The Big Story: Communalising cinema

After the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December, the Bharatiya Janata Party saw an opportunity to widen its base in Tamil Nadu that the leader had denied the party for decades.

In this bid to spread its wings in a state where Tamil sub-nationalism has deep roots, the BJP seems prepared to pull out all stops. The controversy it created over the recent movie Mersal, starring superstar Vijay, has brought to the fore two unfortunate elements: communal politics and intolerance to criticism.

Last week, the BJP took exception to a two-and-a-half minute sequence in the movie in which a character played by Vijay questions the effectiveness of the newly introduced Goods and Service Tax. In the scene, he asks why a country with a GST rate of 28% is not able to provide quality healthcare to its citizens.

Instead of engaging in a productive exchange of ideas about these questions, the BJP decided to vilify Vijay. First, it threatened to launch protests and file court cases if the scenes were not removed. Ironically, this led to massive public support for Vijay on social media. While the film’s producers tried to placate the BJP by meeting its Tamil Nadu leaders and even agreeing to remove the scenes if they misrepresented facts, the enormous demonstration of support gave them the confidence to retain the sequences.

Having failed to browbeat the producers, the BJP then pushed a blatantly communal line to discredit the actor. It began to refer to him by his full name, Joseph Vijay. The BJP attempted to foreground the actor’s Christian background. Why else would the actor deliver lines in the movie that placed hospitals above temples? Why had he not said that there should be hospitals in place of churches? In trying to peddle this theory, BJP leader H Raja dug out Vijay’s electoral identification card and posted it on Twitter.

However, Raja dug himself into a hole by telling a Tamil television channel that he had watched parts of the movie on the internet, though the film has not yet been released online. Tamil Nadu Producers’ Council head and actor Vishal took exception to this comment and criticised the leader on Sunday for encouraging piracy. Stunningly, the actor’s offices were searched by the Income Tax department on Monday afternoon, ostensibly because his company had failed to deposit with the authorities tax it had deducted at source for payments made to clients.

With the economy being jolted by last year’s demonetisation decision and the choppy implementation of GST in July, the BJP has come under severe criticism. Rather than setting out to remedy the problems, the party is trying to gag criticism through intimidation. Party leaders, however, maintain that the searches had nothing to do with Vishal’s comments on Mersal and Raja.

By trying to demonise Vijay by invoking religion and misusing official machinery to intimidate opposing voices, the party is only undermining its position in Tamil Nadu.

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  1. In the Indian Express, Rajshree Chandra says that the move to criminalise cyber speech will add impunity to power. 
  2. TP Sreenivasan writes in The Hindu that India should pursue the lead offered by the U.S. to end the deadlock over the Security Council’s expansion. 
  3. The Rajasthan ordinance disallowing the questioning of state employees is shameful, says Karan Thapar in the Hindustan Times.
  4. There are better ways to engage with fanatics than shouting back, says David Brooks in the New York Times. 


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