For those outside of South India, a week ago, the word Mersal would have called for a detailed introduction. Today it doesn’t. The leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu with their outbursts against Mersal, have ensured that the film became a National hashtag! I watched Mersal and frankly my take was that it was a regular masala pot boiler meant strictly for the actor Vijay’s fans. Towards the end, Vijay gets into a monologue against the corrupt medical system in the country looking into the camera lens. In between, he also trashes the recently introduced GST with what are clearly illogical and false arguments. Somewhere in the beginning of the film there is an innocuous line taking a dig at Demonetisation as well!
In Mumbai where I watched the film, there was no applause or whistle for the GST lines. Probably there were, in other parts of the country particularly Tamil Nadu. Enough for the TN wing of BJP to take offence and call for muting of these lines in the film. Some other leaders of BJP went further. They dragged the religion to which the actor Vijay belonged – apparently Christianity and pointed out that, it was the reason there was another line in the film where his character says it is better to build a hospital than a temple in the village!
Inane arguments and counter arguments occupied national prime time in the week following Diwali and at the end Mersal, which would have been anyway a super hit became a super-duper hit. I’m certain that remaking rights in other languages will go at a fancy premium now. One can only get Mersalled (meaning “Amazed” in colloquial Tamil) looking at these developments! The particular clip with the GST lines went viral that too with English Subtitles and what was just meant for Tamil Nadu is now being consumed by people all over!
The same last week we saw another “Mersalling” development. A short clip of a mimicry artiste by name Shyam Rangeela went viral on WhatsApp. In that clip, you can see Shyam doing an immaculately close mimic of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This act was originally part of a Star TV show – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. But after the clip attained gigantic viral velocity, the producers decided to edit off this portion. I watched the clip and was “Mersalled” by the talent of this guy. His act of Modi was spot on, with liberal throw ins of Mitron and Bhaiyon Aur Behenon,.. just like how Modi does in his speeches. After this development, I am sure his phone must be ringing endlessly and he has already become a mini celebrity in the highly competitive 24*7 sound bite seeking world!
Those who are tuned to the FM Station Radio Mirchi would be familiar with their very popular satire show “Mirchi Mitron”. In this satirical program again, there was a voice which could be identified with Modi having conversations on current topics with different people. Though this was popular, in a surprising move, this section went off air since early this year.
In all this, there is a clear pattern. Political satire in India is on a ventilator where pulling the plug comes easily. It looks like it’s no longer cool to take pot shots at the ruling party or its leaders. Either the party will take strong exception and flex its majoritarian muscle to come down heavily on the perpetrators of these satire (the Telugu version of the film Mersal is still languishing at the censor table) or eerily the creators develop a sense of self-censorship and exercise restraint (Like in the case of Star TV and Radio Mirchi). In any case, these don’t augur well for a New India! Has New India’s leadership lost its sense of humour? Is political satire so damaging??
In the “Old India”, political satire was thriving and flourished peacefully. In Tamil Nadu, where BJP made a ruckus about few lines against the Government, one gentle man by the name of Cho Ramaswamy used to shred parties and their leaders with his sharp wit, that too for 60 years till his last breath last year. Being a man of multiple talents, he used multiple platforms – from Theatre to films to Magazines to TV to take his political satire to people. In his heyday, he didn’t spare any of the ruling party or its leaders. And naturally Indira Gandhi and her Congress party for most of his life were at the receiving end of his relentless jibes. Never to make a personal attack on his adversaries, Cho used wit, sarcasm and comedy to drive home the point. Later on, he trained his guns on the Dravida parties. The magazine Tughlaq was popular when he edited the same. His TV shows gained high TRPs among middle class Tamils. His plays were usually sold out. And the irony starts here. In spite of Cho’s continuous attack, Tamil Nadu was among the handful states in the country that withstood the Anti-Indira wave in the aftermath of the Emergency in the 1977 Loksabha elections. So, the people of Tamil Nadu enjoyed Cho’s satire but made smart, practical choices while voting in the elections! They used to vote for Congress at the centre and one of the Dravida parties at the state! My point is that people by and large don’t take these political satire seriously. They do enjoy the same but make their own smart choices.
We keep hearing that the New India is about being confident, looking ahead and keeping insecurities aside. But, it looks like the leaders in BJP do not think so. While I am not sure if the Prime Minister is himself against satire trained against him or his party, it is clear that in his party there are those who send clear signals to that effect. And that doesn’t augur well for the New India which the PM is persistently pitching for! So why not he openly invite Shyam Rangeela to perform the Mitron,… act in front of him in a public meeting in his next Man Ki Baat address??? That could be his best tribute to Cho, undisputedly one of India’s best political satirists whom Modi himself considered as one of his mentors and well-wishers!
Postscript: This is now part of folk lore. R.K Laxman had just caricatured Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 war against China in his own inimitable style. Did the TOI editor get a call from the PMO to demand an apology the next day? Well, Laxman got a call from Nehru himself the next day where he told him, “Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”