Mersal is a North Chennai slang term that means zapped. And many people — not merely Tamil film-goers — are zapped by the controversy whipped up by the BJP’s Tamil Nadu leaders, including a Union minister, around the Vijay-starrer Mersal, that opened in theatres last week. State BJP leaders saw red in the hero criticising the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation and so on. Senior BJP leader H. Raja gave a communal twist by insinuating that the punchy dialogues constituted a “hate campaign against (PM) Modi” by a “Christian” actor: Raja’s tweets referred to Vijay as Joseph Vijay, and he claimed that Vijay had sought to hide his Christian identity. Raja picked on a dialogue in which the lead character says that hospitals, not temples, need to be built: “Vijay dared to say that we should build hospitals instead of temples, will he say the same about churches, too?”
The controversy has brought the spotlight on the film: Mersal has been declared a hit. The Tamil film industry, including lead stars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, has rallied around the actor and the film. Tamil cinema has its factions and fan clubs, but it is, by and large, a secular space. Historically, Tamil cinema has been a platform for public debate.
PM Modi believes his pet schemes are for the people, of the people, and by the people. He has pitched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, notebandi and GST as people’s movements. This attempt to break down the distance between the state and the people is, of course, welcome. But policy-making will have to become a conversation between the state and the citizen for such a paradigm to work. The Mersal controversy reveals that the PM’s message hasn’t seeped down the party ranks. Monday’s IT raids on Vishal, an actor who criticised Raja, are unlikely to change that perception.