Mersal is a Tamil slang that has come from Chennai slums. No one knows what it means. At best, it can be called a general feeling of unease. That a movie with such a title should have caused so much disquiet among State BJP leaders all because it has some critical references to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet reforms like GST, demonetisation and Digital India is the height of the irony.
If Tamil Nadu BJP leaders like Tamilisai Soundararajan, Pon Radhakrishnan and H. Raja had not taken it up and spoken against the movie, it would have passed off as another routine Vijay film. For Vijay has nursed only a latent political ambition, unlike his seniors Rajini or Kamal who have at various times thought more seriously about it, and he seldom comes out of his comfort zone as an entertainer who ensures success at the box office.
Thanks to vicious attacks by the BJP satraps, the blockbuster has broken all records in the first week itself and is believed to have raked in Rs 150 crore worldwide.
For all that, there is nothing that Vijay has said on GST or demonetisation that senior BJP leaders themselves like Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha have not spoken, as his father and director Chandrasekar has pointed out.
For example, it is the disconnect between demonetisation and Digital India which led to teething troubles that stretched to months because several banks had no adequate networks and ATMs were not geared for the task. It affected all, the rich and the poor. It is all known to all.
Of course, GST is a reform measure brought about through all-party consensus and problems associated with it cannot be laid at the door of the BJP alone. The GST Council is there to address specific issues.
Yes, there are factual inaccuracies. For example, the hero’s criticism of GST at 28 per cent on medicines while zero tax on alcohol is incorrect. The tax rate is only 12 per cent on medicines. And alcohol attracts sin tax far higher than 28 per cent. Again, the hero’s claim that Singapore with lower incidence on medicine provides free medicare is again incorrect. The citizens contribute to healthcare.
But other criticisms are legitimate. There is reference to Gorakhpur where children died in hospital because it ran out of supply of oxygen cylinders. The reason was the hospital failed to clear dues of over two years. Another incident quoted is about death of a baby in an incubator after a rodent bite.
If there are factual inaccuracies, as claimed by BJP leaders, the way to counter is through debate, but not by demanding such removal of such scenes. “How dare Vijay criticise Modi”, asks Tamilisai Soundararajan.
Pon Radhakrishnan is distressed over “misinformation campaign”. Raja says “it is Joseph Vijay’s hatred of Modiji” that has come out in Mersal. He says he has brought up Vijay’s religion because he is believed to have said that what the country needs is not more temples but more hospitals. Raja would have had no quarrel if Vijay had included churches also.
This is a non-political film that makes a general comment on controversial measures at the popular level. Most Tamil films depict politicians- police-criminal nexus. No political party has taken exception to it. In one of his films, Rajini has even showed a longing for the return of Kamaraj era which threw up honest politicians like Kakkan.
Neither the DMK nor the AIADMK have made an issue over the implied reference to 50 years of corruption and maladministration that has marked Dravidian rule.
Even attacks on hospitals and money-minded doctors have been shown in Vijayakanth starrer Ramana. There was no such fuss then.
Tamil films by and large have been closely linked with politics as the DMK used the medium as a tool to propagate its ideals in the 1950s and 1960s. In its formative years the DMK was shunned by the mainstream media. And it even used plays as propaganda tools. That was how V.C. Ganesan became “Sivaji’Ganesan after his portrayal of Maratha warrior in a play penned by DMK founder C.N. Annadurai.
Senior DMK leader M. Karunanidhi used Parasakthi to promote his rationalist ideas. Sivaji Ganesan became popular in his debut film because of its fiery dialogues. One such is that the rationalists are not against temples, but are only against these turning into dens of thieves.
The DMK used MGR extensively to promote the party. And MGR was particular that the powerful medium should be used to send out positive messages. The only political movie of his was Nam Naadu. Those were more tolerant times.
The BJP leaders attack on Mersal is an example of intolerance of dissent. That is why Kamal and Rajini have rallied behind the producers. Kamal has said that a movie certified for release should not be subjected to re-censorship.
The producers were wary of courting any controversy. But as the critical scenes have added to the success of the movie, they have let them remain.
Video piracy being rampant, a movie’s fate is decided in the first week itself. Unlike the PMK , which took up cudgels against Rajini at one time, the BJP leaders have not disrupted the screening. Small mercies.
(The writer is a senior journalist who has reported on Tamil Nadu for decades)