Last week, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders in Tamil Nadu demanded the deletion of scenes critical of the Narendra Modi government’s policies from the recently released Tamil film Mersal. This demand has sent waves of alarm through the Tamil film industry, since Mersal has already been certified by the Central Board of Film Certification.

The much-awaited October 18 release, starring screen icon Vijay in three roles and exploring medical malpractices, includes a two-and-a-half minute sequence in which one of Vijay’s characters criticises the Goods and Services Tax. Vijay’s character asks why a country with a GST rate of 28% is unable to provide quality healthcare to its citizens. The character also makes a reference to the Gorakhpur tragedy in September, in which at least 63 children died in a government hospital due to lack of oxygen supply.

In Singapore, free healthcare is provided to residents despite a tax levy of just 7%, the character says. There is also a scene that is critical of the Digital India Mission.

The BJP claimed that Mersal was spreading false information about the Centre’s policies. “We have made our point clear that whatever has been told in the dialogue with regard to GST is just falsehood,” BJP leader H Raja told “This falsehood should not remain in the movie.”

Censorship after certification

After coming under attack, Mersal’s producers initially offered to delete the scenes from the film. In a press statement, the head Sri Thenandal Films, Hema Rukmini, said, “The controversies that have arisen over the last few days have caused us a great deal of heartache. The movie Mersal is not against anyone, nor does it portray any views against the government. ‘Medical care for the common man’ is the core of the film...We are willing to remove scenes or messages that may be seen as misleading or which might create misunderstanding.” However, after gathering immense support from Tamil film personalities and social media, Sri Thenandal Films decided to retain the scenes.

The significance of a demand for censorship from a party that has formed the central government has not been not lost on the Tamil film industry.

“Suddenly, the BJP is behaving very authoritative and saying that some dialogues should be removed,” said film producer Dhananjayan Govind. “But we already have a censor board to look into what should be cut. What has happened to the freedom of expression?”

Govind agreed with the BJP leaders on their objections to Mersal. “How can you compare India’s policies with Singapore without really understanding how money is collected in Singapore?” Govind said. It was the tone of the party’s communication that was objectionable, he added: “It was very authoritative. It was not a debate. You can always say that factually incorrect opinions are shared in the film, and debate about it. But they were acting as an external authority by demanding that the dialogues should be removed.”

BJP and the film industry

SR Prabhu, producer and treasurer of the industry body Nadigar Sangam, said that once a film has been certified for a release, no one else should raise objections.

Prabhu, however, was resigned to the fact that such controversies were unavoidable. “Every now and then there will be reactions and counter reactions to every big film,” he said. Since cinema and politics have been running on parallel lines in Tamil Nadu for the past 60 years or more, with chief ministers emerging from the film industry, there was bound to be political interference. “How will you split the film industry from politics?” he asked.

Other filmmakers find the repeated tendency to object to released films by all parties to be worrisome. “It is like we have no freedom, we don’t know what to depict in our films now,” said Suresh Sangaiah, director of the satirical Tamil film Oru Kaidiyin Karunai Manu. “Today we are speaking against the BJP’s demand to censor the film, and many political parties are supporting the industry. But tomorrow, if we depict something against another political party, they may turn against us too.”

Govind believed that the fact that BJP leaders raised objections was significant, in spite of the fact that the party was not in power in Tamil Nadu. “If any other party had raised objections, people may not have bothered so much,” said Govind. “But they are in power at the Centre and if they want, they can completely sideline the people of Tamil Nadu. If this is allowed to go on, they’ll completely control us. People in the industry are fearful about how they’ll use power, based on the example of Mersal.”

Identity politics

Ever since the previous chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, the BJP has been attempting to make inroads into the state. Screen legend Rajinikanth has often been touted as a possible BJP ally. But this week, the popular actor posted an enigmatic tweet about Mersal, declaring that the film addressed an “important topic”.

BJP members, meanwhile, resorted to other measures to attack the film. Leader H Raja put up a picture of Vijay’s voter identity card, which spells out his full name, Joseph Vijay. Raja speculated that Vijay’s Christian faith was the reason behind a line in Mersal, which states that hospitals are more important than temples.

“It was unfortunate that they tried to bring religion into this,” director Suresh Sangaiah said.

There has been a clear attempt to vitiate the atmosphere in Tamil Nadu, said Karthick Ram Manoharan, an assistant professor at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata. But this will not work in Tamil Nadu since the mainstream political discourse does not, and cannot, have a xenophobic approach to Christians, Manoharan observed.

The fandom revolving around Tamil actors has its share of problems, but it remains inclusive. “The fans look for certain popular and populist messages in cinema, free from communal overtones,” Manoharan said. In this case, both the actor’s fans as well as the general Tamil public have used social media to parody the BJP’s attempts to attack Vijay’s religious identity.

“The Hindu right is trying to create demons where none exist,” Manoharan said. “Focusing on Vijay’s Christian identity and trying to score a point against him will only backfire against them, given Tamil Nadu’s secular ethos.”