art and politics

Cauvery water-sharing dispute: Is the Tamil film industry a soft target or a political tool?

The state’s filmmakers have toed the government’s line on important political issues, even at the risk of affecting box office business.

The outcome of the Cauvery river water sharing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is being eagerly awaited by the Tamil film industry. Much is at stake here. Karnataka is an important market for Tamil films. And when tempers begin to explode, it is the symbols of cinema that bear the brunt. Theatres screening Tamil films are attacked, Tamil channels are blacked out and the trade suffers. According to a source from the Producer’s Council in Chennai, the Tamil film industry earns an annual income of over Rs 150 crore from Karnataka alone.

The Vikram starrer Iru Mugan, which was released on September 8, was one of the first films to affected by the violence that spread through Karnataka after the Supreme Court ordered the state to release 12,000 cusecs of Cauvery river water to Tamil Nadu. Iru Mugan could not be released on over 80 screens in Karnataka as planned. Trade analysts estimate a loss of over Rs four crore for distributors from the state.

M Sasikumar’s Kidaari, which was released on September 2, could not complete its run in Karnataka. The Trisha starrer Nayaki, the crowd-funded thriller Sadhuram 2, Dhanush’s Thodari and the Vijay Sethupathi starrer Aandavan Kattalai are a few other titles that have had to forgo their collections from Karnataka.

‘Sadhuram 2’.

Does the Tamil industry have itself to blame for toeing the state government’s line on important political issues, including the Cauvery crisis? A day-long bandh on September 16 in Tamil Nadu saw film trade bodies, including the Tamil Nadu Film Producer’s Council, Thennindia Nadigar Sangam, and Film Employees Federation of South India, rally in support of J Jayalalithaa’s government. Film shoots were suspended and screenings were stalled until six in the evening. The bandh did not affect bigger films like Iru Mugan, which have made good their losses elsewhere, but did mar the prospects of smaller productions like Sadhuram 2.

Sadhuram 2 was supposed to be released on September 16, but because of the bandh, it could not open in Tamil Nadu either,” said actor Riaz Ansari, who was one of the movie’s financiers. “Mine is a very small budget film and we lost out on all the collections on Friday. We had our shows lined up in the morning and afternoon. Around 25-30 shows during the rest of the day got cancelled.”

Made on a budget of Rs 1.5 crore, the movie lost over Rs 10 lakh because of the September 16 bandh. “The bigger movies manage because they stay on for over two weeks,” Ansari said. “When Thodari and Andavan Kattalai were released, we were taken off from all screens on Friday. When big films release, they occupy all the major screens, leaving us with none.”

Tamil film industry organisations have put politics over business for years. On October 12, 2002, the film industry, led by veteran director Bharathi Raja, held a protest rally demanding the release of water from Karnataka. Bharathi Raja launched a tirade against Rajinikanth, who was born in Bengaluru and was a conductor with the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation before he became an actor. Bharathi Raja accused Rajinikanth of being a Karnataka loyalist instead of supporting the cause of Tamilians. The actor responded with a hunger strike the following day and even promised a contribution of Rs 1 crore towards the implementation of a river-linking project to solve the issue.

Tamil films stars also lined up in protest in 2008 when Karnataka objected to the Hogenakkal drinking water project in the Dharmapuri district. Film professionals lent their support to human rights violations against Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2013 and against Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the disproportionate assets case in 2014.


The Fevicol bond between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu has existed since the independence movement, but what has changed in recent years is the large-scale participation of film personalities in public protests. “Individual film stars has issued statements but not organised protests until 2000,” said Gnani Sankaran, a popular writer and columnist in Chennai. “In Tamil Nadu, right from the freedom movement days, film has been linked to politics. This continued up to the Dravidian movement. There are many film personalities who made it big in politics through cinema and while in politics dabbled in cinema too.”

Many actors do not want to be pressurised into stating their positions on the burning issue of the day. In 2010, the Tamil star Ajith said at a gathering organised by the Tamil film industry to felicitate Chief Minister M Karunanidhi that actors should not be coerced into taking political positions. Ajith’s views were echoed by Rajinikanth.

Tamil filmmakers line up to back their governments because Karnataka’s film industry is equally politicised, Ganni Sankaran said. “In Karnataka, the industry gets involved, so the Tamil film industry does so too,” he said. “Also, film industry people can take a message to the masses. So they are expected to take a stand. They may not like to do so, but they are compelled to. Those in the ruling government do not like film stars taking opposing views. So ensuring that they toe the political line on such issues is a way of suppressing dissent within the industry and killing political ambitions.”

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