Mersal row: BJP's 'Vijay is a Christian' ploy backfires

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 26, 2017 08:50 hrs
Mersal row

A big Tamil release during Diwali is nothing surprising. A controversy surrounding a big Tamil film isn’t either unfortunately. This time around it’s the Vijay starrer Mersal which released last week amid much hype and anticipation.

The movie touches on the problems of GST, the Digital India campaign, healthcare in India and corruption that. The Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP is not happy at the way the party and their leader are portrayed in the film as they feel it ridicules or makes ‘incorrect references’ about some of the policies of Narendra Modi; the Tamil Nadu BJP Chief TN Soundarrajan saying, “Scenes that convey wrong impression about GST and Digital India should be removed”.

H Raja, a national secretary of the BJP and Tamil Nadu leader went further by bringing actor Vijay’s religion to the fore. He tweeted a picture of the actors’ voter ID card which has his full name C Joseph Vijay. An attempt to communalize the issue of an actors’ religion in context of a movie character, who is Hindu in the film, is quite brazen. Some groups will take hold but it doesn’t seem that the general public cares about the religion of the actor as long as they get their money’s worth.

Portraying him as anti – Hindu due to his religion and thus concluding the movie and him are anti Narendra Modi. Commenting on a piece of dialogue in the movie, Raja suggested that the actor should’ve said “build hospitals before churches” and not use the word temples. The inference here is that since the actor might be a practicing Christian coupled with him mentioning temples and not churches, he is somehow “provoking Hindus” as Raja put it.

As reported in a Tamil magazine Vikatan, protests were held outside theatres in districts in the state such as in Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi district where BJP workers raised slogans against the actor and the movie.

The Times of India editorial criticized the BJP for acting as a censor board and stated that no political party should dictate how the film industry should be run in terms of content it produces –

Crying about hurt sensibilities sometimes seems as common an accompaniment to watching films in India as popcorn. But when the game of hurt sensibilities spins out of control, it endangers the industry that has made us proud in the world, entertained and uplifted and inspired us, and given India considerable soft power”.

When Union minister of state for finance and shipping Pon Radhakrishnan summarily demands that Mersal’s producer remove “the untruths regarding GST” from the film, it sends a disturbing signal that government denies both debate and ease of doing business”.

In general governments need to grow a thicker skin. Giving dramatic voice to aam admi’s frustrations is one of the things in which Indian cinema justly takes great pride. Silencing the voice instead of addressing the frustrations is not in national interest”.

The inevitable reactions from politicians quickly turned into a BJP versus Congress argument with Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and DMK Chief MK Stalin criticizing the criticisms of Mersal. Though Rahul Gandhi calling out censorship can be seen as selective and hypocritical; the Congress directed its ire towards the film Indu Sarkar this year depicting the life of a common person during the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Arguably the two most respected and admired names in the Tamil film industry gave their blessings for the film praising it for tackling important issues –

The comment from Kamal Haasan comes on the heels of him backtracking on his support of demonetization where he issued an apology for supporting the central government's demonetization policy in a hurry. In a column for Vikatan, he also called for the Prime Minister to accept his mistake of introducing the policy and stated that once he heard criticisms of the policy from economists he changed his mind.

Kamal Haasan is also someone who isn’t new to controversy of this type as his film Vishwaroopam a few years back was criticized for having scenes hat were offensive to Muslims. He eventually agreed to cut scenes from the movie giving in to the pressure he faced after the movie was banned in the state.

Journalist Sudha G Tilak in a column for The Indian Express writes on how fans aren’t taking into consideration the noise surrounding the film and how Tamil films in a way have been political and tackled societal problems –

Like the best films in Tamil cinema, Mersal has a distinctive take on the current political and social problems in Tamil Nadu, including corruption, the government’s apathy to the poor as well as the ongoing problems with GST”.

There have been enough Tamil filmmakers who have made movies on vigilantism and criticized public institutions like hospitals or colleges and schools for not serving the public well. Tamil films have openly criticized religion and caste too”.

In recent months the two aging superstars of Tamil Nadu, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, have made public speeches indicating the possibility of their entry into politics and speculation is rife that history could well repeat itself in the state as yet another movie star turns politician”.

Looking at it from a time frame point of view, the BJP is pushing south looking to expand its map. Tamil Nadu is certainly a state where they have struggled to gain a footing. TS Sudhir in a column for the Huffington Post India writes on this –

On the face of it, it may seem that having control over the AIADMK would make BJP a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu. However, what the party did not factor in, in its quest to gain power over Tamil Nadu's politics, is the resistance it faced from the film industry”.

Considering that both Vijay and Kamal Hasaan have considerable influence of thousands of Tamilians, open criticism against the Centre could make an impression on the electorate. The narrative around BJP's move to re-censor Mersal has been cast in a way that suggests that the party has hurt Tamil pride. That can't be good news for the party”.

This isn’t necessarily a BJP versus Congress issue. Every political party that has a certain community as its base can/will object to art that they see as depicts them in a bad way or subtly criticizes. In a country of over a billion, it’s bound to happen.

In Tamil Nadu especially, where film stars are practically gods and film is like a religion often bordering into sycophantic like behavior from groups, the passion is undeniable. Picking a fight may not be the best option for the BJP in this instance. Financially, Mersal is not having any trouble. Perhaps any publicity is good publicity.

More columns by Varun Sukumar