Mersal Row: BJP’s Overreaction Being Seen as Diktat by Hindi Party
Row over Mersal doesn’t bode well for BJP’s Tamil Nadu where people are viewing it as diktat by a ‘Hindi party’.
Initial reviews of Mersal called it just a potpourri of scenes lifted from several old Tamil movies. An average Diwali fair at best, that only ardent Vijay fans would enjoy. And the production house Sri Thenandal Films, whose owners reportedly had to pledge their land to raise an additional Rs 30 crore for the movie after going over budget, was wondering if it will be able to recover the Rs 145 crore spent on the film.
Controversy Over GST-related Scene
Help came in the form of an unlikely friend – the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its National Secretary H Raja happened to watch one scene online in which Vetri, one of the three characters played by Vijay in the film, makes a comparison between GST imposed in Singapore and India, and was critical of the medicare system in the country. That was enough for Raja to see red and he demanded that the critical reference to GST be removed.
Within hours, the particular scene had gone viral, making even those who had no intention to see Mersal, now curious to find out what the fuss is all about. So much so that the film has collected Rs 150 crore since its release.
Trade analyst Taran Adarsh tweeted that actor Vijay, in a triple role starrer, is collecting more than the two Hindi releases (Aamir Khan's Secret Superstar and Ajay Devgn's Golmaal Again) in some key international markets.
BJP Takes Up the Role of an Unofficial Censor
Mersal is not the first movie that has attracted the ire of a political party. To BJP’s credit, the party did not follow Shiv Sena or Raj Thackeray’s template of vandalising theatres screening the movie. But Raja's diktat, and the manner in which he objected, was seen as a crude attempt to be an unofficial censor.
Actor Kamal Haasan made a pertinent point when he asked if a movie, that had been cleared by the Censor Board, should be interfered with. The South Indian Artistes Association put forth the same argument. Rajinikanth had the final word when he praised Team Mersal for addressing an “important issue”.
Religious Hues: Attempt at Polarisation
The Diwali weekend has been a disaster for Raja and party, with scorn heaped on it both offline and online. And it can only blame only its arrogance for such a response. Raja did not stop at demanding that the scene critical of GST be removed, he made it worse by attributing motives to Vijay for mouthing the lines.
He referred to Vijay by his original name of ‘Joseph Vijay’ and said he is in the process of finding out if the producer is also a Christian. He dug out Vijay's voter identity card in which his name is printed. Raja's theory is that since Vijay is Christian, he is critical of the Modi government's decision.
This approach is classic BJP template, used to great effect in the cowbelt where such attempts to polarise on religious lines result in rich electoral dividends. The mistake the BJP makes is to replicate the same ploy in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the Mersal episode has shown that people have nothing but scorn for such tactics.
The BJP would have managed to have its way if it had indulged in a reasonable debate, and argued that Vijay’s dialogues were factually not entirely accurate. But by bringing in religion into the mix, the party has landed up with mud on its face.
Why Does the BJP Feel Threatened?
That Raja was trying to curry favour with the flavour of the season in BJP, Yogi Adityanath was not lost on anyone. The scene makes a reference to children dying for want of oxygen, and it is obvious Vijay's character is talking about the Gorakhpur tragedy. It also talks about infants dying of rat bites inside the hospital. Again not a figment of imagination as this indeed happened at Guntur hospital in Andhra Pradesh.
From the BJP’s perspective, Mersal had to be red-flagged because the party knows the power of cinema in Tamil Nadu. It realised a popular actor like Vijay badmouthing GST and Digital India could tarnish Narendra Modi’s image.
In the 1960s, K Kamaraj perhaps did not see it coming when he mocked the DMK as a party of actors and asked:
How can there be a government by actors?
The last five decades have seen Tamil Nadu politics dominated by two actors (MGR and Jayalalithaa), and one scriptwriter (Karunanidhi).
In recent times, both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have dropped enough hints that they could be netas as well. The AIADMK and the BJP have been on target, with Kamal asking Narendra Modi to admit that demonetisation and its implementation was a mistake last week. The BJP obviously thought the attack on demonetisation and GST by Kollywood’s big guns would rob the Prime Minister of his sheen.
Giving the Opposition an Issue on a Platter
What it did not realise was that it ended up giving the opposition an issue on a platter. Rahul Gandhi tweeted, asking Modi not to “demon-etise Tamil pride by interfering in Mersal”.
The comment was not off the mark as the attempt by the BJP is being seen as an order given by a “Hindi party”. What it has given Vijay, known to harbour political ambitions, a halo that the best PR machinery could not have managed.
But the BJP has not given up on its Mersal attack. A lawyer in Madurai, who claims to be a BJP sympathiser, has filed a complaint against the actor. ‘Mersal’ that means stunning, is truly living up to its name.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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