What's stalling Thalaiva's release?

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 17/08/2013
In a state known for its media-politics nexus, the struggles that Thalaiva is facing for release, points to yet another dimension,
says MAYA RANGANATHAN
The delay in the release of the Tamil film Thalaiva ('leader' in Tamil) by theatre owners in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry for no 'clear reason' seems to be the latest in the continuing saga of media-politicisation in the State. 
 
Reminiscent of Kamal Hassan's protracted battle early this year to get his film Viswaroopam released in the State, Thalaiva's producer Sunil Chandraprakash Jain and lead actor Vijay are now seeking Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's intervention to release the film. In an emotional press conference, the producer has stated that stalling the release of the film will 'bring him to the streets.'  The film's director A. L. Vijay (not the actor) has been denied permission to stage a token fast in Chennai along with the film's cast and crew to demand release of the film. 
 
In a film industry that has at different periods in time been dominated by an actor and a star (Sivaji Ganesan-MGR and Kamal Hassan and Rajnikant), actor Ajith Kumar and 'star' Vijay, called Ilayathalapathy (junior commander) by his fans, are believed to be reigning now.
 
However, there are but few similarities between the Viswaroopam and Thalaiva episodes. The former, made at a phenomenal cost of Rs 95 crore, was perceived as a potential threat to law and order. Although there was little in the storyline that showed the Muslim protagonist in a bad light, Islamic organisations in the State took objection to what they perceived as stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists. In its effort to appease them, the TN government banned the release of the film and facilitated discussions with the Muslim organisations and the producer. After much drama off screen, the film was released to gross over Rs 120 crore in India.
 
However, it is far from clear why Thalaiva is facing a similar fate. It is supposedly the story of a son avenging father's death, with the father being a Mumbai don going by the name Anna (brother) who takes over after the death of Varadaraja Mudaliar, and the son in Australia. On August 7, a city civil court had issued a notice against the producer and the director on a petition from S.K.R. Karnan of Seethaparpanallur in Tirunelveli district who believed that the film was based on the life of his grandfather who lived in Dharavi, Mumbai. The term Anna, (even otherwise commonly used by the actor) in the film had been taken to refer to former chief minister C N Annadurai, an association that the actor has categorically denied.
 
Thalaiva was to be released in 500 theatres in the State on August 9. But on the previous day several multiplexes in Chennai received bomb threats from a group called the TN Oppressed Students Revolutionary Force. In a letter, the fringe group had reportedly attacked the SRM group (that also owns and operates the politically-neutral television channel Pudhiya Thalaimurai) founder Pachamuthu aka 'Pari' Vendhar, for investing Rs 70 crore, accrued through, what they termed, 'tax evasion' and 'exploitation of students', in Thalaiva. The group had warned of setting off explosives as a warning to 'black money sharks'.
 
While this was stated initially as the main concern, the film has also been unsuccessful in securing entertainment tax exemption. A government order, the previous day, stated that the Commercial Taxes Department Review Committee had denied it owing to dialogues being peppered with English words, excessive violence besides, the hero "taking law into his own hands".' 
 
TN DGP K. Ramanujam has clarified that the release was not being stalled by the police; the producer has stated that the non-grant of entertainment tax exemption was not an issue; and initial reviews have all clarified that the film does not contain politically sensitive material. The reason for the film not seeing the light of day in Tamil Nadu has been presented as a mystery. 
 
However, industry observers aver that it is the refusal to grant tax exemption, which is 30 per cent of the admission rate at theatres in Tamil Nadu that had set alarm bells ringing. While it affects the producer directly as it impacts upon his earnings, a refusal to exempt a film from entertainment tax also triggers suspicions that there is something 'unacceptable' in the film. The Hindu had reported that denial of exemption by a review committee formed by the Commercial Taxes department was a rare occurrence and that even a cursory look at www.tnvat.gov.in showed that tax exemptions were granted to most of the films submitted.  It is the denial of exemption that is said to have made theatre owners wary of taking the film on.
 
While Vijay's fans are concerned that pirated versions may make their way to the State from places where the film has been released, the film's producer, director and actor are currently appealing to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. She had refused an audience to the actor and his father, S A Chandrasekar, a film producer, when they attempted to meet her in Kodanad in this connection, on the grounds that they did not follow protocol. Heaping lavish praise on her rule and her 'straight forwardness', the actor in a statement has now sought government intervention.
 
In a State that boasts of a complex intertwining of media and politics, particularly film and politics, the perceptions of Thalaiva's struggle for release reflected in the public space are significant. Unable to watch the film, a 20-year-old fan of actor Vijay committed suicide. In the discussions in popular media relating to the issues that the film is facing, an oft-recurring theme has been actor Vijay and his father's political ambitions. The Times of India implying that the reasons were indeed political, pointed out that in 2009 the actor had met Rahul Gandhi and expressed his willingness to join the Congress and although he had since dropped those plans, he had not dropped his political ambitions. In the 2011 TN Assembly elections, the actor had openly supported and canvassed for the AIADMK government. The present fracas has been projected in the regional media as an indication of disapproval of the AIADMK supremo of Vijay and his father's attempts to gain political clout. In May this year, Vijay attended a mass marriage function organised by his fans in Tiruchi which was marked by a massive turn-out. Vijay was then quick to clarify that it was not a political stunt.
 
Despite his brush with the DMK which Vijay criticised in 2011 for its stranglehold on the Tamil film industry, DMK chief Karunanidhi has come out in support of the actor. In a statement on August 9, the DMK leader drew parallels between Viswaroopam and Thalaiva and called it the trampling of democracy to death, in the State. 
 
Meanwhile, commenting on news relating to the film's (non) release, some readers in a popular Tamil weekly have responded online that the issue perhaps related to securing the rights of the movie for airing on Jaya TV. Others questioned the role of actors as political and social activists asserting that as long as actors remained indifferent to society's problems, they had no right to expect people's support when affected. Few even said that this was perhaps a controversy generated solely for publicity. It was also pointed out that Vijay had not covered himself with glory in the recent past, as he had been very intolerant of media coverage. In 2007, he had watched silently when his fans objected to a parody of his film in a popular comedy show aired on a television channel; and he had condemned critical comments on his film in a popular talk show. It is indeed an irony that an actor who owes his image to the bravado and punch dialogues on screen has been reduced to beg for government consideration to have his film released.

 

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