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June 30, 1997


Trouble brewing

N Sathiya Moorthyin Madras

The problems at Kodambakkam, the centre of south Indian cinema, has been settled: The strike called by the film technicians has been called off, the police has stopped the open warfare between warring camps of the Film Employees Federation of South India and producers and distributors are considering a compromise. But the rumblings haven't ceased and Kodambakkam remains a troublespot-in-waiting.

The recent strike ostensibly began with FEPSI workers walking out of the sets of an under-production film directed by award-winning film-maker Balu Mahendra. The director and producer say they picked a few amateurs because they seemed most apt to play the characters. But the federation argued that only members of the affiliated Junior Artistes Association could be hired for the roles.

FEPSI workers walked out of the sets when Mahendra allegedly insulted their leader Vijayan. The producer and director pointed out that only a director could decide when the day's shoot should end. The federation did not dispute that, but pleaded extenuating circumstances.

The matter was finally sorted out following the intervention of Tamil Nadu Information Minister Mullaivendan, but the producers have decided they will no longer be subject to pressure tactics, and they are pushing for the formation of a separate union, working exclusively in Kodambakkam.

K Rajagopal, president of the Tamil Film Producers Association, points out that Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada producers have to deal only with their local unions, but when they moved to a big centre like Madras they don't have to contend with FEPSI. But Tamil producers, being stuck essentially in Madras, have to deal with FEPSI on a regular basis. Last year, when a Telugu producer had some trouble with FEPSI, Kodambakkam was shut down for two months but Telugu films continued shooting in Andhra Pradesh using local union members.

The Tamil film industry has more problems to contend with. Only recently, there was a public row between South Indian Film Artistes Federation president Radha Ravi and the splinter group led by actor Vijayakumar. Differences between the members of two groups became so acute that they came to blows during the FEPSI general body meeting. The police had to bring things under control.

Vijayakumar, who has the backing of many leading artistes, has been demanding transparency in the running of the federation. But Radha Ravi argues that his first responsibility is repaying the Rs l5 million due to the state government, which funded the construction of the federation's building and auditorium in the early eighties.

Besides these wrangles, there is also trouble between producers and distributors, the latter being bitter about the way Tamil films are failing at the box office.

Barring two Kamal Hasan-starrers, Avvai Shanmugi -- the Tamil version of Mrs Doubtfire which is now being remade as Stree 420in Hindi -- and Indian (Hindustani) -- only two or three small budget films have made the grade in over a year.

Among these are Kadal Kottai from Agathiyan, who won the national award for direction and scripting, and the Karthik-Rambha starrer Ullathai Alli Thaa. Of the more recent releases, Sathyaraj's Vallal, Pishta, featuring Karthik and Nagma, are doing good business. But that's about all.

Even Arunachalam, the much-hyped Rajnikanth film, was only a moderate success. "But given the number of repeat-viewers the film will get over the next five years, we will make it," a industry source assured. Still, even the Mani Rathnam-A R Rehman team failed withIruvar, despite the novelty of featuring Aishwarya Rai in her film debut.

The distributors, who used to grumble about high production costs and disorganised distribution methods, have again called for a tightening of belts. But though many distribution schemes are being mentioned, none has been finalised upon. As undecided is the fee demanded by the top seven stars, though both Rajnikanth and Kamal Hasan had sympathised with the producers and distributors when a similar crisis earlier hit the Tamil film industry three years ago.

For the present, the producers have decided to finish all on-going production work by Monday, and launch no new film until the troubles with the distributors are sorted out. Though distributors dub it 'blatant blackmail," TFPA president Rajagopal says this will give both sides enough time to work out an solution.

All this infighting has left its mark on the industry. Films that were to be finished by June-end have still much work left to be done. And with the festival seasons approaching, producers, distributors and film employees will have to move to some kind of settlement -- and fast.