The Strike of 1997

  - a TTV Special report by Sandya Krishna -

It has been a disappointing and dull year for tamil cinema so far.  With producers, directors and technicians torn apart by the long standing strikes, the tamil film industry stands still, stunned by how the situation took such a serious turn.  Most of this edition of tamil movie news will be dedicated to describing the current situation in Kodambaakkam and how the entire tamil cine industry appears to be shattered by the vai shandai and sarcastic congratulation bouquets...

A few important terms, just to make reading easier:

FEFSI: Film Employees Federation of South India, which appears to be the meeting spot for 26 different unions representing group dancers, cinematographers, stunt men and even tea boys.

TNCEF: Easier to remember as the group who call themselves Thamizh Padaippaaligal..

Nadigar Sangam led by Actor Radha Ravi

Cinema Artists' Union led by Actor Vijaykumar

The verbal and physical fights and the abusive language is just the beginning to describe this nasty strike which has brought 22,000 workers and 40 films worth over Rs. 125 Crores to a complete standstill.  This entire strike is not about huge groups of workers starving or about producers losing money over films or anything else.  It is about each and every individual's EGO.  The focus is on how one can overpower the other, not on how to work together to make tamil cinema a happier and healthier field. The huge amount of love and respect that we have all had for the tamil cine field may never be same again!..

People do not dispute that this strike had been expected for quite a while!.. Members of FEFSI continued to have ill feelings about the happennings in Kodambaakkam, but kept mum so that the problem would not blow out of proportion. All the grudge, anger and disappointment took vishwa roobam on July 5th, 1997 during Balu Mahendra's, now well-touted production Raman Abdullah.  A deal signed 30 years ago states that Tamil cinema producers and directors should hire only FEFSI workers to work in their films. This being the case, Mahendra hired some non-FEFSI workers to perform some duties on his film. 

Initially, many members of FEFSI along with their leader Vijayan marched to the Raman Abdullah set to point out his mistake, asking him to correct it.   In the huge jagadaa which followed, people claimed that Vijayan yelled out Packup, laying the first steps to what has now become the 'no solution' problem.  Though Vijayan and his FEFSI members had been taunted by Mahendra repeatedly playing some lyrics from a song in R.A., Naan enna sonnaalum ketka maateenga.. pongada ponga.  This Vijayan used as his excuse for the ragalai created at the shooting!..

Soon afterwards, the Producers' council held a symbolic one day strike in support of Balu Mahendra.  This led to a bigger uproar, as Vijayan declared an all-out strike for FEFSI, since the Producers' council had not conformed to rules in the deal signed last year, under Chief Minister Karunanidhi's thalamai.  That deal states that any union in tamil cinema should provide adequate notice to the government and to other unions before calling an official strike (even if it is a symbolic one day strike, as in the case with the Producers' Council)  Inge dhaan ulaga magaa poar arambiththadhu!..

Things really started getting violent, as some producers, directors and actors became extremely tired and impatient with the whole FEFSI vs. rest of Kodambakkam jab-a-thon.   As talks continued between the various groups, especially between FEFSI, Chief Minister Karunanidhi, Producers' Council, and the various tamil cinema groups, the conversations became heated and went out of control. In the center of the violence and chaos, directors K.Balachandar and Bharathiraja presumed they were doing a good deed and created the Thamizh Padaippaalligal Sangam, and the Thamizh Pada Thozhillaargal Sangam.  Bharathiraja and Balachandar began a virulent campaign to recruit FEFSI members and technicians, along side actors, actresses and directors to join their newly formed Padaippaalligal Sangam. Soon afterward, artists and technicians started taking sides, leading to heated and sometimes violent debates over which 'union/sangam' was better..

At some point, many directors and producers did try to resume shooting, but since cameras and other equipment were always being rented from FEFSI headquarters.. more prachchanais.   Films like Periya Idaththu Maapillai and Swarnamukhi surprisingly continued to shoot, but only for a few days, as FEFSI outright refused to loan any equipment to all whom they considered 'traitors.'  One day before shooting, FEFSI Vijayan contacted actor Jayaram, asking him not to go to Pe.Id.Maa. shooting, as he claimed he had so many starving workers waiting for a solution to the problem.  Jayaram retorted: "Naan oruvan nadikaavittaal ungal prachchani theerum yendraal, naan nadikka maatten!  Adhay samayam, ennai nambi padamedukkum iyakkunar, thaayaarippaallar-aiyum paarkkanume, Mr. Vijayan."

FEFSI Vijayan garlanding KamalFEFSI increased its pressure from all ends, which immediately paralyzed the little progress people seemed to have made.  Certain interesting developments led the two big stars in Kodambakkam to eventually participate in the strike happennings.  Many directors, rombave thimirr-aaga, issued statements like "Kamal-um Rajini-yum enna komba?  Nalla director-gal vandhu ivargalai uruvaakkaa vittaal yengayppa indha rendu peyirum?" Soon after these words reached Rajini, he spent close to 30 minutes on a long distance call to Kamal.  A close source to Rajini divulges that Rajini, Kamal Thaangal Yaar yendru padaippaaligal-ukku kaatti viduvadhaaga mudivaanadhu.  The results of this 30 minute talk will be discussed soon.

kamraj.JPG (87579 bytes)But before this phone call, Rajini had called Kamal 15 days before.  He told Kamal that he did not want to be directly involved in the strike, as he feared it might take a very unexpected DIRTY turn if he did.  As he saw the strike problem getting worse, he wanted to desperately find a solution to the problem, so that shooting could begin on August 1st, 1997.  Accordingly, on behalf of Rajini and Kamal, three cottages were rented in Film City to have the negotiations.  After almost 15 hours of continuous talks, both Kamal and Rajini had convinced FEFSI Vijayan to somewhat submit to a new plan: To forget all the incidents of this strike. Create a Thamizh thirai ulaga mempaattu kuzhu which joins FEFSI and Thamizh Padaipaalligal under one umbrella.  Bharathiraja could be the leader of the Kuzhu if he feels so strongly.  The Kuzhu will conduct 'merpaarvai' on both FEFSI and Thamizh Padaippaaligal and will serve in both group's interests.  This, both Kamal and Rajini believed, will decrease the EGO and the 'naan nee' potti manapaanmai that is currently rampant in the industry.

After blowing off packets and packets of cigarettes, Rajini became tired and disgusted, to find that directors refused to go along with the plan, even after FEFSI Vijayan agreed to it.  Very unhappy with the situation, Rajini felt rather disgruntled.  After the directors's comments, "Rajini Kamal yenna komba?".. and the 30 minute phone call, Rajini and Kamal had decided to follow the same "EGO route" as the directors to beat them in the strike.  (Poruththadhu podhum pongi yezhu...)  It was indeed at the juncture, Kamal announced in a press conference on July 31st that he wished to resume shooting Chaachi 420 (remake of Avvai Shanmughi) with the help of FEFSI.  He expressed his kobam and varuththam at the 'superiority complex' demonstrated by the thamizh padaipaalligal director group, as well as the total lack of respect for artists like Rajini and him.

Kamal with Satyaraj, Karthik, Vijayakumar and NapoleanThis created the path for the worst split ever seen in Tamil Cinema history.  In support of Kamal's decision to join and aid FEFSI, actors Vijaykumar, Karthik, Sathyaraj, Prabhu, Chandrasekar and Napolean have also joined FEFSI in aiding Vijayan and some 22,000 workers.



Actresses in support of BharathirajaActors Bhagyaraj, Visu, S.V.Sekhar, Radha Ravi, Arjun, Ramki, Karan, Charuhasan, Actresses Roja, Rambha, Meena, Nagma, Kushboo, Revathi, Sangavi, Oorvasi, Manorama and many others extended their support to director Bharathiraja and the Thamizh Padaippaalligal.

Comedian Manivannan, who was once a director, now a full fledged actor, has kept mum throughout the strike.  People blame his innate communist feelings for his decision.  Napolean made good friends with many of the stunt men in FEFSI.  They seemed to have aided him during his time of dire necessity and he felt obliged enough to join them.  His Guru Bharathiraja netri kann-ai thirandhu vittar!.. Kuttram Kuttrame!.. Similar scenario for Karthik as he had commented: "Amaa sir.. ennai oru director arimuga paduththinaar. Oppukkaren.  Aana, naan irubadhu director-galai arimuga paduththi-irukkiren."

Actresses [Kushboo, Roja, Rambha, Swathi, Eeshwari Rao & Kanaka.]Sathyaraj became the neja 'villain' in many people's eyes. He was caught warning some colleagues, "Veen prachchanai yedhukku.. Moonji-la acid adichcha yenna pannuveenga.. pullai kutti-ya mirattinaa naamma yenna seiya mudiyum?"  But some actresses are not taking it easy. Actresses Revathi, Oorvasi and Ranjeetha are right in the midst of the problem by conducting negotiations between various unions in the tamil cinema industry.  All the three truly believe that a good ending is in sight!

Yet, Kamal experienced the worst case scenario amongst all the stars.  The day after he began his Hindi film shooting, flower wreaths from various directors started arriving at his home.  Each one had the similar looking note with the exact words: Sagodhara paasaththai kaal-il pottu midhiththa kamal-ukku engal nanri.  Within a few minutes, a police truck also arrived, with police officers telling him, he needed their protection.  Kamal was angry, unhappy and confused at this point.  Another person who understood, sympathized and offered support to Kamal and FEFSI was Producer Kunjumon (more on his story later!)


FEFSI Vijayan         Bharathiraja

Today, only two people are considered the biggest villains to inhabit and aatti padachchu-fy the tamil cinema industry.  Indeed, Villain #1 is none other than FEFSI Vijayan.  Born and raised in Madras, Vijayan began his career as a stunt men at a relatively young age of 17.  He continued to serve for over 360 films as a stunt master (which many believe laid his foundation for the villaththanam with which he has run FEFSI)

Since the tamil cinema industry has not been gracious with Vijayan, by giving him plenty of stunt master opportunities, many artists and directors comment that this strike is his 'revenge' tactic.  Obviously, Vijayan disputes this and denies any such 'revenge' motive on his part. He even elaborates on the incident on the sets of Raman Abdullah, as a mess created by Balu Mahendra, in efforts to taunt and kobam mootti-fy amongst FEFSI members.  Vijayan insists that he did not even call for a pack-up, as he felt the word was more 'abasagunam' than anything else.

When asked why so many considered him such a big villain in Kodambakkam today, Vijayan non-chalantly answered: To producer's eyes, I might appear as a villain.. "Engal member-galukku naan yendrum nallavan dhaan". In a more aggressive fashion, Vijayan went as far as claiming: "Pannaththaal ennaiyum en kuzhuvinarai-yum vilai vaanga mudiyaadhavar-galukku naan villainaaga dhaan theriven"

Like many others, Vijayan has plenty of excuses, explanations and chippu kattals in store, when it comes to tough questions.  Several stunt men, who were FEFSI members, were invited to attend an 'aalochanai koottam' held at a kalyaana mandapam a few months ago.  What started as a normal kootam, became a chair throwing, violent encounter, as many FEFSI workers turned furious at the directors.  As always, Vijayan explains that the goal of this kootam was designed to sadhi pannu-fy and dismantle FEFSI.  He adds that the violent incident followed, only after the FEFSI stunt members discovered the real reason for the meeting organized by the directors.

Without a doubt, the biggest gurus and medhais in Kodambakkam predict that the aftermath and recovery from this strike (if at all any solution is remotely in sight!), will take at least ONE YEAR.  But Vijayan again views this differently: "Naangal strike-ai vaapas vaangi kondu vittom.  Engalukku yaar periyavan yendra EGO kidaiyaadhu. 'Padaippalli - Verum Thozhilaali' yendru piriththu paarkka theriyaadhu. Thayaari-ppaallargal dhaan strike-il irukkiraargal."  Vijayan reacts rather calmly to the directors and cinematographers who have challenged to start a Federation, just to oppose him and FEFSI.  He honestly believes that the Thamizh Padaippaaligal or any other Sangam would not be able to establish a union monopoly to start a federation. Moreover, he also states that a federation would require convincing at least 18 unions to join, and if even if this happens, the federal and state laws might not permit for more than one federation in Chennai.

It usually takes more than one person in a union to ruin its reputation and this aptly describes FEFSI's situation.  Beside blaming the leader Vijayan, directors and some technicians point their fingers at FEFSI secretary Paulraj for the current raucous.  Directors matrum Cinematographers-idaiye suLL yendru kobam vandha-dhan kaaranam: Paulraj said that he would break cameras and called "Director-gal mugavari illaadhavargal."  The fact that Paulraj was a member of the cinematographer's union in FEFSI, added fuel to the fire.  After these occurences, the Cinematographer's union tossed him out of their roster. He should have also been fired from his secretary post, but directors' attest: Thanks to Vijayan's kain-garyam, Paulraj was registered into an unrelated union and continued on his post.

Several producers and directors have stated that if Vijayan and Paulraj resign from their positions, they are prepared to continue working with FEFSI right away, and make the 'hale and hearty' Tamil Cine World a reality again.  Vijayan stated that he did not mind resigning, but while discussing this in the FEFSI podhu kuzhu, many members declared their satisfaction with Vijayan's leadership.  They insisted that he should continue, otherwise, they would 'thee kullichchu-fy in protest.'

Villain #2 in this often soap opera-ish strike is Director Bharathiraja.  Not very much different from Vijayan, Bharathiraja has his own brilliant explanations for all his moves during this strike.  He explains that for many years, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Kannada films were together.  It was at this juncture that FEFSI was created.  Since most of the work for films in all these languages happened in Chennai, everything flowed rather smoothly.  In time, Kannada, Malayalam and Telegu films moved back to their respective states, started their studios and unions, leaving Tamil cinema to be the only state without an individual film union, and continuing on with FEFSI.  Interestingly, whenever there were problems in the Telegu, Kannada or Malayalam field, the tamil film industry had no choice but to observe the appropriate strikes.  But when it was the other way around, none of the industries observed strikes on behalf of the tamil cinema industry.  As part of the most baadhichchu-fied film population, Bharathiraja felt it was time for a new union representing tamil films and tamil workers to be created.

Balu Mahendra and BharathirajaThe fact that a bunch of FEFSI members could barge into Balu Mahendra's shooting, bring it to a halt, and have the thunnichchal to ask BM "Nee yenna still cameraman association member-aa.. Card vechchirukkiyaa?," was the kind of adhigaara dushprayogam that Bharathiraja was not ready to tolerate.  He indeed states this as his main reason for creating Thamizh Padaippaaligal.  Yet, director Bharathiraja as a human being, does indeed have a conscience which irks him very much.  Except for a few misunderstandings within his sets, he has never been looked down upon by anyone in Tamilnadu.  Today, people say terrible things about him in public, beat his car to pulp and write in paint on buses "Bharathiraja maranam, dhidheer thar-kollai." This has disturbed him quite a lot, but not as much as when: "Naan peththa pullai-ganu ninaichirundha sila peyiru ennai vittu ponadhu dhaan naan yedhir paarkkave illai." (aka Karthik, Napolean and Chandrasekar etc.?)

The only assurance that BR makes for technicians who refuse to join padaippaaligal in fear of losing their job, is that all directors and producers came from the same koovams and cherys to make it big today.  He promises to sympathize with technicians and workers and vouches: "urimai-yai parikkaamal, avan-ukku vendiya vasadhi-galai seidhu kodu(ppom)"  On more serious issues, BR himself knows that FEFSI Vijayan is actually a good person by nature, but feels his quest for power ivar-ai aatti padai-kiradhu.  Finally, Bharathiraja makes it clear, that his problems are with the amaippu FEFSI and not with its workers/members.  He sternly insists that the technicians and others can continue to be FEFSI members, but they will have to be a Tamil Padaippaaligal member if they wish to work in tamil movies. Furthermore, Bharathiraja feels that, if for any reason, Padaippaaligal fails, "Podhumada saamy"-yendru he would stop taking tamil films.  "Indha muyarchchi thollvi-yaachchu-naa appuram padam panna matten.  Unarchchi vasa pattu idhai naan pesalai.  Ennakkull aazhndhu yosichchu yeduththa mudivu."


As mentioned before, this strike is not really about money, fame and fortune, but rather about each and every individual's ego; yaar perisu mentality.  Therefore, it is not surprising that both FEFSI and Padaippaaligal members have lost sight of the real issue here!  The puzzling aspect is trying to find the real issue behind this strike: More questions arise than answers...

Many predict that big stars and producers will be largely affected if a federation/union was formed solely for the tamil cinema industry.

Why are those stars who are earning in the crores every year dhrogam pannu-fying to FEFSI?  What exactly is it they have against FEFSI?

The prevalent feeling right now is that this is 'revenge' tactic by Director Bharathiraja for the troubles FEFSI created during his shooting of Andhi Mandhaarai last year.  Even worse, FEFSI Vijayan is at the center of this mess, only in an effort to win power again, as the FEFSI thalaivar padhavi elections are expected to occur soon.

If FEFSI workers do decide to leave FEFSI and adopt new membership with the Tamil Thozhillaalargal Sangam, what would they have to do?  According to the rules so far, they are expected to surrender their FEFSI card.  "40,000, 50,00 yendru koduththu vaangina 'urupinar card'-ai koduththu sella yarukku manasu varum."  Becoming a member in FEFSI isn't cheap.  If you join as a: dancer: Rs. 50,000, junior artist: Rs. 30,000, even if you want to be in the tea department: Rs. 10,000. The long standing question is even if these workers do have the heart to submit these very expensive cards, what kind of 'financial substitute plan,' is the Thozhillaalargal Sangam going to institute for them?

Scarier side issues, include some incidents and their repercussions that happened earlier this year.  Around April-May 1997, a vehement protest took place, in an effort to oust Radha Ravi as Chair of the Nadigar Sangam.  After serving for over 13 years as Chair, many artists including RR's own sister Radhika, along with Roja, Nagma, Saratkumar, Chandrasekar,  Rajini, Kamalahassan and many others felt that Radha Ravi should leave and open the position to someone new!.  Enter actor Vijaykumar.  The fact, that Radha Ravi had yekka chakka-maana uzhal kuttra chaattu on his administration of Nadigar Sangam's financial affairs, had more than half of the Nadigar Sangam jump on to the Vijaykumar bandwagon.

Vijayakumar with KamalahassanIt was at this juncture that Vijaykumar started the Cinema Artists' Union, which soon became another union of FEFSI (totalling 26 Unions).  The minute Vijaykumar extended support to Kamal's decision to begin Chaachi 420 shooting with FEFSI workers, many in the Cinema Artists' Union not only jagaah vaangu-fied from the Union, but also went back to support Radha Ravi (who, in turn, supported Bharathiraja.)  If you thought the fight was only between the producers, directors, technicians and unskilled laborers, you are quite WRONG!.. Currently, every artist is for himself/herself in this strike, and the fight between Radha Ravi and Vijaykumar do not make things easier.


Actors and others supporting Bharathiraja

Producers and Distributors are also in the process of working out a plan where they would try to reduce production costs by at least 40%.  In recent years, there are very few willing producers in the tamil industry, since production costs have considerably risen.  By today's standards, a producer needs to shell out at least Rs. 1 Crore to produce what he calls a 'minimum budget film.'  Moreover, distributors are highly skeptical in buying films and screening them (except for the star value in people like Rajini and Kamal), as many mega budgeted films this year, like Iruvar, and Minsaara Kanavu, did not fare even half as much as expected at the box office.  The producers' and distributors' difficulties only further complicate the strike at hand.


***Since the virulent strikes subsided just a little, only a handful of films were released: Raman Abdullah, Nerukku Nerr, Kalyaana Vaibhogam, Pagaivan, Kaadhali, Periya Idaththu Maappillai, and Kaadhal Palli.  Many of these films range from mediocre to pathetic.  Even worse, most of the films above show signs of the strike's immediate negative effects on the picturization and continuity. The scarier prospect is knowing that there might not be a new tamil movie releasing for Deepavali 1997. Maybe K.T.K. is thinking otherwise :-)

***After all the begging and pleading with Art Director Thotta Tharani to leave FEFSI, going to waste, Director Shankar has signed a newcomer, Balu, to be the new art director for his film Jeans.

***Initially, K.S.Ravikumar was asked for directing Kamal's latest (interim production before Marudhanaayagam), Kaadhala Kaadhala.   He was told that the strike would solve itself eventually and that he should proceed with directing.  But KSR stood his ground and refused to direct unless and until an absolute solution was provided for the problem. Singeetham Srinivasa Rao took the director's helm instead!

Meena was offered a role in KK, but she refused to act until the strike came to an end.  It was because Rajini had requested them that both Rambha and Soundarya agreed to act in the film along with Prabhudeva.  Moreover, Rajini has gone one step further and requested two big productions companies in Chennai to begin shooting and extend support to FEFSI workers.  Furthermore, in a rasasiya koottam in his home, Kamal has also indicated that he would begin Marudhanaayagam with the help of FEFSI workers. 

***Insiders whisper that a Maniratnam and Rajeev Menon koottani film is in the works!.. The hero of the film will be none other than Manoj Kumar - Bharathiraja's son.   Interestingly, Manoj has served as Maniratnam's assistant for a considerable number of years.  The fact that all the directors have ganged up together in the directors vs. actors/technicians shandai, has indeed made way for BR's son to enter the tamil cine field with his guru's nal aasi!

Bharathiraja with Maniratnam

***Meanwhile, Bharathiraja plans to take an all-out computer graphics, naveena thozhil nutppam(as he calls it!) konda city-based tamil flick and has already packed off his son, Manoj, to the U.S. to learn the latest tricks and jaalam in the computer graphics field. 

Amongst all the film news, the unfortunate happenings within FEFSI cannot be ignored.  As of today, over 8 people have committed suicide, as they were unable to find a better solution to the strike themselves.  Many have practically orphaned their children with their dismal decisions, leaving many artists like Ajeethkumar (who participated in one of the sava oorvalams) in tears.

Hope this is not the final solution that the tamil cinema industry has provided for all its workers.


MY SOURCES: Anandha Vikatan, Kumudham, Cinema Express..