In India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, the relationship between cinema and politics is well established. Shortly after Independence, a handful of youth in the Tamil film industry founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ethnic party that advanced a unique brand of Tamil cultural nationalism. Led by a motley assortment of screenwriters, actors, actresses, and established cinema personalities, the DMK factored among the first regional parties to wrest state power from the Indian National Congress in the 1967 state assembly elections. The party splintered in 1972, when MGR, among Tamil Nadu’s most famous actors, raised corruption charges against the DMK and launched the ADMK (which he soon rechristened as AIADMK). From 1967, every Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has transitioned from the cinema field to the politics arena.
Yet, the relationship between Tamil politics and media does not end with film. Both of the state’s leading parties (DMK and AIADMK) enjoy wide ownership, and wider influence, over Tamil print and televised media, providing unparalleled access to the state’s electorate. Since the 1990s, the DMK and AIADMK have expanded their holdings in televised media. The leading family of the DMK, whose election symbol is the ‘rising sun’, enjoy intra-familial bonds with SUN TV. More recently, the party launched Kalaignar TV, named after DMK patriarch Mu. Karunanidhi, who known by his moniker Kalaignar (‘the Artist’) for his role as a scriptwriter of Tamil films. The DMK’s chief in-state rival, the AIADMK, currently led by J. Jayalalitha, owns Jaya TV, whose ‘two-leaves’ icon mirrors the party’s election symbol.
In recent years, every major political party in Tamil Nadu has developed a presence in the state’s media industry. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), or Toiling People’s Party, which represents Vanniyars, the state’s largest caste group and a Most Backwards Class (MBC) community, owns Makkal Channel, or the People’s Network. More recently, the latest major cine-star-turned-politician, Vijayakanth, known by the moniker “Captain” for his role as militant leader in the likeness of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, launched Captain TV. The list continues and, earlier this year, the state’s largest Dalit (ex-untouchable) party, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, forayed into the media field.
In early 2016, the VCK launched Velicham, or Light, a party-owned television network that broadcasts news and talk-show programs and screen popular films. To raise necessary funds, the party marked the fiftieth birthday of its chairman, Thol. Thirumaavalavan, with a ‘golden jubilee’ capital drive, beseeching party organizers and supporters to make donations in gold in order to finance the venture. After stalling for two years, the channel went live in select intra-state markets earlier this year.
This summer, I spoke with VCK leaders about their motivation to launch the channel and what they envisioned as its presumed benefit. Exuding cautious optimism, they emphasized that Dalit issues rarely garner a sustained media presence and pledged that the channel would reverse this trend. But, they also underscored that Velicham was more of a business venture than a political investment, emphasizing that the DMK and AIADMK not only dominant state politics, but also control in-state cable distribution. One VCK General Secretary smirked as he remarked, “If we get too political, surely they will cut us off the air,” citing examples where party-run networks have mysteriously lost signal when broadcasting overtly political programming. While the foray into televised media will certainly broaden the party’s exposure with an aim to create a new media market of Dalit viewers, it is unclear whether this can, or will, translate into electoral gains. At ₹20 lakh per month in salaries and fees, it’s an expensive gamble.