Veteran Indian actor and Tamil cinema superstar Rajinikanth has come out in support of, Mersal, a film that has been viewed with some degree of hostility by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is dominant nationally but has virtually no presence in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
It had been rumored that Rajinikanth, who has lorded over Tamil cinema for decades and has a following that borders on fanaticism, was joining the BJP. The fact that he chose to back publicly a film that is under attack by the party has thrown those rumors into a spin. The movie has several scenes and dialogue that seem to attack the BJP’s pet project, the goods and services tax.
Since the GST was rolled out this year it has faced considerable flak from traders and businesses over cumbersome paperwork, high rates and intrusive scrutiny by the state. Mersal also has a scene that criticizes the failure of public health care, a sensitive topic for the BJP after more than 70 children died in a hospital in Gorakhpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which is also ruled by the BJP.
Hailing the crew behind Mersal, Rajinikanth tweeted late on Sunday that they handled an “important subject” well. However, the actor did not specify what “subject” he was referring to.
Mersal has kicked up a political storm after its release during Diwali, with the BJP alleging that the producers were spreading lies about the federal government through “misleading” dialogue in the movie. The party wanted some of those conversations to be deleted.
BJP national secretary H Raja alleged that the protagonist of Mersal played by actor (Joseph) Vijay was running a hate campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies. He also raked up Vijay’s Christian faith and cited it as a reason for the apparent criticism against the BJP in the film. The BJP has been viewed as a majoritarian Hindutva party in political circles.
In one scene, Vijay says Singapore gives free medical treatment and charges just 7% GST while India has imposed a 28% GST rate without offering free treatment. Raja countered by saying that medical treatment is not free in Singapore and getting treatment is not so easy there.
Some of Vijay’s dialogue also suggests the need to build more hospitals, instead of temples, in India as children die in hospitals because of shortages of oxygen cylinders. Countering this, the BJP said thousands of churches and mosques had been built in Tamil Nadu in the past two decades. The mention of children dying in hospitals is an indirect attack on the party over the recent deaths of 70 children in a hospital in Gorakhpur, it said.
In another scene in the film, a character shows his empty wallet to a thief and thanks “Digital India”, a pet project launched by Modi.
Popular veteran actor Kamal Haasan, who is also planning to enter politics like Rajinikanth, has already come out in support of Mersal. “The federal government must not silence its critics by re-censoring the film,” Haasan said.
The controversy over Mersal has surprised film buffs in Tamil Nadu.
“Vijay has done nothing wrong. Like all actors, he just delivered the dialogues given to him,” said Sooraj Kumar, who works at a call center in Coimbatore. “Screenwriters often include contemporary issues [like the GST] in their scripts to make people laugh. What’s wrong in that?”
The producers of Mersal have agreed to delete portions of the movie that the BJP sees as objectionable and misleading. However, they believe that the movie is all about quality health care for ordinary citizens of India.
In Tamil movies, dialogue matters a lot, and those with social messages have played a key role in the rise of actors like the late M G Ramachandran (MGR), who went on to become Tamil Nadu’s chief minister.