Vetrimaaran and Suriya's 'Vaadivaasal' sets a new benchmark

Suriya in the first look of 'Vaadivaasal'  

Strange are the twists of literary fortune. When veteran Tamil writer Ci. Su. Chellappa (1912–1998) published Vaadivaasal, a novella centred on jallikattu in 1959, he priced it at one rupee and even gave it free to subscribers of his newly-launched avant garde literary journal, Ezhuthu. It was only decades later, when India Today (Tamil) published it in abridged form in its annual literary number, with K.M. Adhimoolam’s sketches, that it evoked new interest. In 2003, it was published under Kalachuvadu Pathippagam’s imprint with Chellappa’s brilliantly shot jallikattu scene on its cover.

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It is now in its 26th impression — the jallikattu agitation in January 2017 giving it a big fillip — and has sold over 50,000 copies, remarkable by Tamil book-publishing standards. In 2013, Oxford University Press published it in translation (Arena, trans. N. Kalyan Raman). Now, award-winning filmmaker Vetrimaaran has entered into an agreement with C. Subramanian, the author’s son, and Kalachuvadu for a reported seven-figure sum for a film based on Vaadivasal starring Suriya.

Director Vetrimaran

Director Vetrimaran  

Selling film rights is common in the West, but for Tamil writers it remains an elusive, not to mention, treacherous peak. More often than not, their work is pillaged without acknowledgement or payment. Even when the rare scrupulous filmmaker offers a contract, the writer is on a weak wicket. In the dark about the range of rights — which writer can claim to know what ‘option’ means — subsumed under ‘copyright’, they sign on the dotted line.

Tamil writer Ci. Su. Chellappa's Vaadivaasal

Tamil writer Ci. Su. Chellappa's Vaadivaasal  


This is ironic, considering the long history of the relationship between Tamil authors and auteurs. The earliest Tamil social film, Menaka (1935), made within years of the first Tamil talkie, was based on Vaduvur Duraiswamy Iyengar’s novel. In the 1950s, another of Vaduvur’s novels was made into Digambara Samiyar. In the early days of the Tamil talkie, either popular writers were savvier or filmmakers more scrupulous, for a number of films based on novels were made with due acknowledgement and presumably a decent fee. Vai. Mu. Kothainayagi’s name comes to mind here. J.R. Rangaraju and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, known to demand a fee for staging plays based on their work, may well have negotiated reasonable agreements for granting film rights.

Turning the leaves

In the 1940s, the film world attracted many Tamil writers — Elangovan, B.S. Ramaiah, Kothamangalam Subbu, and Pudumaippithan, of whom Subbu was perhaps an exceptional survivor. As an insider, he would have known the ways of the film world, and at least two of his novels — Thillana Mohanambal and Rao Bahadur Singaram (coincidentally, also centred on jallikattu) — were recreated on celluloid.



In the early 1960s, Akilan’s Pavai Vilakku and Vazhvu Enge? were turned into films with Sivaji Ganesan in the lead. Another Sivaji-starrer Vengaiyin Mainthan to be made by B.R. Panthulu was aborted, although Akilan was paid a good advance. It was producer A.L. Srinivasan’s Sharada (1962) that was a turning point. Its storyline was lifted from Akilan’s Snehidhi, as many reviewers quickly spotted. Akilan took the producer to court. Another writer, Jayalakshmi, joined the suit, claiming her short story too had been plagiarised. But the legal intricacies of copyright, it appears, were beyond both the writer’s and his lawyer’s grasp, as Akilan lost, leaving him in financial ruin. (Ironically, Jayalakshmi’s plea was granted: not only was she awarded more damages than claimed but the offending portion too was to be excised.) To add insult to injury, director K.S. Gopalakrishnan sued Akilan for defamation. Having won an unfair reputation as a troublemaker, a bitter Akilan stayed away from the film world. (Although MGR’s last film Maduraiyai Meetta Sundarapandiyan (1978) was credited to Akilan’s Kayalvizhi.)

The Snehidhi case probably emboldened filmmakers. In a most wanton case of plagiarism, A.P. Nagarajan adapted Pudumaippithan’s Vakkum Vakkum to make Saraswathi Sabatham (1966), an injustice compounded by the straitened circumstances of the writer’s family. Well aware of the odds, Pudumaippithan’s widow, Kamala, opted not to fight.

D. Jayakanthan, Tamil writer

D. Jayakanthan, Tamil writer  

In this somewhat bleak situation Jayakanthan stood out, a story he narrates with characteristic swagger in his memoir, Oru Ilakkiyavathiyin Kalaiyulaga Anubhavangal. The writer was exceptionally surefooted in negotiating deals with filmmakers, commanding and receiving his due. That discerning film personalities such as character artiste S.V. Subbiah (the producer of Kaval Deivam, based on Jayakanthan’s Kaivilangu) and A. Bhimsingh, who directed both Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal and Oru Nadigai Nadagam Parkiral, held the author in high esteem must have surely helped.

By this time, however, a jinx took root, adding to writers’ woes: films based on novels, it was believed, bombed at the box office. In this situation, even writers such as the worldly-wise Sujatha were often outwitted by the film world’s chicanery. An oft-recurring theme of Sujatha’s columns those days was the ordeal his stories underwent during filmmaking. That his views changed markedly after he joined hands with Kamal Hassan, Mani Ratnam and Shankar is a different story.

Shady tactics

The film world is murky. It is an open secret that filmmakers encourage assistant directors to lift storylines and set pieces from published literary works while carefully masking their origins. Authors can do little except whine. Given the intricacies of copyright law and the protracted and expensive legal process, no writer dares go to court.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Ki. Rajaranayanan, after initial resistance, took a pragmatic decision when approached by Bharathiraja for the use of a segment from his Gopalla Gramam in the film Mudhal Mariyadhai. Ki.Ra. received both credit and a fee. N.R. Dhasan’s victory in a suit against K. Balachander’s Apoorva Ragangal was exceptional — his lawyer ‘Sigaram’ S. Senthilnathan won him a token one rupee as damages.

Storylines apart, there is rampant filching of well-known book titles too. When a film was titled Kanneer Pookkal, all its author Mu. Mehta could do was shed copious kanneer (tears). More recently, Gautam Vasudev Menon used the title of Sundara Ramaswamy’s landmark poetry collection, Nadunisi Naykal. Neela Padmanabhan took exception to Balu Mahendra’s use of the title of his classic novel, Thalaimuraikal, but to no avail. In the face of such dishonesty, Jayakanthan’s haughty comment, ‘The haves give; the have-nots take!’ when Bharathiraja titled his film Puthiya Varppukal, is perhaps justified.

Rajinikanth with Jayalakshmi (Padapat) in the Tamil film Mullum Malarum directed by Mahendran.

Rajinikanth with Jayalakshmi (Padapat) in the Tamil film Mullum Malarum directed by Mahendran.  

It is in this context that J. Mahendran deserves fulsome praise. Many of his films were based on published novels such as Mullum Malarum (Uma Chandran), Poottatha Poottugal (Ponneelan), Nandu (Sivasankari) and Sasanam (Gandharvan). In a rare tribute, his classic Udhiri Pookkal generously acknowledged Pudumaippithan’s posthumously published novella, Chittrannai, when it was little more than a remote inspiration.

Why has the relationship between the author and the auteur been so fraught? Tamil writers, historically, have been supplicants, dependant on patronage — from chieftains, kings, royal courts, the state, philanthropists. The undeveloped book market can hardly sustain a full-time writer. On the other hand, filmmaking is big business. With big money and all the associated glamour, filmmakers became the new patrons, but without the earlier moral values. To turn a book into a film, in their view, was a favour, for which the author is to be eternally grateful.Even when acknowledgement is given, the contracts are either oral or, when reduced to print, the specified rights give no scope for negotiation — all authors can do is haggle for a few more rupees.

Thillana Mohanambal was adapted into a movie

Thillana Mohanambal was adapted into a movie  


Few authors have the wherewithal to seek informed legal advice. Often, even the mention of such advice becomes a deal-breaker, with filmmakers seeing it as ‘ingratitude’.

Globally, the world of entertainment is changing fast. Film markets are expanding across national boundaries, and digital technology is transforming how films are made, distributed and consumed. As a result, the commercial value of creative products is raising. Earlier contracts, in cases where they were committed to paper, would have simple clauses concerning mainly dubbing and remaking rights in other languages. In today’s changed context, such contracts are inadequate. Agreements now have to take into account animation series, artistic work, audio-visual work, derivative works, dramatic works, modes, media, formats and platforms, musical works, merchandise, underlying works, and territory — to make sense of which an IPR expert is a must. An author’s rights in all these domains need to be protected.

Vetrimaaran is, therefore, a good augury. Two of his films (Visaranai based on Chandrakumar’s Lockup and Asuran based on Poomani’s Vekkai) have been made with due credit to authors. With Vaadivasal, a new benchmark has been set. Hopefully, filmmakers will follow Vetrimaaran’s example. A healthier relationship between author and auteur, based on fairness and defined by law, can only bode well for both the film and the literary worlds.

The writer is a historian and  Tamil author.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 7:11:28 AM |

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