'Sarkar' starring south Indian superstar Vijay.
'Sarkar' starring south Indian superstar Vijay.

“Sarkar” ( which means government) starring south Indian superstar Vijay was the much-awaited Diwali release in Tamil Nadu. As expected, it had a massive opening at the box office. But like many Vijay movies, it immediately ran into controversy.

The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu accused Sarkar of being a plot to defame the party. Two ministers even threatened legal action including sedition charges against Vijay and the makers of the film, labeling them “terrorists”.

“It is not good for an upcoming actor like Vijay,” Information minister K Raju said in what sounded like a veiled threat. Law minister CV Shanmugam, while speaking in favor of healthy criticism, said the film incited violence, which was a “grave offence”.

The AIADMK is upset at a musical scene where people are shown throwing freebie items like mixers and grinders into a 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 promised such items ahead of the 2011 elections in Tamil Nadu. The party therefore sees Sarkar as creating an impression that the people are rejecting the freebies and, by implication, the AIADMK.

Furthermore, the antagonist played by actor Varalakshmi is called Komalavalli, which was Jayalalithaa’s original name. The AIADMK sees this as a deliberate slur on the memory of their late leader. The party also smells a political conspiracy as the movie is produced by Sun Pictures, whose promoter Kalanidhi Maran is the grand nephew of the late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M Karunanidhi. Kalanidhi’s brother Dayanidhi Maran was a DMK MP and Union Telecom minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. DMK and AIADMK are bitter political rivals in Tamil Nadu.

Things soon got out of hand with AIADMK faithful obstructing screenings of the movie in Madurai and vandalizing cinemas. With Rs 1.1 billion (US$15.15 million) spent on the movie, financial prudence prevailed with Team Sarkar deciding to mute the reference to Komalavalli and remove the scene featuring the freebies.

With the party 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 censor, Udhayakumar said controversial scenes with political motives should be avoided. “No one has the right to criticize Amma (Jayalalithaa) government’s welfare schemes,” he declared, “Amma” (mother) being the moniker used by the AIADMK rank and file for the late Jayalalithaa.

Incidentally, Vijay’s 2017 Deepavali release “Mersal” (which means Stunning) also ran into similar problems. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party objected to dialogue in the film that was critical of the 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, boosting the film at the box office. In fact, the Bhartaiya Janata Party’s decision to oppose Mersal boomeranged, with Vijay’s vast support base on social media trending #MersalvsModi, dragging the Prime minister into an issue he had nothing to do with.

It is ironic that Tamil Nadu, with its history of the film industry acting as a conveyer belt of talent for the political arena, should frown upon movies embracing political subjects. Even more so when the AIADMK itself has been the beneficiary with its two leaders, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, exploiting the reach of the silver screen to further their political careers.

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 hired muscle.

But Sarkar is not the first instance where the filmmaker has been bullied into line. In 2013, veteran actor and politician Kamal Haasan was forced to make changes to his film”Vishwaroopam” after protests by Muslim groups. The celebrated actor-producer maintains 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”. It reportedly enraged 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 released this year, “NOTA” and “TamizhPadam2″, contained scathing criticism of the AIADMK regime without encountering opposition from the ruling party. 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.”

Critics believe that Vijay was picked upon because he has political ambitions and could emerge as a future threat to the AIADMK. He enjoys a huge draw among the youth and the family audience and anti-AIADMK messages in his films could adversely affect the party. The other argument put forth by the AIADMK 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 platform from which filmmakers could mock  the party.

With Lok Sabha elections and by-elections for 20 assembly constituencies due in six months, that is not something the AIADMK can afford.