First of all, the word in Chennai is ‘mersal’. While the Danes have their ‘hygge’ and the Japanese have their ‘ikigai’, the Tamils are happy saying “mersalayitten” to each other, or “I am pleasantly stunned”.
This Deepavali, though, the word came in for a mean twist. The much awaited release of Mersal with superstar Joseph Vijay was all set to be a festive entertainer. The potboiler is a family revenge drama that was perfectly in time with the seasonal good Vs evil losses. Vijay plays both characters of twins in the movie, which is shot in the green Tamil countryside as well as in the posh vistas of Europe, besides music from A R Rahman to up the fun quotient. But just like the best films in Tamil cinema, Mersal has a distinctive take on the current political and social problems in Tamil Nadu, including corruption, the government’s apathy to the poor as well as the ongoing problems with GST.
Vijay plays an honest doctor, Dr Maaran, who asks why the government, which collects 28 per cent GST cannot provide free healthcare for its poor while a small country like Singapore has done better with better health facilities for its public with lesser taxation. The hero also pointedly says the country needs more hospitals and not temples.
Another scene has the local comedian mock the long queues following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive which left people cashless.
Vijay fans were jubilant as they bathed his massive cut-outs in milk outside movie halls and roared each time he unleashed a particularly unbelievable move in the movie, or played macho, locking horns with bulls at the jallikattu scenes and showed off his mean dance moves.
However, not everyone was a fanboy. The BJP’s Tamil Nadu state unit president Tamilisai Sounderrajan has objected to Mersal and called for censorsing dialogues in the film that criticize or mock the BJP’s recent initiatives like demonetization and the GST.
The senior BJP leader in the state H Raja has reportedly said that Vijay is a Christian, meaning, he is thus open to criticizing a Hindu party like the BJP.
Now Vijay’s fan base is considerable, especially in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, and they often turn into a troll army on Twitter to take down anyone who calls out their star. In 2008 Vijay had unveiled a flag in blue and white for his fan party though he had insisted he was not founding a political party. This time too Vijay’s fans have trolled the BJP on Twitter with #mersalvsmodi hashtag mocking Modi and the BJP for raising objections about their beloved hero. Most of Kollywood’s stars, including Kamal Hassan, have come out in support of Vijay and supported the creative freedom to talk social issues and political matters in movies.
And why not? Tamil Nadu’s film history has enough instances of matinee idols like MG Ramachandran, who as chief minister used his films as propaganda for his party idels. Rajinikanth has in the past caricatured then chief minister J Jayalalithaa in movies that bordered on misogyny. There have been enough Tamil filmmakers who have made movies on vigilantism and criticised public institutions like hospitals or colleges and schools for not serving the public well. Tamil films have openly criticized religion and caste too.
For decades Tamil Nadu’s politics has been governed by two home-grown Dravidian parties and their towering leaders. In the last elections in 2016 the BJP, which joined a cobbled third group of political parties came third, after the AIADMK (44 per cent) and the DMK (23 per cent).
Even as Tamil Nadu has been dealing with political uncertainty following the death of its charismatic chief minister J Jayalalithaa in December 2016, the people have not been keen on the BJP. The party has come in for sharp criticism on the streets of Chennai and elsewhere as a “North Indian party.” Common people and talking heads in the media regularly accuse the central government of being insensitive to local calamities (the Chennai floods in November 2015) and displaying apathy to cultural traditions (like jallikattu, the traditional bull fighting tradition in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu) that led to the wellspring of protest on Chennai’s seafront in January this year when effigies of Prime Minister Modi were burnt.
The BJP is trying hard to make inroads in the state. This is the land where the magic of movies, the fandom of superstars, and the political charisma of politicians coalesce into an inimitable mix. In recent months the two aging superstars of Tamil Nadu, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, have made public speeches indicating the possibility of their entry into politics and speculation is rife that history could well repeat itself in the state as yet another movie star turns politician.
The BJP, seen as a North Indian party with a swaggering saffron profile, has only shown by its inane objection to Mersal that the south, Tamil Nadu especially, is not an easy monolith to conquer, by either threat and bluster. Its own cultural heroes and brand of politics that are not immune to street fights and personality cults know only too well the art of political muscle flexing.
BJP leaders may object, but Mersal is right now getting a lot of publicity that shows its makers and hero in a righteous light in public. It has taken over prime time on regional TV shows right from the morning, where frames from the film rather than the BJP’s tirade, is being aired. Trade pundits say they are counting their monies saying the movie is the second highest grossing film of the year so far.
Thanks to the BJP, Vijay has certainly benefitted from the free publicity. In Tamil Nadu at least, its ‘mersal’ time for movie-makers, GST notwithstanding.