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December 15, 1999


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The war within


Mudalvan There's an election in the air. And on the ground, bright young things with betacams and boom mikes are running around, asking all and sundry, "Excuse me, who do you think should be the next chief minister?"

"What difference does it make?" shrugs one in response. "If the previous government stole Rs 300 crore, this government is stealing Rs 500 crore, they are all the same..."

As comments go, the above is unusually mild in these days of pervasive disaffection with politicians of all hues. And yet those, and similarly stinging lines of political criticism, proved spark enough to plunge Tamil Nadu filmdom into what seems suspiciously akin to a civil war.

Consider this: Within days of the release of the film in which the above dialogue appears, Madurai is flooded with pirated videos. Cable operators are told to air the film on their channels. When they refuse, fearing it could get them into trouble, they are told that the protection being accorded to them when they air relatively new films will be withdrawn.

Under coercion, cable operators in the temple town air the film not once, but several times a day for days on end. And worse, they openly advertise on their channels the time of the next 'show' -- an obvious ploy to undercut the film's run in the theatres.

And the aftermath? Shihan Hussaini, karate exponent par excellence, film artiste, television actor and head of a high profile security firm -- named, appropriately enough, High Profile -- is hired to provide security for the film in which the above dialogue appears.

His people flood Madurai and other parts of Tamil Nadu, to seek out pirated videos of the film. Posters appear all over town, threatening action against any cable operator airing the film, and asking the public to report instances of such screenings.

Meanwhile, in every theatre screening the film, a Hussaini-provided security guard lives, eats and sleeps on the premises, mounting a 24-hour vigil over the print in order to prevent further copying.

Mudalvan In front of the three theatres showing the film in Madurai, goons gather, to harass legitimate theatre-goers. Once the film fans run their gauntlet and seek to enter the theatres, they are stopped by the police who claim they have bought their tickets in black and are subjected to further harassment.

Hussaini's men approach the local cops. Who refuse to register their complaints. Hussaini approaches the Anti-Piracy Cell in Madras. The commissioner is, he is told, 'unavailable.' The junior officers say they cannot do anything without the commissioner's say-so. In other words, a stalemate.

Meanwhile, the owners of three theatres in Madurai which screen the film in question are told by officials to pull the film out -- or face action from tax authorities and such.

The Muvender Munnetra Kazhagham, a socio-political outfit in Madurai, jumps into the fray. Their cadres arrive en masse at the theatres to protect the citizens from harassment.

Threatening calls are received by the private hospital run by Dr Sethuraman, head of the MMK. "We will plant bombs in your hospital if you do not end the opposition," the doctor is told by anonymous voices.

The MMK head promptly announces that his cadres will buy tickets in bulk and flood the theatres, filling the seats to defeat the attempts to end the film's run.

Cut and thrust, action and riposte -- while filmdom ferments and gossip, rumour and innuendo fly thick and fast.

Mudalvan The film is Mudalvan which marks hotshot director Shankar's (of Gentleman, Kadalan, Indian and Jeans fame) debut as a producer. Arjun and Manisha Koirala -- neither of them hugely saleable names in Tamil Nadu -- head the cast.

And yet, the film is sold for a per-territory rate that no one will disclose, but which, the industry agrees, is the highest price ever paid, outdoing even a Rajnikanth film in this regard.

It is the first time, awed industrywallahs tell each other in hushed tones, that a film has commanded such a high price on the strength of the director's name alone.

The film deals with politics and politicians. And with how one man, with his heart in the right place, can upset the political applecart, and bring about change for the better.

The buzz around town is that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, now ruling Tamil Nadu, is upset with the film. That in the view of the DMK, the film suggests its rule is even worse than that of AIADMK supremo J Jayalalitha -- who, significantly (remember that dialogue?), has cases of malfeasance amounting to Rs 300-plus crore pending against her name.

That Raghuvaran, who plays a venal chief minister and whose dialogue is delivered in a raspy voice, was taking off on state CM Muthuvel Karunanidhi (having seen the film, this reporter begs to differ -- but that is another matter, for another time).

And therefore, it is the ruling party that is now backing attempts to defeat the film by any and all means at their disposal.

Interestingly, while the Tamil Nadu ruling party reportedly views the film as an attempt to slur their 'thalaivar,' in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the reaction is the polar opposite. In Andhra Pradesh, thus, Arjun -- who by force of circumstance becomes chief minister for a day and who, in those 24 hours, manages to do enough good to create a public outcry demanding that he enter active politics and take over as chief minister for good, is seen as a mirror image of Chandrababu Naidu.

Thus, the Andhra chief minister invites director Shankar as his special guest, requests a special screening of the film and lauds the ideals the director has expressed in his film.

The film -- bought for distribution in Telugu-land by A M Rathnam, producer of Shankar's earlier Kamal Hassan-starrer, Indian -- is already declared a hit in Andhra, and gathering even more momentum on the wings of positive publicity.

Mudalvan The furore continues unabated. And, in the process, brutally spotlights a problem that has had the Tamil Nadu film industry reeling for a while now.

That video piracy is rife in various parts of the country is a given. That nowhere else has it reached the levels obtaining in Tamil Nadu, is unarguable.

Take, for instance, the case of Kodeeswaran. The film, produced by K T Kunjumon -- who is known for his penchant for making mega-budget films and who, coincidentally, produced Shankar's debut film Gentleman and saw it become a superhit -- sought to introduce his son Ebby opposite Simran, one of the most saleable female stars of Tamil cinema.

A highlight of the film is a dance sequence which reportedly cost Rs 1 crore to film, featuring Karisma Kapoor as an alien from another planet.

The film has been lying, complete in every way, in the cans for almost a year now, with no buyers in sight. However, word is that your friendly neighbourhood video parlour will provide you with a video cassette (with the title of some old, black and white film on its spine by way of camouflage), in case you don't have the patience to wait for the day, if ever, that the film hits the marquee.

Or take Ethirum Puthirum. Directed by V C Ramani, the film has Mammootty, Napoleon and Nasser in lead roles, the last named playing a character based on sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

Sixty days before the film's scheduled release on April 14, Tamil New Year's day, the video was out in the market and being openly aired. "Why just cable operators?" asks director Ramani, speaking to on the telephone from Madras, says, "even video coaches were showing the film."

He adds, "My film was badly affected, absolutely. A film's fate used to be classified in three categories -- hit, mediocre and flop. These days, there are only two categories -- hit or flop."

The reason, according to the director, is simple enough. "Generally, a film takes three, four weeks to build the kind of momentum that makes it a hit. It takes that long for word-of-mouth to spread and the general audience to begin flocking to the theatres. But if, within a week of release or even earlier, the video is freely available, then the film is generally dead and buried by the third week itself."

His logic is that cinegoers are of two kinds. The hardcore fans, who go to see their favourite stars and who, thus, contribute what in the trade is called the 'initial,' and the average cinegoer, who is not particularly hooked on any star, but who will go to the theatre if the reports filtering through are good.

It is this second type of moviegoer who gives the film legs, and makes it run the proverbial mile -- but if he can see the film on his local cable network, then chances are he won't bother to make the trip to the theatres.

"What really hurts," says Ramani, now recovering from a more real hurt -- an injury through accident -- "is that making a film is a creative process involving the hard work of many different people. An entire team contributes its ideas, skills, into making a film -- and then someone comes along and quite simply, steals all that work, that creativity..."

And that, in sum, is what is happening in Tamil Nadu. It is a situation that has the industry in a ferment and which has created an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that has touched some of the biggest names in the industry.

The reported case of K Balachander, acknowledged doyen of Tamil Nadu film-makers, is an instance in point. Balachander's son is working on a documentary on movies, and as part of his project, decides to film audiences in a real live theatre and their response as a movie is in progress.

To this end, he chooses Nenjinile, a film starring Vijay and Isha Koppikar. Vijay, in Tamil Nadu, goes under the sobriquet Chinna Rajni -- Little Rajni -- a pointer to the fact that he is seen in the industry as the heir apparent to superstar Rajnikanth's mantle.

Balachander's son, sitting in the projection room, films the audience reaction. Meanwhile, word reaches S A Chandrasekhar -- father of Vijay and a director in his own right -- that Balachander's son was seen illicitly video-taping the movie, supposedly with a view to piracy.

The resultant storm assumes ugly proportions. K Balachander, hugely upset that anyone would think he -- the man who, in his time, set standards for the industry and who introduced, among others, Kamal Hassan, Rajnikanth, Sridevi, Jayaprada and Chiranjeevi to filmdom -- was capable of such a petty act, announces he will henceforth not appear at any film function.

That particular episode has now cooled off, with both parties reportedly clearing up their misunderstanding. By way of aside, Vijay is slated to appear in a film under Balachander's Kavithalaya banner, a very visible sign of the rapprochement between the two camps.

However, the larger problem, that of unbridled piracy, continues unabated.

Mudalvan Ironically, it was none other than Karunanidhi -- who began his public career as a script-writer and whose fiery scripts earned him the title of Kalaignar -- who as chief minister issued a diktat that those found indulging in video piracy, or caught in the act of screening pirated films, will be proceeded against under the terms of the Goondas Act.

An estimated 1,000 illicit videos of Mudalvan are reportedly circulating in Tamil Nadu. Balakrishna Pictures, which bought the distribution rights for the Madurai-Ramanathapuram territory, has lodged a complaint.

But for the law to take its course, the police have to take cognizance of the complaint, and act. And that, at least in Madurai, in the case of Mudalvan, is precisely what is not happening.

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