The decision of the Tamil Nadu government to allow 100 per cent occupancy in theatres, may have drawn fire from the central government, but has been welcomed by both theatre owners, who grappled with the pandemic-induced losses, and several personalities in the Tamil film industry, albeit barring exceptions.
The government’s decision reportedly came after actor Vijay during a meeting with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami urged him to allow theatres to function in their full capacity, for the screening of films slated to be released on Pongal (January 13). Vijay’s film Master is slated for a January 14 release.
Several doctors have questioned the decision of the government on social media, asking why films like Vijay’s can’t be released on OTT platforms.
Actors like Aravind Swamy and Kasthuri have also voiced their concerns against full occupancy.
Responding to the order, the Centre on Tuesday sent a letter to the Tamil Nadu government, asking it to revoke the order.
Theatre owners, however, have put forth a different argument- they say despite the government’s order for full occupancy, they expect only 40-50 per cent of the people to turn up when theatres open.
“We had shut the theatres for the last eight months. The government allowed us to operate with 50 per cent occupancy from November 2020. However, till now both the single screen and multiplex theatres have received only 30 per cent audience. Now the government has given permission for 100 per cent occupancy. It doesn’t mean that the theatres should operate with compulsory 100 per cent occupancy. People are more aware these days and we expect only 40 to 50 per cent occupancy,” said Tiruppur Subramaniam, president, Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association.
Refusing to buy the argument that a film by a mass hero like Vijay would attract a large crowd and thereby it would be impossible to maintain social distancing and COVID-19 protocols at theatres, Subramaniam asked why similar “concerns” are not raised over election campaigns, political meetings and travel in trains and planes.
“People say that we will confine the audience in a closed atmosphere for three hours. If you take railways, people are travelling in an air-conditioned bogey for two days. In flights, they travel two to three hours without any ventilation. Why are doctors or activists not questioning them?” Subramaniam asked.
When asked about safety measures theatres will employ to tackle audience and ensure COVID-19 protocol during the screening of Vijay’s three-hour-long movie (Master), Subramaniam said theatre halls will be thoroughly sanitised between shows.
“Gone are the days where we had five shows. Now we have only four shows in the slots of 10 am, 2 pm, 6 pm and 10 pm. Though the film will be played for three hours, we still have one hour gap in between the shows. We can sanitise each and every seat within that time frame. Besides, all the theatres in the state have temperature check-up devices, while the workers are instructed to wear gloves and headcaps,” he said.
Subramanian says unlike earlier, people now make advance bookings and avoid weekend shows anticipating crowd, and says the behaviour will avoid crowding of theatres.
Is TN government trying to woo Kollywood?
While actor Vijay has come under severe criticism for allegedly goading the government to order the 100 per cent occupancy in theatres, the government’s reciprocation is being termed as a rare act.
The relation between the state government and Kollywood is an interesting one. Despite churning out films opposing the government, it is the government that the industry approaches when in need.
The very first instance when the industry stood against the government was in 1952, during the release of the film Parasakthi, in which Sivaji Ganesan was a debutant. The Congress, which was dominated by Brahmins tried to ban the film, as some of the scenes showed the community in poor light. The dialogues of the film were penned by former DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi. However, the then chief minister C Rajagopalachari allowed the screening of the film, while requesting the Centre to reconsider the certification given to the film. While the request was scrapped by the Congress government, Rajagopalachari’s gesture was remembered.
The next big opposition came during the release of Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban (1973) starring MG Ramachandran. It was the time when MGR was expelled from the DMK. The DMK allegedly tried various measures to stop the film’s release. The government imposed a ban on putting up posters of the film, while S Muthu, the Mayor of Madurai, said he would die by suicide if the film gets released. But despite all the odds, the film got released and became a huge blockbuster. It was the first Tamil film, which had no publicity anyway by posters or advertisements. Interestingly, Muthu later joined AIADMK in 1976.
In 1981, it was MGR’s turn to ban films. That year popular filmmaker K Balachander’s Thanneer Thanneer got released. MGR, who was then chief minister tried to ban the film since it criticised the politicians. It is interesting that Balachander was introduced to the film industry by MGR.
During Jayalalithaa’s rule, two films namely Vishwaroopam starring Kamal Haasan and Thalaiva starring Vijay, both released in 2013, came under the scanner. While the former faced problem due to the pressure of Muslim groups, the latter faced issues since Vijay was then nurturing a dream to enter into politics.
In 2017, Vijay’s ‘Mersal’ caught in controversy since it criticised GST. Besides BJP, the AIADMK too objected over some of the scenes. It is the same AIADMK government that came forward to announce ‘100 percent occupancy in theatres’, upon the request of Vijay.
This is not the first time that an actor or the only actor, who met the chief minister seeking help. Before Vijay, Kamal Haasan sought the help of state government’s interference during the release of his film ‘Virumandi’ (2004). Not only the actors, but also the producer’s council sought the help of the government during the issues of Virtual Print Fee and Nadigar Sangam elections.
“During the period of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, the then top actors had a good relationship with the state government. But in this regime, the same camaraderie is absent. In this direction, Vijay has taken the first step,” said Subramaniam in one of his interviews to a YouTube channel.
One of the producer who criticized the state government’s decision said it is trying to control the Tamil film industry through GST and ticket pricing, etc while the industry is confused to take a stand on full occupancy.
“It is hard to say whether allowing full occupancy is another step by the state government to get hold of the industry, particularly at this point of time. We are in a confused state and unable to take a decision on this issue,” he said.