Cinema and politics run close to each other in Tamil Nadu. Prime Minister meeting Vijay on his campaign for 2014 Lok Sabha elections was a better way, than spreading communal vitriol being done by BJP leaders in the state now
What would have just been a Diwali-release movie, has now hit national headlines. Mersal, a tamil movie with actor Vijay in the lead role is an eyeball of controversy.
The controversy erupted when Dr. Tamilisai Soundarajan, the Tamil Nadu state President of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) commented that the scenes in the movie which criticize Goods and Service Tax (GST), demonetization and Digital India should be removed as they show BJP government’s policies in a bad light.
The scene form Mersal, which is the central point of the controversy, is where Vijay talks about the systemic problems in public healthcare in India. He poses a question that “Singapore which has 7% GST is able to give free healthcare to its people, but why can’t India, which has 28% GST, is not able to provide free healthcare to its people?”
Politicians have always seen popular film stars in Tamil Nadu as their competitors as history proves that fame and stardom have turned into votes. Ironically, it is Vijay’s popularity which made Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his visit to Tamil Nadu as part of campaign during the run up to the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, meet Vijay and tweet a picture, which went viral on social media.
With noted film personality in the south, Vijay pic.twitter.com/LKbyhQ197b
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 16, 2014
In another scene in the movie, another actor in the movie in a scene where he is robbed, shows an empty wallet and tells the burglar that it’s ‘Digital India’, no one has cash and uses only digital money in a funny manner. This, in fact, received thunderous applause and laughter in the theatres, hinting us about the mood of the public.
H Raja, National Secretary of the BJP, stooped to a lower level bringing in communal angle to the issue, by commenting on the religion of the actor. Vijay is the screen name of Joseph Vijay, who is a Christian by belief- a very well-known fact in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Raja tweeted the copy of Vijay’s electoral identity card (which even raises question of where did he get that from) in which his name is mentioned as Joseph Vijay. He tweeted the copy of the identity card with the caption “Truth is bitter”.
Truth is bitter pic.twitter.com/woFdxOntRn
— H Raja (@HRajaBJP) October 22, 2017
Social media slammed the leader asking what is the point he is trying to make out of it. Many on Twitter and Facebook wrote ‘#IamJoseph’, adding their name next to it in support of Vijay and opposing Raja’s comments on the actor’s religious belief. Raja, in an interview to a television news channel said that he has watched the movie online, which also got scathing criticism from actors and producers of the Tamil cinema industry, which is facing serious financial trouble due to online piracy.
Raja also commented on another dialogue from the movie in which Maaran, the character which Vijay played, says that his village needs a hospital more than a new temple, after few children die in his village as they had to travel 40 kilometres to be admitted in a hospital. Raja said that Vijay should have said that instead of building churches, hospitals should be built, again giving the issue a communal angle.
It is after this comment, Raja tweeted his ‘revelation’ about Vijay’s religious identity, which has backfired against him and his party in Tamil Nadu. Its ironic that the scene in the movie where Vijay says that hospital should be built instead of a temple, it portrays the situation in 1970s in rural Tamil Nadu and we are now in 2017, where it seems not much has been done for adequate health care in India.
In a country where 60 infants lost their life within a week, allegedly due to unavailability of oxygen cylinders, one would likely think that there is nothing wrong in saying hospitals should be built instead of temples.
And further proof of this statement can be found in the case of Tamil Nadu, which is facing a Dengue outbreak nearing hundred deaths and government hospitals are flooded with patients, who are pushed to sleep on the floors of government hospitals due to lack of adequate beds. The state administration is in a standstill, without experienced and effective leadership to tackle the Dengue epidemic in the state.
Adding fuel to the fire, Mr. Pon Radhakrishnan, Union Minister of State – Finance, has also said that the scenes which shows ‘untruths’ about GST should be removed.
Cinema is very close to people’s hearts in Tamil Nadu and it is an evident fact that politics and cinema is always interlinked in the state. Starting from Karunanidhi who was initially a writer for Tamil movies and continued to be so even when he was the Chief Minister. M G Ramachandran, the founder of AIADMK, which rules Tamil Nadu now, rose to power by using his fan-following from cinema and turning them into votes. Former Chief Minster Jayalalithaa was also a famous actor before entering into politics.
Now as the entire state keeps guessing on when will Kamal Hassan announce his entry into politics, and not to mention about Superstar Rajinikanth’s political ambitions too, clearly proves that cinema has a very big impact in the state’s political arena.
BJP, which is trying really hard to penetrate into the Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, long been dominated by AIADMK and DMK since 1964, will find it tough to succeed, especially in this communal way. Anti – Central government sentiment has been increasing since the Jallikattu ban early this year, where nearly one-lakh people gathered for a huge demonstration at Marina beach in Chennai and all around the state in support of their traditional sport.
Social media has been trending with hashtags like #TamiliansVsModi, #IloveJosephVijay which showed how well the comments by the BJP leaders were received by the people, the youth in particular.
As per law, a movie which has once got certification from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has every right to be screened. The comments which the BJP leaders have made means nothing less than trying to impose parallel censorship. Satire and criticism is a way of expressing one’s freedom of speech ensured by the Constitution of India, which of course has reasonable restrictions to it.
The Bombay High Court in a recent judgment on Udta Punjab movie’s censor, commented that the role of CBFC is only to ‘certify’ a movie for public exhibition and not ‘censor’ it, which would amount to restriction on freedom of speech and expression.
After the state leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu had voiced to cut the scenes from the movie, the producers of the movie were left with no choice to say that they are willing to remove the scenes. This has garnered more anger among the people which is very visible in the social media.
People in public positions, especially political leaders should be thick-skinned to the criticisms on the policies and schemes of the government and their party. In a democracy, everyone has a right to criticize and comment on the policy decisions of the government, unless it does not go beyond reasonable restrictions as per law.
The political class came in support of the movie and many including Rahul Gandhi and M K Stalin, leader of opposition in Tamil Nadu commented that freedom of speech and expression should not be curtailed. Kamal Hassan, who has faced similar issues on his earlier movie Viswaroopam tweeted in support of the movie and against censorpship saying:
Mersal was certified. Dont re-censor it . Counter criticism with logical response. Dont silence critics. India will shine when it speaks.
— Kamal Haasan (@ikamalhaasan) October 20, 2017
But indeed the Mersal team would be thankful to the adverse comments by the BJP leaders, which has made the movie a blockbuster hit making more revenue than it would have without this controversy.
The point to ponder over here is that films should be seen as a medium of art, and as far as it does not goes beyond the reasonable restrictions laid in the Constitution, it should have its freedom to be released without any hindrance. If there are any criticisms on any film, writing or any form of expression, it should be countered constructively and not with threats and force. Constructive criticisms are essential for free speech in a democracy.