Suriya's Political Awakening Could Revive His Film Career

Suriya has recently waded into issues ranging from student suicides to caste, leading to questions if he can be truly political.

Historically, until recently, Bollywood has had an unwritten rule of not mixing cinema and politics overtly. Members of the fraternity don’t easily own up to political allegiance, and even when they do join a party, they are well past the prime of their careers, for example Jaya Bachchan or Jaya Prada. It is only recently that some of them, both men and women like Kangana Rananut, Vivek Oberoi, Anurag Kashyap, Tapsee Pannu, Swara Bhaskar, have openly taken a political stance.

But this is not the case down south, especially in Tamil Nadu. Cinema and politics here are so intertwined and entangled with each other, they can give the cables of any earphone a run for its money. While the political and film careers of personalities like Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa, Vijayakanth, Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan might be more obvious, there are a host of other film personalities who have worn their politics on their sleeves. This includes actors Sivaji Ganesan, Sathyaraj, K Bhagyaraj, Sarath Kumar, Khushbhu Sundar, Ramarajan, Karthik and S Ve Shekher among others. So when a Tamil film personality speaks openly on electoral politics, Tamil identity or socio-political issues, they are merely doing what is expected out of them. This is more so true for male actors who aspire to become stars.

The rise of any male film star almost always follows a familiar trajectory. In the initial phase of their career, they act in romantic, comedic or family oriented roles. Here the actor attempts to prove his versatility as a performer. After a successful run through this stage, he moves on to action based films. The entry into the action genre is considered an important shift in the actor’s career and it mostly begins with the actor playing a cop. This is then followed by other commercial entertainers in the same genre. The actor’s hold on his fans and the market is solidified in this phase and he rises to become a star.

Once stardom is clearly and consistently established, the star attempts to play larger than life roles where a regular dose of contemporary politics is generously added. In this attempt at superstardom, the lines between the real and reel personalities of the actor gradually merge and after a point, it becomes difficult for the audience to separate one from the other. It is exactly at this juncture fans start debating over the star’s possible entry into politics. And this debate occurs irrespective of the star’s aspirations.

Actor Suriya recently issued a strongly worded statement against the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) in light of three medical college aspirants committing suicide a day before the rest. They had expressed their fear over the test results. It has to be remembered that in 2017, S Anitha, a medical college aspirant who had filed a case against NEET in the Supreme court had met with a similar fate.

In his statement, Suriya questions the role of the government, the judiciary and the media and said that the exam furthers social inequality. The statement read, “A government that was supposed to ensure equal opportunities for everyone brought a law with an education system that creates inequality.” He further added, “Hon’ble Judges are afraid of their own life and rendering justice through video conferencing. While-so, they have no morale to pass orders directing the students to appear for NEET Exam without fear.”

The statement created a furore in political and activist circles, with people choosing to either passionately agree or disagree with the actor. Several critics raised doubts about the sudden politicisation of the actor and questioned the timing of his statement. The statement prompted Justice S.M. Subramaniam to address a letter to the Chief Justice of the Madras high court for initiation of contempt proceedings against him. However, the Madras High Court Friday declined to initiate contempt proceedings stating that the actor’s utterances might be unnecessary and unwarranted but not worthy of contempt.

A member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) holds a placard and shouts slogans against the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET)-2020, the largest and one of the most competitive medical entrance exam in India, in Chennai on September 13, 2020. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP) (Photo by ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)
A member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) holds a placard and shouts slogans against the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET)-2020, the largest and one of the most competitive medical entrance exam in India, in Chennai on September 13, 2020. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP) (Photo by ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

However, in Suriya’s defence, he has been speaking on the inequalities of accessing education through his Agaram foundation for a while now. And going by the typical Tamil male star’s career trajectory, there is nothing sudden or surprising about his political statements. He might be merely attempting to follow the already established path of entry into superstardom. In fact, actor Surya’s acting career has always followed the established path.

Arrival of the definitive actor

Suriya entered the Tamil film industry with Nerrukku Ner (1997), where he shared the lead role with the already popular Vijay. The movie garnered a lot of attention, thanks to Suriya’s affective charm and a catchy soundtrack composed by Deva. However, after this, the actor’s movies mostly went unnoticed until the release of Poovellam Kettuppar (1999). The on screen chemistry with Jyothika (who he later married) coupled with the film’s iconic romantic songs by Yuvan Shankar Raja brought him back to the limelight, despite the lukewarm reception the film received.

Suriya and Jyothika in a still from the film 'Poovellam Kettuppar'
Suriya and Jyothika in a still from the film 'Poovellam Kettuppar'

Suriya struggled to get a foothold in the industry, in spite of being the son of a very popular actor like Sivakumar. These early unsure years came to an end with filmmaker Bala’s Nandha (2001). The intense role that Suriya played in the power packed film unequivocally established him as an actor to reckon with.

Following this, there was a clear change in the actor’s confidence and it reflected in the kind of films and roles he worked in. He juggled between lighter romances and intense roles that had adequate amounts of action thrown in. But what cemented him as a bankable action star was Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Kaakha Kaakha (2003). Interestingly, Suriya paired again with Jyothika here. Though the movie was positioned as a cop story, it was pegged around the cop’s romantic life. The film was a super-hit and cleared the way for the actor’s ascension.

For the next five years, Suriya acted in a variety of interesting films, swiftly jumping from one peak to another. Some of his notable performances were from Pithamagan (2003), Perazhagan (2004), Aaytha Ezhuthu (2004), Ghajini (2005) and Vaaranam Aayiram (2008). What was particularly interesting about these films was that even though Suriya was vying for a bigger share of the commercial film market, he continued to invest in roles that brought out compelling performances. This was very unlike most other rising stars who prefer to present themselves as reliable entertainers rather than versatile actors.

The pit of commercial formula

However, this interesting mix of acting versatility and commercial soundness didn’t last for too long. Like most other stars, Suriya too began a spate of very formulaic films and they did yield him great results in the initial years. The beginning of this phase was witnessed in KV Anand’s Ayan (2009) and Hari’s Singam (2010). Both films were huge hits and the baggage of their commercial reach forced the actor to choose similar formulaic films. The actor worked again with these two filmmakers in Maattrraan (2012) and Singam II (2013). This period also coincided with the slow disappearance of his acting versatility and a lot of his performances began to resemble each other.

Suriya in a still from 'Singam'.
Suriya in a still from 'Singam'.

Like all film formulas that stop working after a point, Suriya’s spree of commercial hits too took a break with N Lingusamy’s Anjaan (2014). The film was panned widely and trolled incessantly on social media. The reaction on social media was so harsh that Suriya, along with the filmmakers, made an appeal to people to go easy with their negative criticism. The film was not just a failure, but appeared to have an effect on Suriya’s career. The charm and the intensity that one associates with Suriya seemed to have totally disappeared. The films that followed were tedious and irrespective of how hard Suriya worked in them, they failed to create the affecting appeal his earlier films had.

He worked again with filmmakers Hari and KV Anand in Singam III (2017) and Kaappaan (2019) respectively, but they too failed to create the magic of their previous collaborations. The much expected outing with filmmaker Selvaraghavan in NGK (2019) proved to be a disaster for both. Clearly, Suriya’s established formulae stopped working and there was a pressing need for the star to reinvent himself.

The rise of the new Suriya?

It is at such a juncture that one could witness a new radicalisation in Suriya’s upcoming films. Soorarai Pottru (2020), that is loosely based on the life of Air Deccan founder Captain Gorur Ramaswamy Gopinath, is slated to be released later next month on an OTT platform. The film’s promos and songs have already created fervent debates. The song ‘Mannurunda Mela’ from the film fiercely questions the caste structure and asks,

“Is the blood of a lower caste person drainage?

Show me if the upper caste person has got horns!”

While lyricist K Ekadesi’s lines have been appreciated by anti-caste activists for its radical politics, a case has been filed against the film for creating a song that is ‘offensive’ and has the potential to create caste conflicts. The Madras High Court has ordered the Tamil Nadu police to take action as per the law in the case.

Another song promo from the film too received a lot of attention for the inclusion of a shot where actors Surya and Aparna Balamurali are seen in a self-respect marriage setting with the images of Dr. Ambedkar and Periyar EV Ramasamy in the background.

A sttill from 'Soorarai Pottru'
A sttill from 'Soorarai Pottru'

These anti-caste elements in Soorarai Pottru are seen through a Bahujan perspective and it seems ironical because the film is based on GR Gopinath’s life, who was himself a Brahmin. While Gopinath’s or even his children’s weddings seem to have been typical Brahmin weddings, Suriya’s movie with filmmaker Sudha Kongara appears to have bahujanised the Brahmin man’s life and lent it an anti-caste texture. While such a portrayal is indeed problematic, several anti-caste activists have also appreciated Suriya for not shying away from these anti-caste depictions in spite of being a mainstream star. Tamil cinema has had a history of glorying the caste pride of Brahmin-Savarnas or the landed intermediate castes like Thevars or Gounders. So it is indeed interesting to witness that Suriya, who comes from a Gounder caste has chosen to leave that pattern and move towards embracing anti-caste icons.

A political voice under scrutiny

Suriya’s recent statement on NEET and the student suicides too reflects this new radical politics that the actor seems to voice through his films. The statement went beyond critiquing the Government and attacked the Brahminical educational policies by unquestionably referring to it as Manu’s law and drawing analogies to Chanakya, Dhrona and Ekalavya.

This is markedly different from his earlier talks that seemed to borrow a certain NGO-ised language on education not being accessible to poor and rural children. But now, his language has clearly transformed into a much political one that critiques the social inequalities with an understanding of the caste structure. Coincidentally, actor Jyothika too had spoken earlier about the importance of contributing to schools and hospitals as one does to temples.

While these incidents have resulted in the BJP and other right-wing entities lashing out heavily on both the actors, they have received wide support from those who have been speaking for equality in access to education and health care.

However, the support that Suriya has received for his statement on NEET is no way homogenous. While several activists have stood with the actor in solidarity, they have also cautioned the importance in not diverting the debate around NEET to one about the actor. Some activists have even wondered if Suriya’s statement was a deliberate attempt to diffuse the mounting campaign against NEET. But irrespective of these conditional solidarities and doubts, it is evident that Suriya’s statements have gained wide acceptance among the Tamil public. So much so that his tweets and statements are now carefully scrutinized by critics and compared with his statements from a few years earlier.

Need to wait and watch

Before one rushes to excessively praise Suriya for his recent statements or to trash him completely for some of his naive remarks from the past, it might be a good idea to wait and see what the actor has to offer. It is apparent that there has been some evolution in his politics. From films like Kaakha Kaakha and the Singam series that glorified police violence and encounter killings, he has moved to one that has anti-caste elements, even if laden with its own share of other problems. In his public life too, the actor’s language on social inequalities seems to be evolving, but not without hiccups.

Whether all these changes that we witness in the actor stem from his improved political understanding or if it is an attempt to revive the slump in his career is something we need to wait out and watch. So wait, we shall.