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On Sollvethellam Unmai & Responsible Behaviour

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Let’s talk about TV shows. Let’s talk about Talk Shows on TV.

Let’s talk about Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Sollvathellam Unmai.

Sollvethellam Unmai, broadcast on Zee Tamil, brings in regular people who tell the caring, concerned host their deep and personal problems, and let Lakshmy give them solutions.

These solutions – made on the spot, and broadcast for all the world to see – carry with them just the tiniest touch of megalomania, offset by the visible empathy and pity the hosts have for their unfortunate guests, and a generous sprinkling of “social message”. Some will call it moralising.

Tamil Television is not new to film personalities moralising on screen for the benefit of the million viewers. Visu – actor, director, and scriptwriter famous for his ’80s and ’90s films that “delivered a message” – was perhaps the earliest with his popular “Arattai Arangam,” broadcast on Sun TV.  It was a public debate, where participants from across the spectrum could air their views, Visu moderated and delivered concluding remarks – often a verdict on the ills plaguing society. We watched, nodded our heads at the wise and just words, felt ourselves superior and clean for a moment, and moved on to the next week, the next debate, and the next verdict.

Much has changed since Visu’s Arattai Arangam. The sets are slicker, production values have skyrocketed, there’s more money and sponsorship, and the audience has grown.

What hasn’t changed is the moral high ground the host takes as s/he sits in judgement. And the feeling of instant gratification that accompanies these verdicts and solutions.

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Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, and her show Sollvethellam Unmai, has had its share of controversy. You’d expect a public figure – an actress, film director, and TV show host, to have a thicker skin. Being in public demands a bit of brushing off some of the barbs and jibes that come your way. You’d expect the makers of a popular TV show dealing with the problems of the people to accept some criticism, some questioning.

And yet, Lakshmy seems to take everything directed at her personally.

Back in 2015, Vijay TV parodied SU on their popular comedy-game show format. Lakshmy took umbrage at this and filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Police. Later, Sivakarthikeyan’s Rajini Murugan featured a song titled “Ennama Ippadi Panreegaley Ma” – a phrase that Lakshmy uses on her show regularly. Once again, Lakshmy was quick to take offense, and tweeted her displeasure at Sivakarthikeyan. In particular, she was offended that the song did not credit her for the phrase. And felt that the song was an insult at her.

Talk about having your cake and not letting anyone else eat it.

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There was also the incident in which a man committed suicide, allegedly as a result of the show. Lakshmy featured the story of a single mother of two girls, who complained that a close family member was sexually assaulting her daughters. A heinous crime, no doubt. And action needed to be taken against the perpetrator. Legal recourse. A responsible broadcaster, a TV personality, would have advised caution against going public before pursuing legal action. A TV channel and a TV host should have put safety of all the parties concerned ahead of TRP scores and sensationalisation.

However, the show went on air, and the accused committed suicide. This incident attached itself to the show, the flames gleefully fanned on by rival news television channels.

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Lakshmy recently went on a twitter rant against RJ Balaji. The popular radio show host has also appeared in a few films, where his trademark humour – spoofs and parodies, sarcastic one liners – have earned him fans. And some foes.

In the recently released Kadavul Irukkan Kumaru, RJ Balaji enacts a sequence in which he parodies Lakshmy’s Sollvethellam Unmai.

True to form, Lakshmy took offense. Her series of tweets question the role played by RJ Balaji in shaping the opinion of young people, the influence he sets for those watching, what responsible comedy is, and so on. All of these are laced with a background of sermonising – which is also present in the show. Fans of Lakshmy jumped to her support on Twitter, some demanding that RJ Balaji answer, while others questioned his comedy.

RJ Balaji maintained a stoic silence.

There’s this popular notion that comedy needs a “message”. That somehow, it descends on the funny people to change society, cure cancer, climb Mount Everest, solve poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, motivate the youngsters to study for their 10th Boards, and be funny in the process.

There’s also the idea that comedy must be “clean”, by which it must not offend anybody’s sensibilities. I subscribe to a part of this. Comedy ought not shit on people who aren’t privileged. Comedy must not be at the expense of the poor, disadvantaged, under-privileged, for the benefit of the person who has social and political currency. But comedy can, and must, always prick the bubbles of those more privileged, those in the public eye. Comedy that questions the rich, the famous, the popular and the elite, is a political act. And that comedy must be allowed a free rein.

RJ Balaji, by parodying the show, has performed this political act.

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan? Well, she has descended to the level of calling for the class teacher. And again, this is laced with a moral high position. In a Twitter response, Lakshmy alludes, on what basis no one knows, to a “rendu pondatti kaaran” (person with two wives). And why she does not have to answer to them.

Say what?

Who this rendu-pondatti-karan is in doubt. But does it matter to the larger issue of RJ Balaji parodying Lakshmy’s show, and her own “outraged” response to it? Does calling someone names, alluding to their personal lives, questioning their relationships, make for a measured, mature response to a public issue?

This, after Lakshmy admitted that she instigated her fans to “abuse” RJ Balaji.

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Meanwhile, actress Sripriya criticised TV shows like Sollvethellam Unmai, and Kushboo’s Nijangal – modelled on similar lines.

Sripriya called out the actors, and said that there were other courts – civil, family, criminal – in which a solution could be sought first. Srirpriya also requested her fellow actresses to restrict themselves to art. While what each person does with their fame and reach is entirely up to them, there is some truth in Sripriya’s statement. She asks for responsible actions, off-camera, behind the scenes. This is something this writer type person wholeheartedly agrees with.

Ultimately, RJ Balaji will go on and make his films and comic shows, and Lakshmy will go back to her own pulpit and continue to solve, or deliver verdicts on the problems her audience brings her. There may be no long-term impact on either of their lives. But the one thing that worries me and perhaps should worry everyone is that, for all the moralising, pontificating, and judgement-passing that Lakshmy does on her show, she seems loathe to have the same treatment meted out to her. Lakshmy, who expects her “victims” to have a thicker skin, herself has a paper-thin layer easily punctured and scored.

For those of us watching from the sides, those of us trying to make sense of the media – the waters just get muddier and murkier.

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