Candid off-screen: Why south Indian actors are often so vocal

Actor Sai Pallavi who has appeared in several Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam movies through the years on Saturday released a video online clarifying her recent remarks to a YouTube channel in which she condemned religious violence.

Asked about her political position, she said in the interview last week, “I recently watched The Kashmiri Files movie about how Pandits were killed. In a recent religious conflict, a Muslim driver transporting cows was beaten and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’. How are these two incidents different? Be good people. Good people do not harm others. If you are not a good person, you will not find justice on the right or the left. Neutral.”

As the comments drew a social media backlash, Pallavi released the video. Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the country, especially in the Hindi film industry, actors from the southern states have never shrunk away from expressing their opinion on hot-button political issues and triggering controversies online. While Tamil actor Siddharth is known for his tweets criticizing the BJP, Kannada actor Kiccha Sudeep last month was involved in a Twitter spat with Bollywood actor-director Ajay Devgn over the status of Hindi as “rashtriya bhasha”, or national language. The Consitution does not accord that status to any language and instead recognises 22 official languages.

People familiar with both the film industries in the south and in the rest of the country, especially Bollywood, said the south still retains a public space where independent positions can be taken, no matter how contrarian.

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Senior actor Rohini Molleti compared it to elections. “When the rest of India votes one way, south India votes another. Celebrities also are different in the same manner. We had reformists like Periyar and significant social reforms in the south,” she said.

She went on to add, “Whatever be the profession, we have always spoken out for causes we believe in. My profession is acting, but our social upbringing shaped our personalities. Maybe these factors make south Indians stand for what they believe. We stand by our position despite threats and defamation.”

A popular actor working in Tamil and Telugu films said, on the condition of anonymity, that Pallavi’s remarks and clarification would have a big impact. “She may be commenting from the celebrity safe zone, but her remarks may be more effective than several agitations organized by the organizations for the oppressed or minorities,” he said.

Former University of Madras political science professor Ramu Manivannan said there were clear differences between celebrities and intellectuals in the south and other industries. “Unlike in the north, southern celebrities enjoy a public space to express their politics,” he said. “A Hindi star may speak up for a girl child but only in advertisements. But in the south, you can find such examples outside of celluloid. While southern celebrities had space and precedents to stand up for the dominated, intellectuals and academics here are mediocre, unlike northern intellectuals who are more political. While northern intellectuals speak for everyone, southern intellectuals often have a peripheral mindset and articulate through the power of either of the two that take turns to come to power. When northern thinkers join the political process, southern intellectuals are left with just two options; Either cooperate (when your party gets power) or confront (when you lose power).”

The difference between celebrities and intellectuals that Manivannan spoke about is illustrated by a recent episode involving popular actor Hareesh Peradi. Last week, Peradi was dropped from an event in Kerala that had been organized by the ruling CPI(M)’s art and literary wing. His invitation was withdrawn for his social media posts critical of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s response to claims levelled against him in the gold smuggling scandal and the protests that followed. Malayalam actor Joy Mathew, who often criticizes the Left-ruled government, called the Purogamana Kalasathithya Sangham, the organization that held the event, a collective of “outdated, opportunistic intellectuals”.

Meanwhile, a veteran DMK leader who has worked with celebrities of several generations said he was sceptical of the “celebrity effect”.

“I respect Pallavi for being so original. My concern is all about politicians also acting like celebrities in politics. Kamal Haasan and MK Stalin are all examples of politics that often stops before public interaction. If Twitter existed in the 1950s and 1960s, DMK wouldn’t have formed a party like this. The daily schedules of CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, and MGR may be unbelievable for leaders of this generation.”

He claimed that reforms and reformists had laid a foundation for south India’s critical approach to power. “Anti-establishment views have long been part of our culture. Unlike northern states, we had Narayana Guru and Periyar. Tirukkural was an anti-establishment text for centuries. So, you won’t find its inscriptions in ancient temples. It was once an underground textbook. This self-driven participation in political discourses reflects among south-born celebrities too.”

Veteran actor Sheela said Pallavi’s comments wouldn’t have been controversial decades ago. “Like there was no pizza, fast food, or cellphones, there were no non-issue controversies too. Her statement was clear, but then why would one attack her for opposing violence? There are real issues here. What about the Hema Commission Report and the suspicious handling of it by the Kerala government? Why don’t they release it and prosecute the culprits?” she asked, referring to a report on violations and sexual harassment in the Malayalam film industry.

Prominent Tamil actor and director R Parthiban was also sceptical of south India’s vocal stars. In his latest movie Iravin Nizhal (Shadow of the night), a 100-minute non-linear single-shot film, a mother asks an eight-year-old about his future plans. “He says he wants to become a superstar. She asks, ‘Afterwards?’ The kid replies, ‘I will become a chief minister.’ I will relate many young actors with this example. Everyone raising a loud opinion may not have political ambitions. But the long connection between cinema and politics has led some to believe they should invest in politics early to benefit later. A poor person’s sewing machine from your charity fund can become a vote tomorrow. Vijayakanth helped the poor before entering politics. MGR and Vijayakanth were successful, but others failed,” Parthiban said.

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