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Ten controversies that plagued the Tamil film industry in 2018- Cinema express

Ten controversies that plagued the Tamil film industry in 2018

From the 45-day-long industry shutdown to the MeToo movement, we take a look at the issues that rocked Kollywood this year

Published: 29th December 2018

Over the course of the past year, the Tamil film industry has been witness to several controversies from politically-motivated post-release censoring to unending plagiarism disputes. The 45-day-long industry shutdown and the MeToo movement have sparked spirited discourse and, in some cases, evoked deafening silence. Here, we bring you a list of controversies and issues that plagued Tamil Cinema in 2018.

1. The prolonged TFPC strike

Kollywood came to a standstill as the members of the Tamil film fraternity (especially the producers) called for a complete industry shutdown from March 16. The shutdown meant that all film-related work (releases, shoots, post-production work, movie launches, audio events, and press meets) was indefinitely stalled. The Tamil Nadu Film Producers' Council (TFPC), led by Vishal, had some ambitious demands, which would apparently benefit both the industry and audiences.

It all began when the Telugu film industry threatened to go on a strike from March 1 in protest against the charges imposed by digital service providers (DSPs) like QUBE, and the Tamil Nadu Film Producer's Council announced that it would follow suit. Eventually, the Kannada and Malayalam industries also joined in.

Several rounds of futile discussions between the representatives of the four film industries and DSPs were held. After protesting for a day, both the Kerala and the Kannada industries backed out of the strike, claiming that they would resolve the issue amicably.

The DSPs, on their part, slashed their rates, which the Telugu Film Chamber felt was reasonable. While they decided to call off their strike on March 8, the Tamil film industry took this as an opportunity to protest against not one, but a number of issues, and effectuate an industry revamp of sorts. And all of a sudden, the strike, which began as a standoff between the producers and the DSPs, transformed into a movement that aimed to bring about significant changes in the way the system functioned. Though a few producers were not happy with work being halted, they chose to stand by the TFPC.

The demands spelled out by the TFPC included flexible ticket pricing, computerised ticket booking facilities, reduction in online booking charges, regularisation of film releases, and of course, squashing of the Visual Print Fee, which was levied by DSPs such as QUBE and UFO.

About 37 censored Tamil films were in the queue, awaiting their release after the strike, and 27 more films were lying on the shelves awaiting CBFC certification. A massive 950 theatres closed operations. As a result, Kollywood took a big break for more than a month, with films like Kaala, Vishwaroopam 2, Irumbu Thirai and Tik Tik Tik waiting to see the light of day.

The daily-wage labourers operating in the industry, whose lives depended on the remuneration they got every day, were the ones who were predominantly affected by the strike. Vishal called upon the Tamil Nadu government to interfere and break the stalemate. Finally, a breather came when Minister Kadambur Raja agreed to moderate a tripartite meeting (on April 17, 2018) comprising producers, theatre-owners, and DSPs.

After the meeting, Vishal, President of TFPC, announced that the strike had been called off as most of their demands had been agreed to, including reduction of VPF, computerised ticketing, box office transparency, and flexible ticket pricing. He also claimed that TFPC would start its own portal for online booking of tickets. The majority of producers expressed delight at the outcome. When films finally started hitting the screens from April 20, it was said that those which had already passed the censors would be given first preference for release.

2. The TN government vs Sarkar

Director AR Murugadoss' Sarkar starring Vijay, after a smashing Diwali release, courted a new controversy when two AIADMK ministers objected to scenes that criticized the State government for propagating freebie culture and the naming of Varalaxmi Sarathkumar's antagonist character as Komalavalli, the birth name of Jayalalithaa.

Even as the ministers called for the deletion of the controversial scenes and threatened to take the legal route against the film, protests by AIADMK cadres erupted in different parts of the state. Meanwhile, actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan tweeted out his support to the film, stating that no one had the rights to stall a film that had been already certified by the CBFC. However, the theatre owners association, fearing a blow to the theatre footfalls, were quick to announce that the contentious scenes would be immediately deleted.

But, the issue was far from over. Apprehending arrest in connection with the film, the director AR Murugadoss moved the court seeking anticipatory bail. Admitting his plea, the court, as an interim relief, restrained the police from arresting the director. Amidst all this drama, the Government of Tamil Nadu emphasized in the court that AR Murugadoss must provide an undertaking stating that he would not criticize the government's policies in his future films, which the director categorically refused.

3. The MeToo movement in the Tamil film industry

The #MeToo movement, which has been calling out sexual predators within the entertainment and media fraternities, first made its presence felt in Kollywood in October when journalist Sandhya Menon posted an anonymous account about National Award-winning lyricist Vairamuthu. Popular singer and voice artist Chinmayi Sripaada then tweeted about several instances where the lyricist had apparently misbehaved with young girls. She then went on to narrate her own ordeal with him during an event in 2006, claiming that she was asked to stay with Vairamuthu in a hotel room. While most of the people from the industry chose to remain silent over the issue, actors Samantha and Siddharth came out in support of the singer.

Though Vairamuthu denied the allegations with a statement on Twitter, people continued to call out his name, with Chinmayi posting more accounts from people. In addition, Chinmayi also highlighted the claims made by other individuals against bigwigs in the Tamil music fraternity like OS Thyagarajan, Raghu Dixit, Mandolin U Rajesh, playback singer Karthik, and several other Carnatic musicians.

Actor Sruthi Hariharan later alleged that her co-star Arjun Sarja had sexually harassed her on the sets of the Tamil film, Nibunan. Arjun was quick to refute her claims.

Actor Amala Paul came out in support of assistant director and film-maker Leena Manimekalai who accused director Susi Ganesan of sexually harassing her. In a statement, Amala said that Susi Ganesan had behaved in an inappropriate manner with her too during the shoot of Thiruttu Payale 2, and that she had no trouble believing Leena’s account. The director, known for his films like Five Star, Virumbugiren, Thiruttu Payale, and Kanthaswamy, immediately denied the allegations, calling them 'disgusting lies'.

Photographer Pretika Menon took to social media to accuse actor-director Thiagarajan of sexual misconduct on the sets of the 2011 film, Ponnar Shankar. Thiagarajan subsequently organised a press meet to refute these allegations.

Actor Radha Ravi, whose name also came up in the movement, dismissed the claims saying that such incidents usually don't happen without consent, and encouraging such accusers will only lead to blackmailing of VIPs in the future.

Chinmayi Sripaada was then unceremoniously terminated from the Tamil Nadu dubbing union citing non-payment of ‘subscription fees’ for the past two years. This effectively means that she can no longer dub in Tamil films, as dubbing union membership is compulsory to work in the industry. The singer was then asked to pay a random 1.5 lakhs and tender an apology letter if she was to be reinstated into the Tamil Nadu Dubbing union.

The Tamil film industry, which had always taken much pride in being vocal about social issues like the shutting down of Sterlite, the establishment of Cauvery management board, and the Jallikattu protests, remained largely indifferent to her sacking.

4. The plagiarism rows

In late October, Vijay's Sarkar was embroiled in a plagiarism controversy when writer and assistant director Varun Rajendran alleged that AR Murugadoss had made minor changes to his story titled Sengol to come up with Sarkar's script. With the South Indian Film Writers Association admitting that the script of Sarkar was not original, director Varun Rajendiran moved the Madras High Court, asking the makers to give him story credits and a remuneration of Rs 30 lakh. Subsequently, a compromise was reached between the two parties. Details later emerged that Murugadoss would display a message-note, where he acknowledged that the theme of Sengol and Sarkar are the same, for 30 seconds immediately after the end credits. Murugadoss went on to post a video in social media announcing that he will take sole credit for the story, screenplay, and direction of Sarkar.

Again, in late October, nearly a month after Prem Kumar's 96 hit the screens, Suresh, an assistant director of Bharathiraja, alleged that he had written a script called 92, which had many similarities to the Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha-starrer. Suresh, who was allegedly hoping to film his script with Bharathiraja as the director and Ilaiyaraaja as the music director, accused one Marudhupandian (a mutual friend of Suresh and 96 director Prem Kumar) of leaking the story to the latter. Prem Kumar, accompanied by a few more young film-makers, subsequently hosted a press conference to clear the air about the controversy. Claiming that he had registered the script of 96 in early 2016, Prem Kumar also said that he had written a spin-off novel, based on what happens to the lead character after the film.


5. The ban on Mysskin

The shooting of Mysskin's upcoming film Pyscho, starring Udhayanidhi Stalin, was stalled by a recent verdict of the Madras High Court. The court, hearing a petition filed by financier Ragunandhan and his son Maitreya, banned the filmmaker from directing and releasing crime thrillers, a genre he is known for.

According to the petitioners, Mysskin had signed an agreement with the two in 2015 that his next crime thriller, now titled Psycho, would star Maitreya in the lead. So when the director started the shoot of the film with Udhayanidhi Stalin, Aditi Rao Hydari and Nithya Menen a few months ago, the budding actor was apparently shocked. Maitreya also alleged that his father had paid Mysskin one crore rupees for the project. The court, in addition to banning the release of Psycho also directed Mysskin to stand true to his agreement.

6. Film release controversies in Kollywood

TFPC recently came up with several correctional measures after the strike, including keeping tabs on the number of releases each week, in a bid to allow small-budget films to get their space. A system was subsequently devised wherein release dates would be approved to requesting producers on a first-come-first-serve basis, also taking into account the budget and star value of the film.

Things seemed smooth for a while, but the release of Thimuru Pudichavan raised the issue again after its release date got changed. The Vijay Antony-starrer, which was produced by his wife, Fathima Vijay Antony, was originally scheduled for a Diwali release (November 6) along with Vijay's Sarkar. However, it got released on November 16, which was already allotted to Nakkhul-starrer Sei, Jyothika's Kaatrin Mozhi and Utharavu Maharaja (starring Udhaya and Prabhu).

This, eventually, reduced the number of theatres for Kaatrin Mozhi and Utharavu Maharaja, leaving very few screens for Sei, whose makers consequently had to postpone its release to the following week.

A lot of people in the industry are of the opinion that internal release guidelines of the TFPC cannot be made as stringent rules, as it outrightly contradicts the Monopolistic and Restrictive Trade Practice (MRTP) act of 1969.

7. Last-minute show cancellations following financial/KDM issues

Early shows of several films like Vishwaroopam 2, Imaikaa Nodigal, Torchlight and Vijay Sethupathi-Trisha-starrer 96, were cancelled across Tamil Nadu on their respective opening days because of 'unresolved financial issues between the producer and the right-holders'. 

The KDM (Key Delivery Message) to start digital screening in theatres was not issued by the DSPs (Digital Service Providers) stating non-settlement of financial dues, following which the early morning and the morning shows were suspended.

In the case of 96, the issues were resolved after Vijay Sethupathi intervened, paying the money upfront from his salary to facilitate a smooth release.

While the core problem was always between the producers and the distributors, those at stake were the theatres and most importantly scores of fans, awaiting the release of their favourite star's film.

While such delays and cancellations hardly take place in other industries, why this unhealthy trend in Kollywood? Insiders note that the Tamil industry functions differently in comparison with the others regarding finance issues. In Hindi and Telugu industries, producers are backed with good funding whereas the Tamil producers tend to borrow at high-interest rates, which results in a last-minute dead-lock, if there are dues to be met.

8. The Vada Chennai controversy

Vetrimaaran's Vada Chennai, starring Dhanush, had kicked up a controversy post its release after fisherfolk condemned the film for allegedly showing the residents of North Chennai in a bad light.

Vetrimaaran went on to announce that the wedding-night scenes on the boat that the fishing community deemed offensive would be immediately deleted. The filmmaker also apologised to anyone who may have been hurt by the film through a video, stating that it was not his intention to portray someone poorly and make money out of it.

9. Ilaiyaraaja's copyright claims

Veteran music director Ilaiyaraaja sent a legal notice to several popular playback singers including SP Balasubramanyam and Chitra, and organisers of live concerts to stop performing his compositions, saying he was the copyright owner of the songs. He also sought payment of royalty for using the songs in live concerts.

The musician was subsequently dragged to court in December 2018 by a group of film producers against his copyright claims for songs composed by him. In their civil suit filed in the Madras High Court, the producers said that they owned all the rights of a film, including those of the songs.

The group of six producers including, PT Selvakumar and R Chandrasekhar, submitted that Ilaiyaraaja cannot claim copyright for songs which he had composed for films made by various producers. They further contended that the producers of a film had historically been the first owners of all copyrights of the film including rights over the songs featured in the films, be it audio or visual.

The petitioners also claimed that rights to performances and musical works have not been independently claimed by technicians/artists/musicians in 80 years of Indian cinema. They also argued that if Raja was given the rights of the songs, eventually, the actors and technicians too would start claiming ownership/copyrights with respect to the scenes to which they had contributed.
The six producers, hence, sought a decree of permanent injunction declaring that producers are the absolute owners of the copyrights of the films including that of the songs featured in them.

10. Vishal's arrest

The Tamil Nadu Film Producers' Council (TFPC) office in T Nagar became a battleground on December 19 as a group of producers consisting of AL Azhagappan, T Siva, Suresh Kamatchi, and SV Sekhar, among others, locked down the office, literally. Kathiresan, the honorary secretary, tried to act as a peacemaker, but he did not have any answers to the questions raised by the opposition group and proceeded to leave the meeting soon after.

The opposition group of producers put forth several points as to why they were discontent with the current leadership of Vishal. They demanded that Vishal resign immediately, give an explanation to the allegations against him and announce elections again.

Things further escalated when Vishal was taken into custody the next day after he tried to force entry into the council’s office. The actor was released after eight hours of what he called ‘illegal detention’.

The Madras High Court proceeded to issue an order to unseal the council's office. The court also reprimanded the police department for arresting Vishal without a proper reason, and questioned why an elected member of the council was prevented from entering his own office. The court also ordered the council to immediately submit all the account details to the Deputy Registrar.


The 2018 political games


By partnering with filmmaker Pa Ranjith for the second time in Kaala in 2018, the actor made a conscious effort to continue to speak the politics of the oppressed in his movies. His positioning as a potential voice of the downtrodden yet again this year was seen as his political launch vehicle. But, Rajinikanth's decision to follow it up with 2.0 and Petta, and the fact that he is yet to launch a party, fueled doubts about the time of his actual entry. Though the actor had said he would contest "the next Assembly polls" it is not clear if the actor would have sufficient time to honour his promise.

Kamal Haasan
Kamal Haasan’s political position with his party Makkal Needhi Maiam has been mostly cryptic in 2018. After the long-delayed Vishwaroopam 2 which was released this year, the actor announced that he will be acting in sequels to his earlier films, Thevar Magan and Indian. By trying to revive both these movies, is Kamal trying to appeal to the aam aadmi? Although compared to Rajini he is a step ahead because he has announced the name and flag of his party and has undertaken short tours of the state, there's no still sign of a thriving political party that could win elections.

What Vijay set out to do in Sarkar was interesting. By demonising the welfare schemes of the Dravidian parties as “freebies” handed out to lazy citizens, the actor seemed to suggest that if governments are run effectively like corporate business houses, we wouldn’t be requiring these schemes in the first place. But, the actor's politics, yet again in 2018, seemed to be driven more by current affairs than any serious ideology. 

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