On July 8, the Tamil Film Producers’ Council issued a controversial diktat. In an official statement, the council announced that film critics who “cross all limits” and criticise movies, actors, actresses or directors in “a base manner” will not be invited to attend press shows or other film-related events. They also threatened legal action. The statement came after a closed-door meeting between a committee from the producers’ council and members of a union of film publicists and public relations professionals.

The circular also talked about cost-cutting measures for promotions and declared that hereon, only tea and coffee would be served to journalists at publicity events instead of proper meals. No gifts would be distributed to journalists, the circular added.

Journalists were quick to hit out against the threat, describing it to a bullying tactic. They also questioned the metric for deeming a review as harsh and cautioned that the diktat could be extended to any negative comment about a film.

The decision was not aimed at “regular and respected print journalists” but at “a group of internet and YouTube reviewers who call themselves journalists”, Tamil cinema producers told Scroll.in.

“Some of them blackmail producers into giving them advertisements, and if we don’t comply, they write negative reviews and badmouth producers, directors and technicians,” said J Satish Kumar, a member of the producers’ council who was present at the meeting. “There are these YouTube reviewers who think it is alright to trash a film in the worst language possible. They refer to us in first person and use un-parliamentary language. They say things like, it looks like this producer had a lot of black money and hence made this film, a director doesn’t know how to tell the story or an actor does not know how to act.”

Siva, also a Tamil Film Producers’ Council member, gave the example of popular YouTuber “Blue Sattai” Maaran, whose Tamil Talkies channel has close to a million subscribers. Always dressed in blue, Maaran is known for his acerbic take-downs of popular films. “I have no qualms in admitting that Blue Sattai Maaran’s reviews can no longer be tolerated by us,” Siva said. “He uses insults to get likes and subscribers on his YouTube channel and has popularised this style of reviewing – of scolding a filmmaker. One cannot prosper by insulting others.”

Blue Sattai Maaran reviews Ratchatsi.

Maran has frequently earned the wrath of Tamil filmmakers because he refuses to pander to big stars. In January, he was summoned by the police for his negative review of Shakti Chidambaram’s Charlie Chaplin 2 (2019). The makers alleged that Maran had demanded money to give the film a positive review and when refused, he trashed the film. Maran denied the allegations.

In an interview with The News Minute in February, Maran said that his goal was to be objective and honest. “I will speak like a common person and will not use all these titles – Thala, Thalapathy or superstar,” he told the publication. “Most importantly, we should make fun of a bad movie.”

Taking legal action against reviewers like Maran was well within their rights, J Satish Kumar said. “It is my right as a producer to file a defamation suit,” he added. “It is also my right to not invite such reviewers to film events. The idea is to tell them that we cannot be taken for granted, that someone is watching them.”

The producer admitted that for a long time, some filmmakers encouraged negative hot-takes. “We enjoyed these reviews, especially when they have been about a rival producer’s films,” he said. “But now, it has become too much to handle and it is time to put a full-stop to it.”

Missing the wood for the trees?

According to film critic Baradwaj Rangan, the diktat is unwarranted and misses the woods for the trees. “They are trying to control a very small population of reviewing public when the general public themselves are giving much harsher reviews of films and much sooner,” Rangan told Scroll.in. “Even if I were to watch an 8 am show, it might be 3 or 4 pm by the time my review comes out. But there are others, college students, for instance, who start tweeting about the movie from say, the 10th minute. The fate of the movie is decided by them. Now they don’t care whether they’re hurting someone or about the effort that has gone into a film. All they care about is sounding clever and witty in order to get likes and retweets.”

Rangan also questioned the viability of the council’s decision. “How many people can you keep hauling to court, especially given the time it takes for these cases to see the light of day?” he asked. “And especially when most of these offences are so unclearly defined? I mean, we live in a culture of memes today.”

What the council is trying to do, according to Rangan, is assert their supremacy in the film industry. “The larger concern, one that this issue is distracting us from, is that producers are not able to control the budgets,” Rangan said. “There is no other industry where an actor gets paid this much for delivering one flop after another. The costs of making a film are ballooning, and movies have become completely unviable. On top of everything, the release schedule of films is all over the place. These are the things they need to be fixing. But sadly, since you can’t control the stars, you go after a bunch of reviewers.”