Meera Ramanathan
Ban or Box Office – The Ugly face of Tamil Cinema
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

In 1952, when the film Parasakthi released it drew widespread protests from agitated Hindu outfits. The movie had gravely offended their sentiments and the script writer Karunanidhi, who would later become the CM of Tamil Nadu, had spewed his anti-Brahmin rhetoric into the movie. Despite disliking the movie, then Chief Minister C Rajagopalchari ensured the movie ran to packed houses and as reported by the hindu quoted that “the course of the freedom could not be damned“. In 2013, we have no such luck.

This year alone, Vishwaroopam and Thalaivaa, two purely commercial ventures faced the ire of the government. While the former was a movie directed and written by Kamal Hassan, controversy’s favorite child, the latter is a movie starring Vijay – a youth icon belting commercial masala potboilers. The banning of Vishwaroopam attracted comments from contemporaries since the movie enjoyed a worldwide release but was banned in its home pitch of Tamil Nadu. It was a first of its kind and left the public confused.

Surely Kamal could appease the revolting parties and get his movie rolling so he can make the quick buck. Opening day was the biggest seller so the more the movie is delayed the more the cash flow remains denied. Councils and committees were urgently ushered since Kamal himself was overseeing the Hindi release of Vishwaroop. After what seemed like eternity, with either refusing to buckle, Vishawaroopam hit theaters. Kamal waxed eloquent about the government’s unflinching support, the matter was hushed up and Tamil cinema had learnt its lesson.

But when a movie like Vijay’s Thalaivaa sits idle without seeing the light of the day, it is a case of worry for movie makers in Tamil Nadu. The movie is screened worldwide so last minute disruptions to release schedules affect the producer’s fair chance of seeking profits.

Earlier they had to worry about pirated copies circulating freely within the first 24 hours, what happens when the movie itself does not release and fans are eager to catch their idol in action? The movie does not denounce Islam, propagate political agendas or proclaim lofty ideals. When a mainstream masala movie is banned, it sends ripples across the community.

The Tamil Nadu Government’s actions are political ploys of convenience and freedom of expression is the sobriquet they use to shield these whims and fancies. Electoral politics interferes freely with entertainment values. In 2006, the Government of fifth-time Chief Minister Karunanidhi ordered the suspension of the release of The Da Vinci Code. It stated that the release would severely affect the feelings of the Christian community.

Yet it was this same leader who in 1987 opposed the amendment proposed that any film that depicts politicians, particularly MLAs and the Chief Minister, in a derogatory manner should be prohibited from exhibition. The throne was not his so his principles also altered accordingly.

To decipher which community or subset is currently being embraced by the ruling party shifts the focus from the pertinent problem. The Censor Board controlled by the Central government certifies a movie to be fit for exhibition but the state government can overrule this directive citing a breach of peace. An exception that has to be used judiciously is being used as a petty pretext to arm twist movie makers.

In this prosperous southern state, politics and cinema have freely intersected in the past but was confined as a one way lane. Film stars who received critical and commercial acclaim went on to become leaders at a bigger arena. The chief among them was MG Ramachandran who was the darling to the masses. Although Karunanidhi was the man who orchestrated most of MGR’s moves, the pupil beat the tutor in the Machiavellian game and for almost 13 years Kalaignar was left power hungry.

Only after MGR’s demise, Karunanidhi came back to power with a vengenance but the crown was always dangling between him and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. How did this affect Tamil cinema? Both parties use cinema as a tool for political propaganda. Actors and producers are forced to pick a side or have to face the consequences.

In 2010 at a felicitation ceremony for Karunanidhi when Ajith Kumar alias Thala voiced the widespread arm twisting of stars by political cronies, he had opened the doors to the unspoken dark and dreadful world of movie
mafia. Although the speech itself received standing ovation from Superstar Rajnikanth, Ajith was publicly appeased and privately hounded.

He refused to comment and was left to continue his career. When the triumvirate of Maran’s Sun pictures, Stalin’s Red Giant and Alagiri’s Cloud nine stalled the release of the Vijay starrer Kavalan, he had to seek help from the opposition. Stars are not merely treated as stars but as walking vote banks with diverse fan followings. Some escape these tentacles by continuously favoring both like Surya, the son of veteran actor Sivakumar or are simply too minuscule to be bothered with.

No matter which party rules the roost, the screening of any Tamil movie hangs precariously from a thread that is controlled by the iron hand of political hooligans. Isn’t pouring buckets of cash into an entertainment machine gambling enough? Should they also be adept at dealing with politics of the hour? Should they side with the reigning queen or quietly seek respite below the Kalaignar clan’s banyan tree whose roots reach every nook of the film world? What or who can guarantee a movie’s release in this ugly face of Tamil cinema? Ban or Box office – what would be the fate of an upcoming film?