Introduction: Nationhood, History, and Cinema: Reflections on the Asian Scene,” in Wimal Dissanayake (Ed), Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. xiii.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sara Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 51. The labelling of Tamil cinema as a regional cinema can also be historically connected to the rise of cultural nationalism in South India, articulated in the shadow of the Dravidian ideology during the 1920s when a rigorous push for the importance of Tamil language and culture took hold.
  8. Marguerite R. Barnett, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 52.
  9. Maya Chadda, Ethnicity, Security and Separatism in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 71.
  10. Robert Hardgrave, “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK”, Asian Survey, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1973, pp. 288-305.
  11. Ingrid Widlund, A vote for MGR: transaction and devotion in South Indian politics (Uppsala, Sweden: Department of Government, Uppsala University, 1993), p. 11.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Hardgrave, p. 289.
  14. Robert Hardgrave, “The DMK and the Politics of Tamil Nationalism”, Pacific Affairs, Vo. 37, No. 4, 1964-5, p. 399.
  15. Yves Thoraval, The Cinemas of India (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2001), p. 321.
  16. Maya Chadda, Ethnicity, Security and Separatism in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 71.
  17. Theodore Baskaran, The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema (Madras: East-West Books, 1996), p. 104.
  18. Ibid, p. 105.
  19. See Dickey and Hardgrave, 1964-5 and 1973.
  20. Hardgrave, 1973, p. 290.
  21. Chadda, p. 71.
  22. Hardgrave, 1973, p. 292.
  23. M. S. S. Pandian, The Image Trap: M. G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992).
  24. Dickey, 1993, p. 55.
  25. Thoraval, p. 321.
  26. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 146.
  27. Tom O’ Regan, Australian National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 27.