Ashok Kumar's death: Anbu Chezhiyan and Kollywood's murky cycle of debt

'There is no way we can escape this cycle. We created these monsters,' a producer told TNM.
Ashok Kumar's death: Anbu Chezhiyan and Kollywood's murky cycle of debt
Ashok Kumar's death: Anbu Chezhiyan and Kollywood's murky cycle of debt
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On May 3, 2003, G Venkateswaran, a well-known Kollywood producer and brother of ace director Mani Ratnam, was found hanging at his residence on Harrington Road. GV, as he was known, had produced some of Kollywood’s big hits like Agni Natchathiram and Mouna Ragam. He didn't leave behind a suicide note, but there were strong rumours that the producer, who had been in debt owing to a few flops, had killed himself unable to bear the pressure from film financiers.

It was then that a Madurai-based film financier came into the picture. Anbu Chezhiyan, in a press release, said that he had nothing to do with GV’s death. He added a careful caveat that GV did owe him money, but that it was not a substantial amount and that the late producer owed other financiers huge amounts.

On Tuesday, director Sasikumar’s cousin, Ashok Kumar, who was also managing Sasikumar’s films, hanged himself to death. But unlike GV, Ashok purportedly left a suicide note, one in which he directly blamed Anbu Chezhiyan for causing him trauma through continued harassment.

Ashok’s death has shaken the Tamil film industry. An emotional Vishal Krishna, Secretary General of the Nadigar Sangam and President of Producers' Council, said, “This is a direct warning to all financiers, likeminded people and so-called federations who extort money, more than the stipulated interest and to the (ones) who harass honest producers and family members,” said Vishal.

Curiously, Vishal has signed off as ‘another affected producer’. Vishal, like almost every top producer in the Tamil industry has worked with Anbu Chezhiyan and candidly admits that he owes him money. 

“Yes, I owe him money. I started my association with him a few years ago. But my fight is clear. This is not about money, this is about a life. We are all from the same industry, we are not running away. Why can’t financiers deal with people in a respectable way?” Vishal told TNM.

Ashok Kumar’s alleged suicide note said, “For the last 10 years all the films we have produced have released on time. The only big sin that we committed was to take a loan from Anbu Chezhiyan. For the last seven years, he has been taking interest upon interest from us, but for the last six months he has been behaving in a very derogatory manner. Using his men he has been targeting the women and elders in my house. Who can I go to for help?"

Anbu Chezhiyan and his nefarious ways

Hailing from Ramanathapuram district, Anbu Chezhiyan, settled in Keerathurai in Madurai more than two decades ago. A few who know him told TNM that Anbu had started out as a small time distributor, and later started lending money to financiers. In the last decade, he has emerged as one of the biggest financiers in the industry.

He also started a production company called Gopuram Films and has produced four Tamil movies.

“Almost everyone has taken money from him. Other than AVM Saravanan, RB Choudary and a few others, I doubt there is anyone who has not taken money from Anbu,” a top actor told TNM.

After GV’s death, a few years later, there were murmurs that Anbu had assaulted actor Ajith. However, no legal action was taken. 

Anbu was arrested in 2011 under instructions of the then Madurai Superintendent of Police Asra Garg. The arrest was based on a complaint filed by a film producer called S V Thangaraj who alleged that Anbu had threatened him despite settling Rs 1 crore for a Rs 20 lakh loan.

A police officer, who was a part of the investigation team at the time told TNM that he had never faced this kind of pressure in his career.

 “A top Thevar politician from the ruling party called almost immediately. Then, an actor who was dabbling in politics called. Within a matter of hours, my seniors got calls from eight politicians,” he said.

Anbu, who is believed to have started out under the patronage of many Thevar leaders, now has links with leaders from other communities and many industrialists, sources say.

As his influence grew in the industry, no one dared to file official complaints against him, until recently. CV Kumar, the producer of Kadalum Kadanthu Pokum, went to the Chennai police two months ago against Anbu.

“I was forced to complain. I had paid back all the money, but he kept threatening me,” Kumar told TNM. Kumar had dealt with Anbu for two or three projects.

Financiers like Anbu charge anything between 10 to 20% as interest. “It is all fine if the movie is a hit or there are no delays. But once there is a delay, the interest keeps piling up,” Kumar said.

Even the 2011 case against Anbu in Madurai was closed in 2013. In 2012, Asra Garg was transferred, no chargesheet was filed and there was a mysterious compromise a few police officers knew about.

Conversations with many top producers and actors revealed many such stories about Anbu. 

“There was a film that became a huge hit in 2015. Anbu liked it and offered money to the director to make a new movie. That movie released a year later, but Anbu did not like it. He immediately threatened the director that the money had been a loan and that he wanted it back. The director was forced to sell equipment he owned and repay Anbu. He is disillusioned with Kollywood itself,” a producer told TNM.

Katta Panchayat- The Federation 

In his suicide note, Ashok Kumar said, “All the people like the big shots in the class of officers (police), in the government, Cinema Federation Chief Selvin Raj, are in his pocket. I cannot oppose him.”

The Federation that Ashok has written about is the Film Federation of Tamil Nadu, an ‘unofficial’ body that mediates between producers, financiers and others. Anbu is the defacto leader of this group, according to many.

“What is this federation? There are official bodies willing to help people in distress. Producers who are in trouble should tell the Producers' Council. Ashok was a humble and good man; I wish he had told us what was happening. We will dismantle all these unofficial structures and also talk to banks. This industry cannot go on like this. Long back, there may not have been cooperation, but we are united now,” Vishal says.

The Federation is like a katta panchayat, says one producer. It consists of financiers, distributors and producers. "They decide the terms of distribution for many movies and even dictate release dates. If a producer has an issue with a financier like Anbu they will tell us to solve it internally involving the Federation and not go to police," a producer said. 

Why work with financiers like Anbu?

“Banks don't fund films as there is no transparency in theatre collections. So only this man and a few other loan sharks fund based on theartrical rights for a particular region,” an actor-producer said.

There are two types of lending in Kollywood. The industry calls it ‘negative lending’ and ‘positive lending’.

In negative lending, the film’s rights are mortgaged with the financier and in the other; the producer submits personal cheques as surety.

“I had taken money from Anbu. He made me sign a Rs 100 bond paper with all terms and conditions, two blank pages and I also gave cheques,” a producer who has been in the industry for two decades said. 

Further, the producer alleged that Anbu used to deal only in cash and that his loan "business" has been impacted after demonetisation.

However, in spite of paying back the money for the first film, the producer was allegedly trapped in a cycle of deceit. 

“When I paid back the money I asked him to give back my cheques and the papers I had signed on. He asked me to come to Madurai to collect them. Then he kept delaying it and finally said let’s do one more movie together. In the next movie, I lost money and the cycle went on and on,” he added.

Most producers get into a ‘rolling’ system where the financier keeps rolling money for future projects. With lead actors charging astronomical amounts, it becomes imperative to release a movie on time, while the actor is still in vogue. The balance in the financial transaction is then carried forward to the next movie and it becomes a never-ending cycle.

“I have been threatened that women in my family will be harmed. I am sure I am not alone. There is no way to escape this cycle. We created these monsters. Many financiers are good people who have amicable relationships with people in the industry. The only way out is to make the industry organised, lesser salaries for lead actors and appropriate intervention. Or this won’t stop with Ashok,” a producer said.

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