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Controversy Rages On Over Zee5’s Now-Cancelled ‘Godman’ Series; Here’s The Entire Story

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Controversies are not new to the entertainment industry, especially now in India. While many works produced these days are mired in some controversy or the other because they ‘offend’ someone’s sentiments, others garner excessive public outrage, hatred, and ultimately face a ban on exhibition.

The latest to join the list of unofficial bans in India is the fictional web series Godman starring ‘Daniel’ Balaji, Sonia Agarwal, Jayaprakash, and others. The show reportedly deals with a self-proclaimed fake godman whose hankering for money, power, and sex goes on to reveal his true identity. The series believed to be loosely based on real-life stories of fake godmen from around the country was to hit the Over-The-Top (OTT) platform Zee5 Tamil, on June 12. With Elango Raghupathy’s Feathers Entertainment bankrolling the project, Babu Yogeswaran, known for films like Dhass and Tamizharasan, has written and directed the show.

On May 26th evening at 6 pm, Zee5 Tamil took to Twitter to release the teaser of Godman. The teaser had some explicit and intimate visuals of ‘Daniel’ Balaji’s character with a woman, interspersed with forthright dialogues like “Which Shastra says that only brahmin can study the Vedas?” and “The brahmins around me are all scoundrels”. This did not go down well with the brahmin community in TN, and several others, who instantly branded the show Hinduphobic, and one that is defaming a community altogether.

In an immediate response to the backlash, Zee5 Tamil, on 27th, added a disclaimer note along with the teaser, and a behind-the-scenes (BTS) video, which was later released. The note read, “This show is a work of fiction” while leaving the rest of the details intact. Nevertheless, the community added on to the criticism against Zee5 and the makers of the fictional series calling for action from BJP ministers, Hindu parties, and basically from right-wing sympathisers. The groups even decided to protest outside the Zee Tamil office situated in Guindy, Chennai.

A source close to the developments informed Silverscreen that the team of Zee5 was closely monitoring the happenings on social media and charted out a graph, based on the responses. With only about 30% of the crowd taking the neutral stance, the remaining 70% were reportedly not willing to rest until the show was banned from releasing. The original teaser was also removed from Youtube, the platform’s website and social media on May 28th evening.

Following this, a new 30-second teaser, without dialogues and provocative visuals was then released in the wee hours of 29th May by the Zee5 team. Contrary to what was expected, the situation escalated, with cyberbullying and abusing of the makers, Zee5, the actors, and everyone associated with the project, through video recordings. The team received abusive and life-threatening phone calls and was asked to be booked and arrested under various sections.

Feathers Entertainment’s Elango Raghupathy, the producer of the show, told Silverscreen that those opposed to the show have been making endless calls to him since the day the teaser dropped, hurling abuses at the producer and his family. “First I received calls all through the day and even at odd hours. Then I was abused on my Facebook and Instagram handles. This cyberbullying has been on ever since the teaser dropped and doesn’t seem to come to a halt. They have even gone to the extent of bringing in my family into the issue by scrutinising my wife’s Facebook account,” said Elango.

“The fictional series, that is planned over three seasons, deals with a thief who turns into a Hindu godman through manipulation, becomes a kingpin and later falls. While we have no intention of hurting the sentiments and feelings of religious communities or groups, it is rather impossible to not deal with the politics surrounding the community while dealing with the journey of the person. In actuality, it is only incidents and happenings that all of us have witnessed and heard around us that is being converted into a story. If we aren’t allowed to film that, then isn’t the authenticity of the series lost? How do we narrate stories then? What do we do if people can’t differentiate between reality and fiction?” added Elango.

Among the many abusive phone calls that Elango received, the call from the leader of one Rasthriya Sanathan Seva Sangh (RSSS), a Brahmin Association in Coimbatore did the rounds. Ramanathan is heard asking Elango why he produced the series and that if it was his mandate to insult Hindus to gain fame. At the end of the conversation, he cursed the producer and his family for taking up the content.

Reacting to this, Elango said “The phone calls that I’m receiving seem to be monotonous in nature. All of them question me in a standard format. That’s when I realised that half of these callers have been brainwashed by various heads to call and threaten me for a meager fee. Half of them aren’t even aware of the issue, the name of the series or what it’s about. They’re just serving like puppets to their leaders. I had one person name the show as ‘Kudumi’ and one asking me why I have shown Mamooty in such a way.”

“I got a chance to witness the template being circulated. It has the name of the series, the app on which it is streaming, and the Playstore link to it for uninstalling, the things the people need to question, my phone number, and much more. This aggressive culture is appalling but I’m not worried whatsoever,” added Elango.

Ramanthan has a history of making abusive phone calls around controversial issues and making these calls viral. Some years ago, he called TM Krishna and issued a similar threat over Carnatic singers singing Christain hymns.

Recently, news surfaced that an unemployed engineering graduate, Hari (S Hari Ramprakash) had placed pieces of pork in front of temples in Coimbatore. The culprit’s photo that was circulating on social media had been replaced with an old photo of Elango’s inciting violence from other religious communities as well. “They had carefully and purposefully planned and executed this campaign of sorts and viralised it within no time. At a point where all sorts of religious politics is high in the country, they are trying to bring in the lynching culture down South too,” said Elango who added, “I have raised a complaint on this and work is on to pin these spiteful people down. I cannot afford to let this continue.”

Apart from circulating wrong pictures, the groups have also dug up personal and past information about the producer, linking it with the controversy around Godman. Elango did his schooling at Campion Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, Trichy and undergraduate at Loyola College, Chennai. Before turning producer, he worked for the Radio OB Van service at Jesus Calls and was later a part of the popular television network, Vijay TV.

“I have been ridiculously painted in every possible colour. Some say I’m a missionary given my alma matter. Some say I’m a Muslim because of the pork issue. Some have come to conclusions that I’m a Periyarist and Communist based on posts shared on social media. And it isn’t just me. The director and ‘Daniel’ Balaji have also received their share of accusations of being anti-Hindu solely because of their names. I don’t know why all of this is being brought into a work of fiction,” said an irked Elango.

In a recent interview with The News Minute, ‘Daniel’ Balaji spoke about how those offended have associated the ‘Daniel’ in his name with the Christian community, framing him to be someone against Hinduism and Brahminism. “They assume I am Christian and question my intention in playing the role. The ‘Daniel’ prefix in my name actually comes from having played a character with that name in my first role in the TV serial ‘Chitthi’,” said Balaji who essays the role of ‘Ayyanar’. He added, “They first question how I can play the role of a godman when I am Christian, and then allege that I have insulted Hinduism and Brahmanism. And they have come to this conclusion through just a teaser.”

Following these reactions, Zee5 took down all creatives, tweets, and Facebook and Instagram posts associated with the show following orders from Tarun Katial, CEO, Zee Entertainment. The digital platform reportedly did not want any traces of the show on their social media which led to speculation that the show might be cancelled.

On May 30th, in the afternoon, an official response from team Zee5 came in the form of a tweet in its ‘Zee5 Support’ Twitter account. The tweet, in response to the lashing out by an individual, said “ZEE5’s latest Tamil fiction show – GODMAN, is not against any specific community, caste or religion. On the contrary, the content showcased is in the interest of the public at large, in order to keep them well-informed and aware about all aspects across the society. The producers, show & platform, have no intent to offend any religious sentiments.”

The tweet only added on to the furore, with several people stating that they would unsubscribe from the platform and unfollow the accounts associated with Zee5.

Speaking of this, Elango told Silverscreen that the show is sheer teamwork and that Zee5 has commissioned the project in agreement with the content. “This isn’t a project solely produced by Feathers Entertainment and sold to Zee5. The project has involved both parties right from the nascent stage. The management and creative teams of both have obviously been involved in discussion with respect to every dialogue, scene, sequence, casting, and even the costumes of the characters. Only after deep discussion did the process begin and content was produced. So there is no way for an individual’s ideology to creep in during such a deal. We have collectively been loyal to the content produced.”

The same evening, Chandralekha VS, former civil servant, and politician, put out a tweet informing her followers that BJP National Executive member and Rajya Sabha MP, Subramanian Swamy, had spoken to Subhash Chandra Goenka, ex-chairman of Zee Entertainment, who had reportedly assured the MP that the show will be withdrawn and not be aired on the platform.

While no statement was released by the makers, social media influencers/trackers, as they are referred to, put out tweets in support of the show saying that it was about fake godmen like Swamy Nithyananda and did not target any particular community or religion, thereby inviting more hatred.

On June 1st, Elango Raghupathy and Babu Yogeswaran were summoned to appear before the Cyber Crime Cell on June 3rd at 10 am, based on a complaint against them filed by Sivanarayanan Iyer of ‘World Brahmins Welfare Association’. The case was for ‘making denigrating remarks against the Brahmin community in the show’.

Further, an FIR had also been registered against the two for offences including promoting enmity between different groups and attacks upon the religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc of any particular group or class. They have been booked under Sections 63/20 u/s 153, 153 (A), 295A,504, 505 1(B), and 505(2).

Speaking about this, Elango told Silverscreen, “They will try their best to bring me down, but fortunately it isn’t affecting me. Yes, they have asked me to appear before the cell but being a family man, with children, I don’t know how it would be possible given the Corona crisis around us. Anyhow, my legal counsel will take care of it and are in fact already working on it. None of this is going to dampen my spirits and I will make sure my content is exhibited. This is, in fact, lending me more strength to fight for my project.”

On June 1st, in the evening, Zee5 Tamil put out a tweet stating that the show has been temporarily suspended and that Zee5 does not have any intentions of hurting the sentiments of people and religious groups.

“The digital platform Zee5 has been grounded from streaming the series online, but there is definitely no official ban on the show as of now. There is no way I’m allowing the series to not be exhibited just because of these groups. I have the freedom of expression and I will make sure it releases. They are nobody to stop my content,” said Elango.

He added, “When Kamal Haasan made an Islamophobic film, I was completely against the concept. But when they announced a ban on the release of the film, I stood on his side. No creation of art, be it films, web series’, paintings, or even drawings can and should be stopped. In a secular and democratic country, one’s views and ideas must be expressed no matter what. We cannot be a zero tolerant community. If tomorrow, a fictional creation about doctors is made and the doctors’ community lashes out against the creators saying they’re being shown in a bad light, do we go ahead and ban that work of art too? Can we keep killing ideas in this way?”

On June 2nd, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai who’s also producer Elango’s sister started a petition using the popular ‘change.org’ website stating that such backlash and outcry from the public and communities is curbing the freedom of expression of content creators and is an onslaught on the entertainment industry as a whole. Subsequently, the makers of Godman also released a statement from their side.

On June 3rd, both director and producer of the series have reportedly failed to appear before the Cyber Crime Cell at 10 am and have therefore been summoned for a second time. The two have now been asked to appear before the cell on Saturday, June 6th, at 10 am. If they fail to comply, the Cyber Crime Cell officer has announced that serious legal action will be taken against both parties.

While the makers have garnered support from a few, many rabble-rousers are still rooting for the series to not be exhibited at any point in the future.

While the original teaser has been taken down from Zee5’s accounts, Savukku Shankar has posted it to his Twitter handle.

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