Propaganda on a Screen Near You

Entertainment in Tamil Nadu is almost entirely motivated by politics, and the DMK is nowhere near loosening its grip on audiences.

By T R Vivek and K A Shaji

Coming as he does from the Cauvery Delta town of Tiruvarur, DMK patriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi fancies himself as a modern-day, mighty-yet-benevolent Chola ruler (and is often flattered by assorted celebrities as one). If Raja Raja Chola built the majestic and towering Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, now a UN heritage site, Karunanidhi’s architectural contribution is a spanking new cylindrical monstrosity of a state legislature, green compliant and all. At the peak of the Chola dynasty’s might in the first century AD, their kingdom spanned all of South India, extending up to Bengal and even Southeast Asia. Today, the empire of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is slightly short on territory, but the party never fails to remind voters that its writ runs in Delhi, and on matters of such national importance as the telecom policy.

But it’s in the sphere of arts and entertainment, and its deft usage in statecraft, much like the great Chola dynasty of ancient times, where the DMK’s enduring achievements lie. Just as it was with the empire 2,000 years ago, the Dravida party is now the purveyor and protector-in-chief of popular Tamil culture. The various branches of Karunanidhi’s extended family already have a vice-like grip on all things entertaining, and it’s only just the beginning. The family rules Tamil airwaves, a near monopoly player in the TV business, and is getting there fast with films as well. MK Stalin, the state’s deputy CM and patriarch’s heir apparent, has a 33-year-old son Udhayanidhi who turned film producer and distributor in 2008, with a production house called Red Giant Entertainment. Competitive family politics forced his first cousin and Union Fertiliser Minister MK Alagiri’s son Dayanidhi to follow as well. The result: a similar company called Cloud Nine. Two of the biggest blockbusters of recent times have come from their stable.

Dayanidhi Alagiri hit pay dirt earlier this year with Tamil Padam, a Tamil spoof (a la Om Shanti Om) of the 1970s and 1980s Kollywood films. In March this year, Udhayanidhi Stalin trumped his cousin at the turnstiles. His latest release, acclaimed director Gowtham Menon’s Vinnai Thandi Varuvaaya (VTV), is a slickly made candy-floss love story that has become the biggest Tamil hit in the last 12 months.

If it was a case of riding the gravy train for these DMK scions, film production was a matter of logical business expansion for Karunanidhi’s grand nephews, the Brothers Maran, who own the Rs 1,000 crore Sun TV Network. Their movie arm, Sun Pictures, distributed over a dozen films, and has recently landed Kollywood’s biggest catch. Sun is the producer of a top-billed Rajinikanth-Aishwarya Rai sci-fi flick being made on a budget in excess of Rs 100 crore. Not to be outdone, Red Giant will produce the next Kamal Haasan starrer.

The three banners put together have distributed and produced over 20 films in the last two years, and even old-time producers say they are fighting for survival in the state’s media and entertainment market, estimated at over Rs 3,000 crore in revenues. “Very soon, every Tamil film that comes out will be either distributed or produced by a ‘nidhi’. When they decide to produce a film, big-name directors and actors have very little choice but to sign on the dotted line, and when Cloud Nine distributes a film, the unwritten rule is that no other big banner film would be released at least for the next two-three weeks. It’s not the ideal situation for a creative industry to be in,” says a veteran filmmaker who’s worked with the legendary Sivaji Ganesan.

The added advantage that Sun Network and Stalin’s Red Giant have is the synergy their TV channels provide. Promotions of their productions are aired ad nauseam, and then there are rave reviews on TV shows as well.

“The DMK has hit upon a blockbuster of an idea that fortifies them financially to take on their political opponents, while giving them the soft power to influence the electorate’s tastes and choice. The party, or more specifically, Karunanidhi’s family effectively controls TV, films, cricket and even mainstream news media in the state,” says a veteran Chennai sociologist.While N Srinivasan, the state cricket chief, high ranking Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) official and owner of the Chennai IPL team, is known to be fairly close to the ruling family, the print media, pockets of which were trenchant DMK critics not so long ago, seem to have realised the virtues of political compliance. On Stalin’s birthday in the end of February, the Ananda Vikatan group, which runs magazines and makes TV software, published an anthology of hagiographic profiles on the politician penned by leading journalists. Media barons, film stars and well-regarded editors (local and national) all hailed Stalin in an apparent contest to cast him as a posterboy of good governance.

Tamil Nadu is entertainment crazed and has close to 50 round-the-clock TV channels that broadcast programmes with political overtones. There’s political merit in owning an audio-visual medium. Even Vijaykanth, the latest in the line of actor-turned-politicians, is expected to launch his Captain TV channel later this year to take on what he dubs ‘the Goebblesian propaganda’ of the DMK through the Sun TV Network and Kalaingar TV, which Karunanidhi’s immediate family owns.

“TV is the most convenient tool for politicians across Tamil Nadu to address their respective constituencies. So they are launching channels despite the fact that competition in the field is getting tough by each passing day. The heavy financial cost of running a channel is deterring no one,” observes P Radhakrishnan of Madras Institute of Development Studies.

Besides the Sun TV Network, the ruling DMK runs Kalaingar TV, launched a few years ago to weaken the influence of the Maran brothers who had fallen out of favour with the state’s first family. There has been a patch-up since, and the two networks now work in tandem, like a ‘double-barrel’ gun, in the phrase of an advertising agency chief in Chennai. The aim is to propagate the DMK’s ideology and showcase its governance. Characters in several soaps on these channels often make glowing references to the party’s Rs 2 per kg rice scheme or get admitted to rural hospitals under the aegis of a new health insurance scheme.

Caste also has a not so insignificant role. The script for Thekkathi Ponnu, a prime-time soap on Kalaingar TV, is based on life in Thevar society, a coveted ‘vote bank’ in the deep southern districts of the state, and eulogises its martial customs. As a counterpoint perhaps, the AIADMK-owned Jaya TV’s flagship soap Enge Brahmanan, scripted by Hindutva sympathiser Cho Ramaswamy, dramatises the virtues of the Manu Shastra and Vedic Brahminism.

Ground-level control of cable TV networks, gaining which often demands strongarm tactics, completes the dominance. Sun TV controls over two-thirds of the cable market through its subsidiary Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV). Back when the relationship between Karunanidhi and the Maran brothers was strained, the DMK government started the state-run Arasu Cable Corporation (ACC) to break SCV’s monopoly. Why the state needs to run a cable business and distribute free colour TV sets may baffle most economists, but in Tamil Nadu, the political returns are clear and obvious.

On his part, Alagiri started his own Royal Cable Vision (RCV) in the Madurai region. It created headlines for the first time when it blocked out Sun TV and its associate channels in the entire Madurai region. There began the politics of blocking the channels of rivals. The PMK-aligned Makkal TV and Jaya TV still routinely accuse Sun Network of blocking their channels in different parts of the state.

If Bollywood’s ‘reality filmmaker’ Ramgopal Varma wants a new ‘gonzo’ script, he could look at the incestuous cesspool of Tamil Nadu’s entertainment politics. And depending on how well he projects his effort, he may find producers and distributors lining up to back him.

God’s Own Drunk Country

The Kerala government is doing a deft balancing act of selling booze and opening de-addiction centres at the same time.

By K A Shaji

Keralites like to drink. And how! Per person a year, they drink eight litres of the demon drink. The national average is less than 2 litres. As many as 2 million Keralites drink every day, according to the Thiruvananthapuram-based Alcohol and Drugs Information Centre. Around 7 million others do so once a month. The age at which Keralites consume alcohol used to be 19 years in 1986; by 2009, it had come down to 13. Around 14 per cent of the state’s regular drinkers have behavioural problems.

The government loves it. It makes them a lot of money. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation is the monopoly distributor of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) in Kerala. It is the only public sector undertaking that has consistently made profits, which rose from Rs 17.52 crore in 1997-98 to over Rs 100 crore in 2008-09. This alcoholic utopia might not be quite the hallmark of a welfare state, but things got stranger last week when Finance Minister TM Thomas Issac presented the state’s budget. He said the KSBC has been asked to open de-addiction centres for alcoholics. Subsidised healthcare for drunkards would be part of KSBC’s corporate social responsibility.

Concerned citizens in the Marxist ruled state are laughing at the peculiar logic of first creating addicts and then de-addicting them. It is alarming how drunk the population is getting. Last Onam, Kerala’s largest harvest festival that happens during September, Kerala gulped IMFL worth Rs 154.44 crore, an increase of 41.53 per cent over the previous year. Notwithstanding the global recession, sales were an all-time high of Rs 4,600 crore in 2008-09. Ten years ago, it was barely Rs 1,000 crore.

The above numbers are just sales returns from KSBC’s 330 outlets. Add to that the 56 privately owned bars and outlets of the co-operative Consumerfed. If one considers the amount of toddy sold through the 5,000-odd registered outlets, the total consumption would be mindboggling. Arrack, the highly popular cheap brew banned since 1995, flows freely. Its sales value is put at Rs 13,000 crore a year by the state police department. In IMFL, rum sells the most in Kerala, followed by brandy and whisky. The state’s annual liquor business is worth Rs 20,000 crore.

It would take an optimist of gargantuan proportions to believe that a few de-addiction centres solves anything. The government is bankrupt and with liquor being a cash cow, it has no choice but to grow the business. And that means making more people drunk. The contribution of IMFL sales to the state exchequer last year was more than Rs 3,000 crore. That is 25 per cent of the state’s total tax revenue. It gets an additional Rs 150 crore annually from auctioning 5,000-odd toddy shops. Who in his sober mind is going to kill the golden goose?

The Armenian Representative

With no Armenians left in Chennai, an Anglo-Indian takes care of this community’s historic 298-year-old church.

Till six years ago, Michael Stephen was caretaker of the 298-year-old Armenian Church, said to be one of the oldest centres of Christian worship in South India. Then the priest decided to turn infotech professional and left for Bangalore to work in a call centre, and with him went the last of the Armenians, once a sizeable community in the Tamil Nadu capital.

With no one to safekeep the ancient church, the community—there are 275 registered Armenians in India—contemplated bringing in priests from Armenia but the idea was dropped because of the language barrier. That was when the Kolkata-based Armenian Association approached 53-year-old Trevor Alexander, an Anglo-Indian, to be the caretaker. Now Trevor, his wife Loraine and daughter Rebecca live in the church compound, looking after the monument and its rare holy utensils.

Trevor feels there’s nothing strange about a Roman Catholic single-handedly handling the affairs of a church of a different congregation. Every morning, he ensures the church walls are dusted and the altar is cleaned. He also lights candles for the 350-odd Armenians, whose tombs are around the chapel. Every Sunday, Trevor rings all the six church bells at 9.30 am, a tradition that has continued for over 250 years.

Armenian globetrotters come occasionally to the church to kneel before Virgin Mary, in whose name it was built, and offer prayers. Trevor takes such visitors to the Armenian cemetery near Central Railway Station, to Arthoon Road in Royapuram that is named after an Armenian, to the Santhome church where two Armenian tombs are present and other city churches with Armenian ties.

“Only last week, a young visitor from the US told me the Arthoon Road was named after her great grandfather. There are several such Armenians from across the world who come here in search of their roots. Taking them around is also part of my duty,’’ says Trevor.

He says the Chennai church is an integral part of Armenian Christianity worldwide. “Rev Haruthian Shmavonian, editor of the first Armenian journal Azdarar, died in Chennai two centuries ago, and his tomb is in the church complex. He has a saintly status among Armenians all over the world and most of them visit the church whenever they are in India,’’ he says. Tamil Nadu Tourism recently included the church in the list of places with historic value, and so domestic tourists also visit the place on most days.

The Armenian Association, which is planning to celebrate the 300th year of the church in 2012, is not ready to hand it over to any external agency like the Archeological Survey of India. They are happy with Trevor’s caretaking


A Rickshaw with a Website

If you want the services of Chennai’s M Samson, all you have to do is log on to tuktastic.com.

By K A Shaji

There’s no way to confirm it, but M Samson may quite possibly be the only autorickshaw driver in India with a website of his own. The services of this 38-year-old semi-literate, who also doubles as a tourist guide, can be booked online by any Chennai visitor who logs onto tuktastic.com.
Samson failed to pass seventh standard in the local high school but speaks English, German, Italian, French and Japanese, apart from South Indian languages. He also knows the history of every tourist location in Chennai and surrounding Kanchipuram, Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. “I wish to be a model for other auto drivers in the country,” he says.

Samson’s relationship with the cyber world began in the 90s when a Japanese woman tourist helped him open an email account. He immediately printed a business card with the address. In 2006, with the help of a British national named Chris, he launched his portal. Chris was working with an airline company and Samson was on contract service for him for three years. During this time, the auto driver also learned foreign languages from him. On a chance visit to an internet café with Chris, Samson found the Brit had his own web portal. Samson then asked him to create a website for him.

“The site is a huge success. It helps me be in touch with regular customers and expand the clientele. If more customers come on the same day, I arrange friends to look after them,” says Samson. He says his rates are competitive. “Foreigners are not concerned with money but quality. But I charge a reasonable amount from both domestic and foreign tourists,’’ he says. A 12 hour trip with Samson, either to Mahabalipuram or Pondicherry, costs around Rs 800-Rs 1,000, far cheaper than taxis.

Samson grew up in the slums abutting Loyola College in Numgambakkam after poverty forced his family to move to Chennai. “Life was difficult then and it was the Loyola Church which supported us,’’ he remembers. A school drop-out, he worked as a hotel boy and a tailor and only started driving an auto in the early 90s. The father of two school-going children is now general secretary of the Good Will Auto Stand Union opposite the Taj hotel in Nungambakkam in Chennai.

Till recently, Samson operated his website from a local internet café. It was only recently that he was gifted a laptop by Danish national Margaret, who visits Chennai regularly. The site opens with his beaming face and the line, ‘My name is Samson and I am an Auto-Rickshaw driver here in Chennai, formerly known as Madras’. The site gives information about shopping centres and eateries, besides the tourist spots. Besides his recommendations and services, the website also gives you an option to advertise on his rickshaw. And he promises to help get the artwork done.

Once a Comrade

What does it take to start a revolution, then turn your back on it? What does it mean to believe, then to disbelieve? Former Naxalites on why they left the red path.

By K A Shaji

Philip M Prasad was 24 when he planned and led one of the most notorious Naxal uprisings in Kerala in November 1968. He and about 50 others attacked the Madras Special Police camp in the north Kerala village of Pulpally and executed two policemen. The action was meant to force the state government into giving land rights to thousands of poor tenants in the region. After a statewide manhunt in which several of his men were caught either dead or alive, Prasad surrendered. He was tried and sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Looking back, the man who was once one of Kerala’s most wanted men says, “It was an act of total stupidity.”
In 1967, when Charu Majumdar’s Naxalbari revolt rocked West Bengal, young Malayalees were among the first to sympathise with them. They were people like Prasad, from the educated ‘bourgeois’ middle-class, who believed strongly that oppressors had to be ‘eradicated’. Kerala’s young firebrands imitated the Naxalbari attacks in agrarian corners like Pulpally, a hamlet in the northern tribal-heavy district of Wayanad. But despite several high-profile attacks, the Naxal movement died out by the late 1970s. Its rebellions were badly organised and land reforms in the state blunted the edge of the fight. Thirty years on, prison terms and perspective have transformed these comrades, elicited a change of heart. So while Naxalism fights on in India’s Red Corridor, one of its oldest bastions has abandoned the old principles. Former revolutionaries have become practical. Even spiritual.

More than four decades since his involvement in the Pulpally incident, 65-year-old Prasad has a different identity. At Sivapriya, his tiny house in Neyyattinkara, about 22 km from Thiruvananthapuram, nothing links his present with his revolutionary past. Old pictures of Mao have been replaced by a syncretic collection of prints of Sathya Sai Baba, Jesus Christ, Shiva and Ganpati. Looking around his serene front garden of well-nurtured vegetables and rare plants, it is difficult to place Prasad among the 23 revolutionaries who in November 1968 met in Kolkata with Majumdar to float India’s first Naxalite outfit, CPI (ML). This was also the man who protested the Vietnam War by burning a vehicle belonging to the US embassy, which eventually closed its American Cultural Centre and its popular free-for-all library in Thiruvananthapuram. “I’m still an anti-imperialist. But that act was counterproductive and devoid of any valour. Imperialism lost nothing, but readers [lost] a lot,” says Prasad.
It was in jail that Prasad converted into a peacenik. “It was not cowardice but clear transformation. Not only from Mao to Baba but also from guns and knives to the culture of cultivating vegetables,’’ he says. After his release, Prasad’s political career was peppered with contradictions and confusion. He first tried to float a broad non-Marxist Left movement, then joined the Bahujan Samaj Party for a while, before landing in the Shiv Sena. He finally left party politics to become a full-time proponent of Sai Baba. The former Marxist’s most precious possession now is a ring ‘created’ by Sai Baba with ‘his powers’. Prasad is a passionate preacher of Sai Baba’s philosophy and has authored several books on the godman in English and Malayalam. When he’s not spreading the word, the former brigand practises law.

With a lyrical first name like Vellathooval or ‘white feather’, reformation had to come to former Naxalite Vellathooval Stephen. Today, the 61-year-old’s tailoring shop in the heart of Chelachuvadu, a village in the high ranges of Idukki district, is a witness to the almost Biblical transformation that happened to this man, once an expert ‘country bomb’ maker. The tiny space is filled with plaques that quote the Bible, pictures of Jesus Christ, and a dog-eared open Bible that is always available for easy reference. “Following Jesus liberated me from all rigidities,’’ he says.
Stephen was just 19 when he took part in the first Naxal assault in the history of Kerala. According to the plan that November 1968, one group of Naxals led by Kunnikkal Narayanan would attack a police station in Thalassery, a city on the north Malabar Coast, while Prasad’s group would launch a similar coordinated offensive in Pulpally. But the Thalassery attack was poorly orchestrated and turned out to be a damp squib for the rebels. Following the offensive, Stephen evaded arrest and over the next two years became part of several far more successful Naxal groups that killed several rich landlords in the region, one in Stephen’s own village. His run ended in 1971. A country bomb he was manufacturing accidentally detonated causing severe burn injuries and eventually led to his surrender. He was jailed for 11 years. “Today, my opposition is not against any movement but the use of murderous weapons. The culture of murder must end. In that process, only Jesus can lead the world,’’ says Stephen, who travels around the world advocating Christ’s values. But Stephen still has socio-political concerns. “CPM is now full of neo-liberals and anti-Marxists and the party is shifting its focus from the poor and landless. The poor farmers in the country need government patronage and protection.”
Assessing the short-lived revolution, Stephen says he and his contemporaries didn’t pay enough attention to educating society about their principles. A mistake he believes the current band of Naxals has repeated. “The Naxalite actions are failing because they only have kindergarten-level knowledge on armed revolution. They are not getting proper education on Marxism and Maoism.”

Where religion wasn’t a convincing catalyst, economics was. K Venu was a Naxal ideologue who once debated principles with Charu Majumdar himself in Kolkata. In 1970, Venu was on the editorial board of a government publication when he was mistakenly arrested and jailed in connection with various Naxal incidents. The assaults were actually carried out by another group. During the Emergency, Venu’s group attacked a police station in Kozhikode; he was caught again and incarcerated for five years. Jail time led his comrades to God but it only convinced Venu that “a Maoist-model revolution would not succeed in a parliamentary democracy”.
Till the early 1990s he led a peaceable Naxal splinter group that did nothing more than talk tough; he finally disbanded it just about when the Indian economy was liberalised. (In 1996, he contested the Assembly election on a Congress-led United Democratic Front ticket.) Since then this former revolutionary has passionately embraced the principles of free-market economics. “Don’t call me a contractor or real estate promoter. [I’m] just constructing houses and selling them for nominal margins,’’ he says of his new occupation. But in Olarikkara village near Thrissur in north Kerala, architect-cum-engineer Venu has a reputation: good homes at good prices. A multi-faceted man, the 56-year-old zoology major is also the author of Prabanjavum Manushyanum (Universe and Man)—Malayalam literature’s first science fiction novel. His latest literary project is a Darwin encyclopedia to mark the scientist’s 200th birth anniversary.
A staunch supporter of industrialisation, his new-fangled ideas have earned him critics in every quarter, from communists to green groups and NGOs. “It is impossible to infuse democracy into Marxism. Only in capitalism, democrats can find a place. So as a real democrat, I am opposing Stalinism and all of its dogmas,” says Venu.


But not everyone has given up the good fight. They may not carry guns anymore but some comrades have discovered new avenues of protest. Kozhikode resident Gro Vasu and K Ajitha were renowned fighters once. He was a front-of-the-line leader and expert sharpshooter. She was a fearless woman leader in her teens and a Naxal pure-blood: the daughter of legendary revolutionaries Kunnikkal Narayanan and Mandakini.
There are no signs of disillusionment in 70-year-old Vasu’s rented home. In the living room of the two-bedroom apartment that was once the object of fierce police surveillance, Lenin, Stalin and Mao keep each other company in photo frames and through their books on the shelves. After more than 40 years propagating the revolution, Vasu, a Naxal intellectual in the 1960s and 1970s, lives a quiet life with two cats and a dog. A portion of his home is a bookstall that was set up to commemorate the life of Comrade A Varghese, a rebel who died in police custody in the heydays of the Naxal movement.
Like Prasad, Vasu was also part of the attack on Pulpally police station in 1968, but it was Vasu who actually carried out the executions of the two policemen. Released from jail after the Emergency, Vasu became an active trade unionist. In the late 1980s, he held a protest fast to reopen a pulp factory run by the Birlas in Kozhikode. The factory, which was locked out because of labour problems, had more than 3,000 employees. Years later when the same factory was accused of polluting the local environment, Vasu again fasted to close the place down.
He was successful.
“Call me a green Maoist. I too have transformed. No more violent actions but I have no respite from the burning issues of the people.” He doesn’t have much respect for former Naxalites who have abandoned even the vitriol. “I am yet to be attracted by business and devotion,’’ he says. “They all were immature men of wild fancies. They hail from petty bourgeois backgrounds with no direct experience of social realities of that time.” But Vasu’s critics say he’s got a new dangerous cause: terrorism. He’s been condemned for supporting Muslim extremist groups by addressing their rallies and writing for them.

If there was a poster girl for the revolutionary movement, it was K Ajitha. Inspired by her radical parents, the then 16-year-old participated in the Pulpally uprising with Prasad and Vasu. She was arrested after the attack, and after her release in 1977, said goodbye to the movement. Today, the 58-year-old mother-of-one is more concerned about women’s liberation but still proud of her past. “Naxalism may have many shortcomings but it has enriched my life. It provided me ammunition to fight for women,” she says. Anweshi, the organisation she set up, fights for the legal rights of victims of sexual abuse. “Some people say that the movement of the 1960s was a failure. But in my perspective, it made a positive impact. It infused certain value systems in society,” she says.
What ultimately destroyed the Naxal movement in Kerala was the state government’s ‘carrot-and-stick’ strategy—a combination of policy changes that reduced social inequalities and concerted action against fighters. Prasad the old revolutionary has a word of advice for his Naxal descendents: “Marxism is not the sole answer to all social evils. The movement is a battle lost. They must learn from revolutionaries of yore like me who now use knives only to cut vegetables.