(Note: Spoilers ahead about the plot of Sarkar).

Tamil superstar Vijay’s latest film Sarkar has caused a political storm in Tamil Nadu. Shortly after the film was released on November 9, members of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam took to the streets to protest against some of the sequences. Ministers accused Vijay of trying to instigate viewers against the government by ridiculing its welfare measures in the film.

In particular, the ministers pointed to scenes where people burn freebies such as grinders and fans, big-ticket schemes that defined the rule of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. A further irritant was the name of the antagonist played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar. Her character is named Komalavalli, which is widely considered to be Jayalalithaa’s original name. The character is framed as a conniving woman who controls her father as he attempts to become chief minister for the third time.

The film’s producer is Sun Pictures, which is headed by Kalanithi Maran, who belongs to the family of former Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi,. Following pressure from the government, Sun Pictures has removed the controversial sequences and muted all mentions of Komalavalli’s name.

Sarkar (2018).

There is no defence possible for the AIADMK government’s actions. A movie certified for a release by the Central Board of Film Certification has been further censored by the ruling party using mob pressure. The protests constitute an assault on the freedom of expression, and has received widespread condemnation, including from actors-politicians Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.

The plot of Sarkar is significant as Vijay has declared on several occasions that he eventually intends to enter politics. What does a movie like Sarkar tells us about Vijay and his worldview?

Medium and the message

Insensitivity and foolishness make a deadly cocktail that. Sarkar serves in abundance. Writer and director AR Murugadoss has been criticised for the hollowness of his screenplay and its utter disdain for fact.

The movie’s central theme is corruption in politics. Sarkar explores the extent to which politicians are willing to go in their attempt to capture power. To begin with, there are direct illegal interventions in the form of bogus voting. Vijay plays non-resident Indian corporate boss Sundar, who returns to Tamil Nadu to cast his vote. When he goes to the polling station, he is told that his vote has already been cast. Sundar takes this matter up with the judiciary and later instigates thousands who were affected by similar voting frauds to approach the court for remedy.

The court sequences are probably the most ridiculous in Sarkar. A film that apparently seeks to educate its viewers about election laws makes a mockery of judicial procedures. For instance, instead of considering the letter of the law, the judge is swayed by the argument that his name will be etched in history if he accedes to Sundar’s plea. Sundar is allowed to argue his own case despite having a senior lawyer, whose name is Jethmalani, sitting right next to him.

There are sequences where Murugadoss gets the role of government departments wrong. For instance, the public works department, which takes care of infrastructure, is blamed for a dengue outbreak, rather than the health department.

Then comes the most controversial part. Freebies provided by the government to the public are described in Sarkar as bribes to get votes. This line of argument ends with people burning fans and wet grinders. Sarkar makes the point that Tamil Nadu’s political parties have converted citizens into beggars who are so influenced by freebies that they forget their rights.

Vijay’s idea of governance

The irony is that Vijay plays a corporate head who instigates people against freebies. He looks at the whole problem through the prism of marketing. Forgotten is the fact that the corporate world is probably among the biggest beneficiaries of the state’s freebie culture, something that is borne out in the budget documents every year.

Even the Tamil film industry is a beneficiary of tax cuts in the form of waivers on entertainment tax. To the makers of the film, the only freebies that are unacceptable are the ones given to the poor.

In a sharp criticism of this line of thought in The Hindu, Indian Revenue Service officer Poo Ko Sarvanan pointed to the aspirational value and the utility of freebies to the economically disadvantaged. Sarvanan, who hails from a humble background, said that he would not have been able to prepare for the civil service examinations without the free laptop he was given by the state government.

The fact that Sarkar has been produced by Sun Pictures is an even bigger irony, given that the DMK pioneered the freebie culture by promising television sets to voters in the Assembly elections in 2006. It does not seem to have occurred to the producers that Komalavalli’s father, Masilamani, who is played by former AIADMK MLA Pazha Karuppaiah, appears to be based on Karunanidhi. Some lines in the film inform us that Masilamani is a politician with 56 years of experience. In one line that the censor board cut, Masilamani states that he had organised anti-Hindi agitations as a 15-year-old wearing half pants – another reference to Karunanidhi.

Cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu

Although productions like Sarkar position themselves as political dramas, they neither provide a serious account of important events nor reflect an intellectual appreciation of the political process. Such films merely serve as launchpads for the political careers of their stars.

Many argue that all cinema does not have to serve a higher purpose. The problem is that films like Sarkar are clearly vehicles of propaganda: they seek to persuade audiences of the hero’s benevolence and make them hope that this fictional benevolence will extend to real life when the star eventually rises to power.

Such manipulation is not new in Tamil Nadu. AIADMK icon MG Ramachandran launched his political career by acting in films that portrayed him as a messiah. Voters gave him a huge mandates in elections after election, only to end up with a government that has been criticised for being repressive and pro-rich.

The controversy around Sakar has served Vijay’s purpose. It will ensure that he gets significant audiences, even for this poor effort.