The Tamil Nadu government is waging a fierce legal battle against the South Indian Artistes' Association, popularly known as Nadigar Sangam, the representative union for film, television and theatre actors in the state. At the centre of the dispute is the election held by the body in June this year to pick new office-bearers.
While the Tamil film industry is inextricably intertwined with the politics in the state, the latest controversy is witnessing the state government throwing its full weight into the battle, with no less than the Additional Advocate General representing the case. So, what explains the government’s keen interest in the affair? And why is the state particularly concerned about this union?
The answer lies in who is contesting the polls this time around and their overt and covert political affiliations.
The players involved
There are two opposing teams. The Pandavar Ani comprises the incumbents: Nassar who is once again up for the post of President, along with team members Karthi and Vishal for Treasurer and General Secretary respectively. With Pon Vannan opting out of the polls, S Murugan aka Poochi Murugan is up for the post of Vice President. Actor Karunas is contesting for the post of the other Vice President.
The term of the office-bearers and actors— including President Nassar, General Secretary Vishal, Vice Presidents Ponvannan and Karunas and Treasurer Karthi— had come to an end in October 2018. However, a general body meeting in August decided to give them a six-month extension. The polls, announced in May 2019, ran into controversy when 61 members complained that their names were deleted from voter rolls and that the postal voter slips did not reach them on time.
The issue was taken up by the District Registrar of Societies, Chennai (South) who deferred the polls. While the Madras High Court ultimately allowed votes to be cast, the counting and declaration of results have been stayed. Earlier this month, the Commercial Taxes and Registration Department issued a show cause notice to Nassar and Vishal, asking why a Special Officer should not be appointed by the state to oversee the responsibilities of the Nadigar Sangam. The notice issued by K Balachandran, Principal Secretary of the Department, said that the absence of a duly-elected committee meant that the day-to-day affairs of the registered society are not managed. Further on Tuesday, the state's Additional Advocate General PH Aravind Pandian argued that the polls were invalid and that the acting body's bye-laws don't allow for tenure extension. In response, actor Vishal's counsel contended that the government was interfering in the affairs of the body by seeking to appoint a Special Officer.
It is pertinent to note that Poochi Murugan is a veteran DMK man in the film industry, and Karunas is also an MLA who won the 2016 polls on the AIADMK symbol. With the factionalism in the AIADMK in the aftermath of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s death, Karunas has had his fair share of run-ins with the party leadership. It may be recalled that Vishal too had political ambitions of his own, when he decided to contest the RK Nagar bye-polls in 2017. When his nomination was rejected after scrutiny, many alleged the hand of the ruling party. The AIADMK ended up losing former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s seat to independent rebel contestant TTV Dhinakaran in an election that was tainted by cash-for-votes allegations.
The opposing team, seeking to beat the Pandavars, have christened themselves the Swami Sankardas Ani after the yesteryear Tamil actor and playwright. Director Bhagyaraj is up for the President's post while producer Ishari Ganesh is contesting to be General Secretary. Actor Prashanth seeks to be Treasurer. Actors Udhaya and Kutti Padmini are contesting for the two Vice President posts.
Among the team members, Ishari Ganesh, who is also the Chancellor of Vels University, is perceived to be close to the ruling party. In a shocking case in July, a suo moto criminal contempt petition was filed against Ganesh and his advocate friend Anantharaman by Justice Anand Venkatesh for attempting to influence the Madras High Court judge to pass orders in their favour. Ganesh wanted a special hearing scheduled to hear Vishal’s petition on conducting Nadigar Sangam elections on time, to be postponed, thereby pushing the date of the elections. Ganesh had to tender an unconditional apology and pay Rs 10 lakh to the Legal Services Authority.
‘Ruling parties trying to silence us’
Sources in the Vishal camp allege that the legal battle is politically motivated. They point out that the complainants against the Nadigar Sangam’s conduct of elections are all persons closely linked to actor Radha Ravi, who heads the Tamil Nadu Dubbing Union.
After he was suspended by the DMK for passing derogatory remarks against top actor Nayanthara in March this year, Radha Ravi, a staunch critic of Vishal’s team, met with Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and re-joined the AIADMK in June.
“Radha Ravi and actor Sarath Kumar were running the Nadigar Sangam for over two decades until they were defeated by the Pandavar Ani which first made waves in 2015. Since then, Radha Ravi, S Ve Shekher and others have been gradually sidelined. They have since found their calling with the ruling party at the national level (the BJP) and state level (the AIADMK) so they are attempting to pressure us with a legal fight. The show cause notice was issued based on a complaint given by members MRR Santhanam, former office bearer Radha Ravi's brother, and M Chitralekha, an actor from Radha Ravi's troupe. Considering the reach of actors in Tamil Nadu, they would like to clip our wings like they have done in Bollywood,” claims one member of the team.
‘No politics involved’
Ishari Ganesh’s team, on the other hand, has denied being politically motivated, stating that their members come from many party affiliations. As part of their campaign, Ganesh’s team primarily launched an attack on Vishal and his alleged absences from several committee meetings. Ganesh has said that he was compelled to contest in the polls after the building that the Pandavar Ani promised to build was not completed. They have also blamed actors Nassar and Karthi for not keeping Vishal ‘in check’.
When asked if this was an attempt by political parties to gain control, Ishari Ganesh tells TNM that that is not at all the case. “Nothing is politically motivated. How can it be politically motivated? It's the Nadigar Sangam. The elections violated (the rules). They conducted the elections after their period, that itself is wrong. That is what the government is saying: as per the Tamil Nadu Societies Registration Act of 1975, it is wrong. The hearing is still going on. From our side, we have not gone to the court. The Swami Sankardas Ani has not even filed any case. These have been filed by people expelled from the Nadigar Sangam. Court case is in no way connected to us,” he said.