The arrest of an action hero for domestic violence has triggered a bizarre string of events in the Kannada film industry.
Darshan, who stars in blood-and-gore revenge dramas, took his macho image too far when he assaulted his wife Vijayalakshmi and threatened to kill their infant child with his licensed revolver.
The moment he was jailed, influential people in the industry rushed to the hospital where Vijayalakshmi was admitted, and succeeded in getting her to dilute her police complaint. She is now saying she sustained injuries after a fall, and not because she was battered by Darshan.
Something inexplicable happened simultaneously: The Kannada Producers' Association banned actress Nikita for three years, saying she had created a rift in her co-star Darshan's marital life.
For many, the action exposed the male bias in the industry, and a complete disregard for fair play. How could they ban Nikita without giving her any notice or seeking an explanation, especially when there was no evidence of professional misconduct? Now in Mumbai, the multi-lingual actress reacted by saying the decision was harsh and unjustified.
Karnataka-centred website Churumuri conducted a poll asking readers if Darshan was the one who ought to be punished, and as we write, 88 per cent had voted against him.
The post said: "Here is a star who, through his actions, has brought disrepute to himself and the Kannada film industry. Here is a star who through his documented brutality on his wife has shown his criminal and violent side. Here is a star who has not hesitated to threaten his infant-son, instigate his fans, feign illness, and duck the long arm of the law."
An outraged Aravind Swaminathan blogged from San Francisco: "There are plenty of things to infuriate a dispassionate news consumer watching India from a distance these days, but as a fully paid-up Kannadiga, nothing had the same effect on my blood pressure last week than a towering piece of turd called Darshan".
Kannada literature is sophisticated and wins the highest national literary awards, but commercial film production in the language is now largely in the hands of real-estate businessmen, and often reflects regressive values. Kannada was known in the '70s and '80s for its daring arthouse cinema, but the last 20 years have seen little experimentation. Directors like Yogaraj Bhat keep the flag flying with mainstream films (such as Mungaaru Male) that hold out against crassness, but actors like Darshan specialise in underworld sagas that the Kannada middle class prefers to keep away from.
Despite his popularity with some audiences, Darshan hasn't really been in the 'good-taste' league. Son of Toogudeepa Srinivas, a favourite actor in the Rajkumar camp, Darshan is a rich star with a taste for expensive cars. In 2007, he got a Rs 1.5 crore Hummer from Dubai and flaunted it at Bangalore film parties before he had even got it registered. The transport officials promptly slapped a fine of Rs 7 lakh on him.
Some of his films, such as Kalasipalya, have been big hits. Many angry fans took to the streets after he was arrested. The Kannada news channel TV9 showed a school girl who refused to eat till he was released, and a woman, who had his name inscribed on her arm with a blade, proclaiming he was innocent. The controversy acquired caste overtones when Vokkaligas rallied around him, and senior actor Ambarish argued his case with the police. Darshan is a Balija Naidu, but is seen as a successor to the Vokkaliga movie icon Ambareesh.
Munirathna Naidu, the president of the Film Producers' Association that has banned Nikhita, is a real-estate developer and municipal contractor. He was held responsible for the death of a 17-year-old girl in a wall collapse. An inquiry found that he had built the wall without first laying a foundation, and had used substandard material. Munirathna also doubles up as a municipal councillor.
Imran Gowhar reports in Mid Day that Darshan's connections and acting skills helped him skip jail. As he was being escorted in, Darshan collapsed, complaining of chest pain and asthma. He was soon shifted to a hospital outside.
The FIR against Darshan lists many abuses. On Tuesday, when a court rejected his appeal for bail, it cited his history of violent behaviour. Vijayalakshmi's complaint says he tore her dress, bit her ear, brandished a loaded revolver, and threatened to throw their infant son out of the window. Darshan was reportedly counselled by actor Shivarajkumar, son of the Kannada icon Rajkumar, but things only got worse.
The Indian Express, in an editorial, sees in the Darshan episode evidence of the bigotry and bias of the Kannada film world. However, it is not the Film Chamber that has banned Nikita, as the editorial states, but the Film Producers' Association. Nikita, who hails from Punjab, told Reuters the artistes' association was likely to take up her case. Actor-playwright has Girish Karnad described the ban as 'barbaric'. Many others in the industry are now airing their dissent, and it is likely the misguided ban on Nikita will be contested, if not withdrawn.
* Display of arrogance: Editorial in the Kannada daily Praja Vani