Why is Malayalam film industry arm-twisting Mathrubhumi? Reasons behind the boycott

The Film Producers Council wants to boycott the group for negative movie reviews, but the reasons for boycott can be traced to the actor assault case.
Why is Malayalam film industry arm-twisting Mathrubhumi? Reasons behind the boycott
Why is Malayalam film industry arm-twisting Mathrubhumi? Reasons behind the boycott

On Tuesday, February 15, 2018, the Kerala Film Producers Association penned a letter to the the Kerala Cine Exhibitors Association, with a strange request. The Producers’ Association, has for over three months now, been boycotting Mathrubhumi - one of Kerala’s leading dailies and TV channels, and they wanted the exhibitors to do the same.

“We do not want to make public the issue we have with Mathrubhumi. However, for very long now, the paper has been, in the name of film reviews, intentionally slandering each and every film just a day after its release. This pattern has even affected the box office collections of these movies,” the letter, written by KPFA President G Suresh Kumar alleged.

The letter went on to say, “Following an incident when employees of Mathrubhumi barged into a specific shooting location and publicly threatened the producers, actors and the crew, we had a meeting and decided to boycott the media house entirely. After the meeting, we have come to understand that Mathrubhumi’s hidden agenda is to disrupt the Malayalam movie industry and we have decided to boycott everyone working in the organisation, until further notice. These instructions have also been given to anyone who is remotely connected to the film industry. We also request your association to cooperate with us by doing the same.”

TNM has learnt that the film industry's attempt to arm-twist the media giant in Kerala did not stem from just negative reviews alone, but from a twisted desire to control a certain narrative.

"Almost everyone from the film industry refuses to speak to our journalists, they don't take part in our TV shows. They have been boycotting us for months now and this boycott applies to the paper, TV and website," says a source who works in a top editorial position with the group.

The sheer size of the Malayalam film industry and the massive clout wielded by the big stars of Malayalam cinema, are apparently insignificant in the face of a single media house's reporting. The association firmly believes that the industry is under threat and the only way to stop this is to do the most convenient thing – curb freedom of press with an organised boycott.

 Negative movie reviews the real reason? 

From the letter, it looks like the association's decision to boycott is based on film reviews that were unflattering. 

The Malayalam film industry or Mollywood, as it's known, is the fourth largest film industry in the country with an average annual turnover of Rs 1.4 billion (2009 estimate), and is used to good reviews from most Malayalam media houses. While many big media players in Kerala only publish 'viewers' reviews', a few others promote movies under commercial agreements. It is only a handful of reviewers who speak their mind on cinema. 

Reliable sources told TNM that FEFKA President B Unnikrishnan was upset with the Mathrubhumi review of his movie Villain, while producer Antony Perumbavoor was unhappy with the review the paper gave for his film Velipadinte Pustakam.

However, the unofficial boycott has been on for months, even before the reviews were out, says a source in Mathrubhumi.

Dileep, the real trigger? 

"It all goes back to February 2017, when an actor was assaulted. Following the arrest of the prime accused, the name of a big star was doing the rounds for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy. It was in one of Mathrubhumi’s talk shows that Dileep’s name was first brought up by a guest. This was in relation to an earlier interview to Deccan Chronicle where the actor (who was assaulted) had alleged that a top actor in Malayalam was taking away all her chances in the industry, as he had a grudge against her. A guest on a prime-time show took Dileep's name and this upset a lot of people. He was arrested only later," the source said.

While several media houses then took an ambivalent stance on the issue, by publishing stories which were against Dileep but also others which took his side, Mathrubhumi firmly stood its ground. Following this, problems intensified as many in the film industry defended their blue-eyed boy from the accusations.

"After Dileep's arrest, we exposed how he was using PR firms to flood social media to change the narrative about him. This angered more people," the source in Mathrubhumi said.

Projecting him as a humanitarian and even a ‘saviuor’ who could never do such a thing as conspire to abduct and assault a colleague, the campaigners were earnest in their attempts to whitewash Dileep’s name.  

 Slight to Antony Perumbavoor 

However, it wasn't just the Dileep coterie that was upset with Mathrubhumi, another incident too contributed to the boycott. 

"The second instance also sparked from a late night talk show in our channel. One of our guests had referred to top producer and owner of Aashirvaad Cinemas, Antony Perumbavoor, as Mohanlal’s former driver and right hand man. The guest, in a statement which is entirely a personal take on the matter, spoke about how drivers become big shots. This angered another section of the industry,” the source added.

The confrontation 

In his letter, KFPA President Suresh Kumar alleged that Mathrubhumi journalists had barged into a film set and threatened the cast and crew.

When TNM asked him what the incident was, he refused to elaborate. 

The incident mentioned in the letter, in all probability, alludes to a scuffle with actor Unni Mukundan in December 2017. The actor lost his cool at a Mathrubhumi News channel crew that came to a movie location and asked him questions about a complaint of sexual harassment filed by a woman against him.

G Suresh Kumar said, “We don’t want to make this a controversy. We have many close friends in Mathrubhumi and we would not like to make the fall-out public. However, we will not be cooperating with the media house until the issue is resolved."

 Boycott against press freedom 

The source in Mathrubhumi told TNM that though the boycott was affecting revenues, they remained convinced in their stance.

"Years ago, we decided to take on Coca Cola when their plant was scheduled to come up in Plachimada district. We knew that revenue which ran into crores would be affected, but that never stopped our journalism," an editor with the Mathrubhumi newspaper told TNM.

MV Shreyams Kumar, Joint Managing Director of the Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing Co Ltd, called the boycott a sign of intolerance. 

“Film reviews are not PR campaigns right? We believe in publishing objective and unbiased reviews, as our first duty is to our readers,” he said. 

Regarding allegations of threatening a film crew, Shreyams said, “This is a very strange accusation. It is hard to believe that this has even happened in the history of this 95-year-old newspaper. We don’t appoint hooligans. They are all qualified journalists who go through a rigorous screening process before joining our media house. So if ever such an incident has happened, it should have been brought to the management’s notice first.”

“We don’t have any problems with them. We also don’t believe in boycott. It is a sign of intolerance. And intolerance does not exist in Mathrubhumi’s culture,” Shreyams asserted

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