Theodore Baskaran :

"Tamil cinema is rooted in the soil"


   C'est à un des plus grands spécialistes de l'histoire du cinéma tamoul que nous avons posé nos questions pour cette interview. Auteur de nombreux livres en anglais et en tamoul sur le sujet, notamment The Eye of the Serpent: An introduction to Tamil cinema (Chennai - East West Books - 1996), Theodore Baskaran nous donne ici un intéressant éclairage sur les productions de Chennai... Interview réalisée en juin 2010.


  • IR : Theodore Baskaran, you are well known in India, but could you please introduce yourself to our French readers?

TB : I have been studying and writing about South Indian cinema, with particular focus on Tamil cinema.  I would like to describe myself as a Film Historian. I have 3 books to my credit.  My career was in civil service.  I turned seventy last month.

  • IR : What gave you the taste of studying and doing research on Tamil cinema?

TB : In the 1970s when there was a lot of interest in south Indian studies, I found that this area, Tamil cinema, had not been touched though it was a major influence on the life of the people. I decided to study it.

  • IR : First I would like to talk about something very noticeable and famous when looking at the history of Tamil cinema: its connections and ties with politics. First when, how and why did these connections start?

TB : The interaction between cinema and politics started during the silent era itself.  It was one dimensions of the freedom struggle.  It gained momentum during the 1930s following the Civil Disobedience movement.  The Congress party, which was fighting for freedom used cinema as a tool.  It helped in giving the nationalist struggle a mass basis and helped in political mobilisation. Cinema house emerged as the first democratic space where all castes and class could gather irrespective of their station in life. This was a significant development. During the struggle for Independence from British rule, the nationalists used cinema as an instrument of propaganda. Later, film personalities began taking part in direct political action. Through this two-way involvement with the nationalistic struggle, cinema evolved as a major political force. After India attained Independence, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a radical political party, used cinema for propagation of its ideas and came to power in 1967.  A number of film actors took active part in politics and were elected to legislative bodies, both at the state level and at the Central level. All the five chief ministers who have governed Tamilnadu since 1967 have been associated with cinema. The first two were dialogue writers and the three who followed were film stars. Other political parties, such as Leftists, also used film for propaganda. In the process Tamil films got politicized, playing significant roles in political mobilization and political activism.

  • IR : What are the main facts in Tamil cinema history that you would pick to illustrate these connections?

TB : During the freedom struggle, in the 1930s and 1940s, many film actors took direct part in political struggle. They courted arrest and went to jail. Some were delegates to the National l congress annual conventions. Some conducted passive resistance, like picketing liquor shops and burning imported cloth. Sathyamurthy, the congress leader, was deeply involved in cinema.  Many other congress leaders supported this aspect of cinema. Feature films were used for political propaganda.  Some Congress leaders made documentaries and screened them in cinema houses. This interaction continued even after India gained independence.

  • IR : Some say that nowadays these bonds are less: what is your opinion?

TB : It has assumed many more ramified forms. The Fan Clubs for one thing. The second is the caste factor. It plays a role in the star politicians’ career.  Thirdly the reach and impact of cinema has increased manifold due to the television network and DVD revolution. But I would say that the ideological content of films is less political now. Jean Luc Godard made a distinction between making political films and making films politically; what is happening now in Tamilnadu is the second variety. Since 1967, all the Chief Ministers of Tamilnadu have been associated with cinema, one way or the other even before they occupied that office.

  • IR : Let us now tackle another side of Tamil cinema: its artistic side. According to you, what is particular in Tamil cinema (its content, its aesthetics…) and different from Hindi cinema for instance? And what do they have in common?

TB : Tamil cinema is rooted in the soil. The landscape, the households and the character are authentically Tamil.  There is an emphasis on the language, particularly songs.   It is the cinema of the Tamils. Hindi cinema is a kind of a faceless all-India phenomenon. The common features are, as you know, more of entertainment content, heavy orality (Characters talk a lot), taking the story along by verbal narration and song-dance sequences as entertainment components. Both the films are an entertainment pot pourie without much of ideological thrust. Of course there have been significant exceptions.

  • IR : Can we say that there are or there were different streams in Tamil cinema, today and yesterday?

TB : In the fifties one could talk about Hollywood style and Company drama style. The three directors from U S, who came to India and made movies here, brought about this style. Ellis R. Dungan, M. Omelev and M L Tandon. They started the Hollywood style. Then there was the company drama style by those directors who had been trained in the drama companies. The Hollywood style petered out in the late fifties and the company drama style took over. This was reinforced by the arrival in the 1960s onwards of many directors from the drama Sabhas (as different from commercial drama companies these were amateur groups). In recent years there have been a set of new directors who are not from the drama tradition. This is refreshing.

  • IR : Is there, in Tamil cinema, what we would call in French “cinéma d’auteur”? Could you please tell us more about it? 

TB : You could see features of a distinct style in film makers like Balu Mahendra and Bala.  But I do not think we can talk about auteur cinema in this context.

  • IR : Personally, if you had to choose five Tamil movies to introduce them as the best ones in Tamil cinema history, which ones would you choose?

TB : Shakunthalai (1940), Ezhai padum paadu (1950), Yarukkaka Azhuthan (1965), Aval Appadiththaan (1978),  Anbe Sivam (2003). These are the best among what I have seen. I must add there are many films I have not seen. These are the best among what I have seen.

  • IR : And the best films in the recent years ?

TB : Subramaniapuram (2008), Kanjeepuram (2009).

  • IR : Have you anything to add ?

TB : A few details about Tamil cinema. The first film Keechakavatham, an episode from Mahabharatha epic,  was made in 1916. Since then more than 5500 films have been made in Tamil, with Chennai (Madras) as the centre.   Of all the states in India, Tamil Nadu has the highest exposure to cinema  There are 2545 cinema houses in Tamilnadu.
   Tamilnadu, a state in India where Tamil language is spoken, is 130058 in area and has a population of 66 millions. Outside India also, Tamil is spoken by 6 million by people spread in different parts of the world such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Middle East and South Africa.  In these countries also Tamil films are screened  A R Rehman who won two Oscars is a product of Tamil cinema.

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