T S Sudhir
What is happening in Tamil Nadu is truly ironic. The state has a history of the film industry acting as a conveyor belt of talent for the political arena. The AIADMK has been its beneficiary with its two leaders, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa exploiting the reach of the silver screen to further their political careers. Before that, the DMK propagated its ideology through the power of the mass media - cinema.
But the AIADMK of today spent much of the Deepavali week gone by, lighting up the Chennai sky with political fireworks. Its grouse was against movies embracing political subjects critical of the ruling party and the party decided to go all guns blazing against the top three male stars of the Tamil film industry - Vijay, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Given that Rajini and Kamal have announced their political entry and Vijay's interest in politics is well-known, the attack was significant.
The problems of the AIADMK sarkar (government) started with `Sarkar' starring superstar Vijay which was the much-awaited Deepavali release in Tamil Nadu. As expected, it took a massive opening at the box-office. And as has been a recurring feature with almost every other Vijay movie, immediately ran into a controversy. The AIADMK accused `Sarkar' of being a plot to defame the party. Two ministers threatened legal action including pressing sedition charges against Vijay and the filmmakers and labeled them as ``terrorists''.
``It is not good for an upcoming actor like Vijay,'' Information minister K Raju said in what sounded like a veiled threat to the actor. Law minister CV Shanmugam while speaking in favour of healthy criticism, said the film incited violence which was a ``grave offence''.
The AIADMK was miffed at a song in the movie where people are shown throwing freebie items like mixers and grinders into the fire. Promising to give things for free to enlist their vote is part of the electoral culture in Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK under their late leader, J Jayalalithaa had promised these items ahead of the 2011 elections in Tamil Nadu. The party therefore sees `Sarkar' as creating an impression that the people are rejecting the freebie items and by implication, the AIADMK.
That's not all. The antagonist played by actor Varalakshmi is called Komalavalli, which was Jayalalithaa's original name. The AIADMK feels this is a deliberate slur to insult the memory of their leader. It also smelt a political conspiracy as the movie is produced by Sun Pictures, whose promoter Kalanidhi Maran is the grand nephew of the late DMK leader M Karunanidhi. Kalanidhi's brother Dayanidhi Maran was a DMK MP and Union Telecom minister in the UPA government at the Centre. DMK and AIADMK are bitter political rivals in Tamil Nadu.
Things went out of hand with the AIADMK cadre obstructing screening of the movie in Madurai and vandalising cinema halls. With Rs 110 crore spent on the movie, financial prudence prevailed with Team Sarkar deciding to mute the reference to Komalavalli and remove the scene featuring the freebies.
Having made its point loud and clear, Revenue minister RB Udhayakumar rubbed it in, laying out the ground rules for Tamil movies. Talking like a super censor board, Udhayakumar said controversial scenes with political motives should be avoided. ``No one has the right to criticise Amma government's welfare schemes,'' he declared, `Amma' (mother) being the moniker used by the AIADMK rank and file for the late Jayalalithaa.
The ploy has been used before. Folk singer Kovan was booked under charges of sedition by the Jayalalithaa government for criticising her liquor policy. This approach has been seen as a ploy to muzzle all forms of criticism.
Incidentally, Vijay's 2017 Deepavali release `Mersal' (which means stunning) also had run into similar problems. The Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP had objected to a dialogue in the film that was critical of Goods and Services Tax (GST). The party ran a campaign against Vijay, asking for the dialogue's removal from the film. But the opposition to the film only created a curiosity factor, helping `Mersal' to do better at the box office. In fact, the BJP's decision to oppose `Mersal' boomeranged, with Vijay's vast support base on social media trending #MersalvsModi, dragging in the Prime minister into an issue he had nothing to do with.
Those batting for Team Sarkar argue that once it was cleared by the certification board, no one, including the AIADMK government ought to use strong-arm methods to oppose the movie. It is seen as an onslaught on their freedom of expression using state power and muscle power.
But `Sarkar' is not the first instance where the filmmaker has been forced to fall in line. In 2013, Kamal Haasan was forced to make changes to his `Vishwaroopam' after protests by Muslim groups. The celebrated actor-producer has always held the view that the protest was an orchestrated effort encouraged by the powers-that-be.
In the same year, Vijay's `Thalaivaa' (Leader) had the tag line of `Time to Lead'. That reportedly upset the AIADMK leadership and the film was released after a delay of two weeks only after the tag was removed from all promotional material.
Incidentally, two other movies `NOTA' and `TamizhPadam2' that released this year, contained scathing criticism of the AIADMK regime. But the ruling party did not raise a stink over them. In fact, CS Amudhan, the director of `TamizhPadam2' tweeted tongue-in-cheek on Friday, hinting at the AIADMK helping promote `Sarkar' : ``I strongly object to the fact that we were not given similar publicity, we also tried our best. This is totally partisan behaviour.''
The reason why Vijay was picked upon is that the actor enjoys a huge draw among the youth and the family audience and anti-AIADMK messaging in his film could adversely affect the party. The argument put forth by the AIADMK also is that if they turned a blind eye to criticism of the welfare schemes encouraged by their late leader, Kollywood productions may become a fertile area for filmmakers to mock the party.
But in a rather strategic move, the AIADMK did not stop at that. It decided to take the big two - Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan - who had articulated their criticism of the manner in which the government had tried to bulldoze its way with a film that had already been cleared by the censors. The AIADMK party mouthpiece `Namadhu Amma' was critical of Rajinikanth, asking if he found a lizard in certified food, will he still consume it. The sarcasm was not lost on anyone and the fact that the AIADMK took on Rajinikanth, whose proximity to the BJP is no secret, was political significant. Almost as if to hit back and send a message to the AIADMK to back off, Rajinikanth has now hailed Narendra Modi, calling him the most powerful leader.
Kamal Haasan was ridiculed for turning a politican by EPS himself, mocking him for his willingness to run away from the country at the hint of the first problem during `Vishwaroopam'.
What does this strategy say about the AIADMK? That closer to the Lok Sabha elections and the bypolls to the 20 assembly constituencies, the ruling dispensation has decided to take all the glamour elements head on. The party suspects there is a concerted attempt to show the present leadership in poor light which explains the effort to position itself as `Amma's government'. 2019 will see the AIADMK position itself as the true inheritors of Jayalalithaa's legacy.
The talk in Kollywood meanwhile is that if this is the response to Vijay's `Sarkar', the reaction to Kamal Haasan's `Indian 2' which will be a sharp take on corruption is likely to be worse, given his antipathy to the AIADMK. Clearly the friction between the ruling AIADMK and the film star-politicians is not ending any time soon.