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Politics Of Dialogue

Politics Of Dialogue

Mersal is a Tamil film I would not ordinarily have even known about because I am not a film buff. Till today I have not seen a single movie in which Vijay acted, though I have seen film award functions where he was the chief guest. All I knew about him was that he was a young actor with considerable mass appeal. For a change, I would like to see this film for reasons of curiosity.

I am sure there are millions of people like me who would like to see Mersal. Nothing can be more desirable for a film producer than the urge in the filmgoer’s mind to see his film. The sudden success of the film was handed over to the producer, as if on a golden platter, by the BJP.

In India, films and documentaries alone are pre-censored. The right to freedom of expression allows every citizen to write, to publish and to paint anything of his or her choice. Once it is published, the author and the publisher will be accountable if their work violates laws that prohibit obscenity and that ban hurting religious sentiments.

Yet, I saw a Malayalam film clip that shows three drunken characters, including an elephant-loving actor, creating a scene in a church, forcing the priest who is holding the host to lose his balance and fall down, all in the name of humour.

It is assumed that once the Censor Board, appointed duly by the government, approves a film, it is fit for public viewing. Alas, a new trend has been created that allows politicians to have the last word on the “view-ability” of a film. We had seen how a film producer had to organise a special screening of his Censor Board-cleared film for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray so that he could show it in cinema theatres across Maharashtra. He became a super Censor like the Chief Censor during the Emergency.

We also saw a party like the Akali Dal trying to disrupt the release of the film  Udta Punjab that dealt with the drug menace in the land of the five rivers. Earlier, Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister sought and obtained a ban on the film  Dam 999 that depicted the horrendous scenes of an imaginary dam burst. She thought the film would strengthen Kerala’s argument that the century-old Mullaperiyar dam that supplied water to Tamil Nadu needed to be rebuilt.

The film did not violate any law of the land. There was not a single scene that violated the finer sensibilities of the viewers. Yet, Jayalalithaa’s ban on the film was upheld by the then Supreme Court Chief Justice and now Governor of Kerala P Sathasivam on the specious plea that people’s sentiments could not be overlooked. For the three-member bench headed by him, “people” meant Madam Jayalalithaa.

For the first time he introduced a new doctrine in deciding criminal and civil cases — people’s opinion. It was using this doctrine that another case was decided in history. 

The reference is to Pontius Pilate sending Jesus to the gallows in preference to the insurrectionary Jesus Barabbas. The Bible does not say what happened to Pilate afterwards but Sathasivam got a five-year job, now reserved for anybody who had anything to do with the Rumour Spreading Sangh.

The day after Mersal was released, Tamizhisai Soundararaj, BJP chief in Tamil Nadu, demanded action against the film on the ground that actor Vijay makes some nasty comments about the Goods and Services Tax, now dubbed Gabbar Singh Tax. He wanted all the references in the film  to GST and Digital India to be expunged. 

Nobody is against a tax system which bolsters the revenues of both the Central and state governments. Alas, in Narendra Modi’s enthusiasm to imitate Nehru’s midnight speech in Parliament in 1947, he forgot to make the new tax implementable. 

The government itself is so clueless on many aspects of the GST that now Modi says that the GST baby is as much the BJP’s as it is the Congress’s. It is a different matter that science is yet to prove that two persons can father a single child. GST is something which both the seller and the buyer dislike because it is a Generally Stupid Tax.

In Tamil Nadu, politics and films are intertwined. It was not because of his side roles in Hollywood films that Ronald Reagan became the President of the US. However, it was only because of films that CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa became chief ministers. 

“It was Karunanidhi’s searing screenplay, laden with political messaging, that laid the foundation for the ascent of the DMK to power in the 1960s; MGR too charted a similar trajectory, but as an actor, and, later, anointed Jayalalithaa as his political heir. In this universe, therefore, it is hard to tell where cinema and the creative endeavour give way to politics and propaganda”.

It was in recognition of this reality that Modi wore a full-sleeve maroon shirt and dhoti in South Indian style and called on actor Rajinikanth during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It did not set the Kaveri on fire but the party won a seat in the state.

To return to Vijay, he also had his political baptism in the DMK but his politics is now confined to uttering some dialogues against the establishment. He is like Shivaji Ganeshan, a better actor than MGR, whose fast delivery of dialogues was referred to as  Shivaji Pechu. 

I have seen many movies in Malayalam in which actors like Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi, whom the BJP has nominated to the Rajya Sabha, take the law into their own hands and earn the clapping of the film-goers. Nobody attaches much importance to such scenes. 

In the hugely successful Malayalam film  Drishyam, actor Mohanlal creates fabricated scenes to save his daughter and wife from what could have been a murder charge. In the process, the Kerala Police were shown as a bunch of idiots. The police could not recover the body, as it was buried under the newly-constructed police station.

Of course, one senior police officer protested against the depiction of the police but nobody took it seriously. In Mersal, Vijay makes some comments about GST and Digital India. Anybody who has eaten in a restaurant would have muttered something against the tax. This week I entertained a friend at a restaurant where we shared one plate of biriyani. The bill included 18 per cent as GST and 10 per cent as service charge. In short, 28 per cent! I found the tax too much!

I personally believe that it is immoral to tax a hungry and thirsty person, whatever be the status of the restaurant. There are umpteen other ways in which the tax revenue can be beefed up. In any case, Modi has failed to honour his promise of “one country, one tax” as GST varies from state to state. Prices of most products have only gone up and not come down.

It is against this backdrop that Vijay’s claptrap dialogues on GST should be seen. In a film of two hours and 49 minutes, his questionable comments do not last more than a few minutes. Fact checkers may say that his claim that while there is no GST on liquor, there is GST on life-saving drugs is not all that true. Liquor may be free from GST but it is heavily taxed with the tax rate going up to 100 per cent.

Should film dialogues be checked for veracity? In that case, were Modi’s claims on demonetisation true? He said it was to fight black money? Then he said it was to end terrorism. Then he said it was to usher in a cashless economy. He kept changing the goalposts. Now Modi’s minions like Union Minister KJ Alphons say that it was to build toilets!

Cinema is an art and artists must enjoy freedom. When a poet compares his fiancee’s face to the moon, it is pointless to say that he abused her as the surface of the astronomical body is as smooth as the roads in the US, as found out by astronaut Neil Armstrong. 

You may wonder why I mentioned the US roads. It is because MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan said after a recent visit to the US that the roads in his state were much better than those in the US. An example of what is called the “Bharatiya Asmita (Indian Pride)!

If Vijay decided to mouth inaccuracies, let him mouth them and expose his ignorance like Modiji exposed his ignorance that the ferry service he inaugurated in Gujarat recently was the first in India. I grew up in Ranny in Kerala seeing trucks moving across the river Pampa in a ferry. Who cares? This should have been the attitude of the BJP.

Instead, as is the party’s wont, it tried to communalise the issue. A national general secretary of the party tweeted the actor’s full name — Joseph Vijay — to insinuate that it was a Christian conspiracy to denigrate the GST. I never knew that Vijay was a Christian until this BJP worthy traced his voter identity card and published it. He also thunderously asked why he mentioned  kovil (temple), not churches.

Again, the attempt was to polarise the people on communal lines. In the Old Testament, the temple stands for the synagogue, as there was no church at that time. Of course, Vijay could have said, “temple, gurdwara, mosque, church, prayer hall, synagogue, Buddhist vihara, Jain mandir” etc instead of “Kovil”!   

Actually, there is no need to differentiate. A temple is defined as 1) an edifice or place dedicated to the service or worship of a deity or deities, 2) any of the three successive houses of worship in Jerusalem in use by the Jews in Biblical times, 3) an edifice erected as a place of public worship; a church, especially a large or imposing one, 4) any place or object in which God dwells (1Cor. 6:19, 5) (in France) a Protestant church, 6) (in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) a building devoted to administering sacred ordinances, principally that of eternal marriage, 7) a building, usually large or pretentious, devoted to some public use:  a temple of music.

Of course, the BJP leader was merely following in the footsteps of the Prime Minister. Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat wanted immediate elections after the riots. When his pressure did not have any effect on the upright Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh, he began mentioning his full name — James Michael Lyngdoh — in his election speeches He even insinuated that he and Sonia Gandhi met every Sunday at the Cathedral Church in Delhi.

It did not matter to Modi that Lyngdoh was an atheist and Sonia Gandhi was a practising Hindu, not Christian, in the great Bharatiya tradition! His purpose was to polarise voters. That is exactly what his party’s general secretary has in mind when he told the world about the actor’s  religion.

Unlike Modi, who spends public money to go to temples in far-off places, and wears his religion on his sleeves, the Tamil film-goers do not pay any attention to the religious beliefs of their heroes. Among the DMK and AIADMK  leaders, Jayalalithaa was the only temple-goer. The Tamils are so liberal that they did not see a Malayali in MGR. Neither do they see a Marathi in Rajinikanth.

Every Indian does not think like Modi. When Abdul Khader, a student of St. Berchmans College, Changanassery, took to acting as a career, he was advised to change his name to Prem Nazir to make him more acceptable to the audience. Today Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salmaan does not find his Arabic name a liability in establishing his career as an actor.

Last week I saw the movie  Secret Superstar, produced by Aamir Khan. He introduced a relatively new actor, Zaira Wasim, from Kashmir. No, she did not have to change her name like Muhammad Yusuf Khan, who is today known as Dilip Kumar. Quite unlike Hema Malini who converted and changed her name to Aisha Bi and after a marriage of convenience returned to her maiden name!

The BJP’s attempt boomeranged on the party when the film fraternity in Tamil Nadu stood solidly behind Vijay. The party with a difference found itself with egg on its face. It should have remembered how the party had used the  Kissa Kursi Ka film that portrayed Indira Gandhi as a dictator to nail the former Prime Minister. 

Instead of trying to gag the mouth of Vijay, the BJP would do well to make changes in the GST (already more than 200 amendments) so that sanitary napkins, disability aids and food in at least starless restaurants are not taxed. Let the BJP leaders wear their saffron glasses when they visit the Hedgewar Bhavan at Nagpur but not when they watch a movie!

The writer can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 30th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 44)