Interview
“It seems a little odd that one would choose movie theatres as the first choice to start playing the National Anthem to instil a sense of patriotism,” says the actor to TNM.

Arvind Swami is a Mani Ratnam find with signature and critically acclaimed films like Thalapathi, Roja and Bombay. And while that should say all about him, it doesn’t. His early career choice was medicine. Scion of a reputed south-Indian business family, he also carried that mantle till his passion – films - beckoned. A businessperson and a versatile thinker’s actor, Swami spoke to TNM’s Chitra Subramaniam on a host of issues ranging from the Mersal and Taj Mahal controversy to GST, demonetisation and price fixing for cinema tickets. Excerpts:

A few days of rain and Chennai is paralysed. Officials claim they are fully prepared to avert a 2015-like situation when the city was submerged for days. What is your take on this? 

Hopefully, they are prepared. We cannot have a repeat of 2015. We obviously cannot control the weather but we can control our efforts in ensuring that the storm drains and the reservoir release (into) waterways are ready to take the load. Hope proper protocols are in place for release of excess water from reservoirs, should the situation arise, in a staged manner with appropriate warnings to the people along the release channels. This was a major issue during the last floods.

I am not in Chennai as I respond to your questions. If the infrastructure and response by the various government agencies has improved, one must congratulate them for doing their job well.

There's a discussion in the country about the National Anthem being played in cinema halls. What's your view on this?

My father as you know, was very involved during our Independence movement and during the partition. I have always been taught to stand up and sing along to our National Anthem, which I do with great pride.

To me, personally, it seems a little odd that one would choose movie theatres as the first choice to start playing the National Anthem to instil a sense of patriotism.  I can understand the need to play it before Assembly and Parliament sessions, in the Hon’ble Courts every day, maybe in Government offices where decisions are made that will impact citizens; places where the concept of our nation is defined or redefined every day. But starting with movie theatres…? I wouldn’t mind if it’s done after you start this practice in places of national significance as referred above.

Free speech is a subject close to your heart. Can you describe it?

The ability to speak my mind and express an opinion on any topic without being subject to harassment and intimidation for doing so. This liberty should exist as long as there is no hurt intended to an individual or a group. Logical counter arguments, civil in nature, are most welcome.

What do you make of the Mersal controversy - artistic freedom versus state interference?

To me the so-called objection by a certain section to the statistics represented or misrepresented in the movie was an attempt to curb the propagation of the essence intended to be communicated through its dialogues.  My objection was about the reaction that followed requesting a ban, calling out the actor’s religious beliefs etc. From what I understand, the dialogues imply that our public medical infrastructure is not where it should be, considering the tax collected. So why ban something that says in essence that the common citizen is not getting his due. If you are offended about the state of infrastructure, set the ball in motion to make these things better. If you are offended about the misquoting of facts enlighten the public about the right ones. What’s an actor’s religion got to do with anything?

Your views on the Taj Mahal issue and statements of Indians being exploited to build the monument?

Science shows that all of us came from East Africa. We are all therefore invaders of the various topographies on this planet. We drew our lines and named our countries. In a few cases like ours, the guys who left us did that job for us. India as we know it today, did not exist before. We were many tribes and then many kingdoms. These kingdoms fought battles against one another and inflicted their respective ideologies on their conquered subjects. That was accepted practice and relevant to those times. We cannot sit in judgement today of what should have happened then. Our ideology of India, as we know it, has existed for a fraction of the time that these dynasties have ruled this geography.

The monument in question is a beauty. The workmanship is what I see, which is spectacular. Desired by an Indian King and built by many talented Indians.

Wouldn’t Shah Jahan qualify as being Indian even under current Indian law? He was 5th generation, his grandmother and mother were Rajputs as I remember it. His forefathers came into this land just like all of ours must have at some point.  He was as Indian as the people whom he exploited. He may not have been a good person as we sit in judgement, but I don’t think you can deny him his citizenship. So, on what basis are we alienating Shah Jahan from our Indian history and treating him like he didn’t belong here? Every country has had people and practices that they are not proud of, so what? It’s history. We can only study it, not deny it, and definitely not recreate it to our comfort. We must remember that our actions will also be scrutinised in the future.

Cinema ticket price fixing is an issue. Does the state have any role in this? 

We are a free country, leaning towards a free market. The only things that need to be regulated are supply and pricing of essentials. Cinema does not fall under that category. Even the government does not think of it as an essential commodity as essential commodities are not taxed at 28% GST.

Therefore, what is the role of the State in fixing the price of a free market product? It is interference in private enterprise. Let me explain further.

You cannot classify all  ‘Movies’ under a single umbrella of ticket pricing as though they are homogenous products. There are some movies that cost 200 crores to make and others that cost 2 crores. How are they the same product? If they are not therefore the same product, how can they be priced the same? You don’t say all cars should cost the same? …Or all biscuits, or all clothing, or all apartments.

The same applies to movie theatres. Some are situated in prime real estate with investments in state of the art infrastructure while others are situated in lower costing areas with nominal investment in infrastructure. Why should they price themselves the same when the experience is different? For example: You don’t regulate the price of a product like idli, a few hundred rupees when consumed in a 5 star hotel and just a few rupees consumed elsewhere, even assuming they taste the same. You pay for location, convenience, service, infrastructure etc. The choice of where to eat and how much to spend is with the consumer, and the pricing is done by the business enterprise at its own risk.

If the government wants to subsidise ticket costs for the public, they should treat it as subsidy and pay the producers. Why should the government regulate revenue and profits of private enterprise of a non-essential commodity? The citizens of this State are capable of deciding for themselves how much they want to spend on a movie ticket. It is their right to make that choice as much as It is the right of the private enterprise to fix the price of their own product. The market is capable of regulating prices based on demand and supply like all other products.

GST and India emerging as the world's largest single market or massive bureaucratic gestation period with losses to business - what is your take? 

I think that the concept of GST for a country like India is the right choice. We need tax consolidation and transparency that GST brings. However, there are too many tax categories, the choices made in fixing of tax rates on the different categories of products or services is debatable, compliance is cumbersome and the facilitating technology has glitches. If these things can be set right, which should have been done before its launch, it will be beneficial to our country.

Demonetisation - a year later what are your thoughts on this?

I have always felt like a misfit in a system that seemed to reward the law breakers and therefore I welcomed it. It gave me a sense of optimism. I thought that the intention was great.

Lakhs of people stood in queues for hours to collect their money and there was hardly any dissent. That was because people of this country thought that it was for the good of the nation. They were the ones who actually worked hard in its implementation.

The biggest disappointment to me therefore, is what seems to be the failure in its implementation. Why did it fail? Who are those who facilitated its failure? What action is going to be taken against those who facilitated the conversion of black money after the announcement and denied the people of this country the pleasure of a clean-up? What is the result of standing in line for hours every day supporting the implementation of what we believed in?

Answers to these questions will at least be a sign of respect shown for the hardship people faced in supporting its implementation, including many daily wage earners and their families who went without pay for weeks in order to support this policy. Even given the fact that I don’t perceive the results to be positive, I would welcome and support any such initiative in the future that intends to curb black money and corruption, with the optimism that the loopholes in implementation will be thought of beforehand and plugged, the next time around.

The interview was conducted on e-mail