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Here’s how the southern Pandavas won Chennai’s filmi Mahabharata

The story and background of the dramatic Nadigar Sangam elections, in which a group of young, progressive actors overthrew a largely discredited old guard on Sunday.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: October 20, 2015 8:33:16 am
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What is the Nadigar Sangam? Why was its election watched so keenly?

The Nadigar Sangam (Actors’ Association), or South Indian Film Artistes’ Association (SIFAA) is a body of more than 3,000 film, drama and TV artistes in Tamil Nadu. It was formed in 1952 by M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, and others to extend educational and medical help to poor artistes and dramatists. The Sangam raised funds and purchased 99 cents of land in T Nagar, Chennai, where a new building was constructed in 1977.
Given the peculiar affinity between films and politics in Tamil Nadu, the Sangam has been a highly political body — and has, over the decades, served as a springboard for filmstars with political ambitions. Sunday’s election generated great interest not only because it involved popular actors, but also because of a bitter disagreement within the Sangam, which led to a very filmi ‘Mahabharata’ between the challenger Pandavar Ani or Team Pandava group, and the incumbent so-called “Kauravar Ani”, or Team Kaurava.

What was the dispute between the two factions about?

In August 2010, SIFAA general secretary Radha Ravi gave Power of Attorney to the association’s president and veteran actor Sarathkumar to sign a joint development agreement with SPI Cinemas, a film production company and owner of a multiplex chain, to raise a building on prime land owned by the Nadigar Sangam Charitable Trust in the heart of Chennai. A seven-storey building was to come up, with a multiplex and one floor for the Nadigar Sangam, which was to also get a monthly rental of Rs 26 lakh. Sarathkumar signed the deal in November 2010.
The president of SIFAA is Managing Trustee of the Nadigar Sangam Charitable Trust. The president, secretary and treasurer are ex officio members of the Trust. Six other members are supposed to be nominated to the Trust board by the executive committee.

According to a suit filed in Madras High Court by Sangam member Poochi Murugan, however, Sarathkumar and Radha Ravi — who is a half-brother of Sarathkumar’s wife Radhika — ran the Trust without appointing the other trustees, and entered into the re-development deal in violation of rules. As allegations of intimidation and attacks on those who questioned the deal gained ground, a strong rebel camp emerged. At the forefront were, apart from Poochi Murugan, five actors: Nasser, Vishal, Ponvannan, Karunas and Karthi, who came to be called the “Pandavar Ani”.

What were the major allegations against the Sarathkumar group?

The rebels pointed to a renewal clause in the agreement, which gave the private firm the option of continuing to lease the property even beyond the initial 29 years, 11 months. Also, the deal was signed by the Managing Trustee with a broken Trust, and the decision was ratified by the general body in violation of rules. The fact that relatives Sarathkumar and Radha Ravi had by then served for several terms without elections irked many. The idea of Power of Attorney for Sarathkumar was termed illegal. No records were produced showing the valuation of the property. In 2012, the High Court said the mismanagement could attract both criminal and civil action, and “all is not well with the functioning of the Trust”.

How did Sunday’s election play out?

The election, for which the High Court appointed an observer, ended in victory for the Pandavar Ani. Nasser beat Sarathkumar for the post of president, and 38-year old Vishal defeated Radha Ravi to become general secretary. Karthi was elected treasurer; Karunas and Ponvannan became vice-presidents. During polling, Vishal was allegedly assaulted by Sarathkumar and his supporters.

The Pandavar Ani victory was a nod for Nasser and Sivakumar, both of whom are seen as fine actors who are also honest, progressive and intellectually gifted. Superstar Kamal Hassan weighed in on their side at a late stage in the campaign, helping them garner support from artistes across the state.

The Sarathkumar camp seemed to have underestimated the threat, and were busy ridiculing the rebels and their cause until days before the vote. Sarathkumar’s wife Radhika mocked Vishal as “Vishal Reddy”, repeatedly raising questions about his reading skills in Tamil. The namecalling and insults did not work; nor did the fielding of the all but out-of-work hero Silmabarasan, the son of T Rajendran, an actor known for making highly dramatic speeches. In the end, the election battle was also about a group of largely 40-somethings taking on 60-plus veterans, and the younger group won out.

What is on top of the agenda of the new officebearers?

Reconstituting the Trust with six other trustees nominated by the executive committee of the association may be the first task on the list. There is likely to be a move towards cancelling the agreement with SPI Cinema, which is possible with permission from the court, which can also set aside the agreement on its own. The demolition of the Nadigar Sangam building in 2010 had triggered emotional reactions from hundreds of artistes, and the new team could press ahead with raising a new home for the association. A meeting of the general body may be called to take a decision on constructing a new building and raising funds for it.

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