With money, muscle and political clout, he controls the Tamil film world as producers are sucked into a vicious cycle of debt and payback
On February 05, Income Tax officials raided the properties of a producer, actor, distributor and financier while investigating financial irregularities and tax evasion. The movie in question was Bigil, tom-tommed to have grossed a whopping Rs 300 crore at the box office.
The producer was Archana Kalpathi, the CEO of AGS cinemas and the daughter of renowned film producer Kalpathi S Aghoram. The unnamed distributor on the search list is said to be a builder whose documents have allegedly been recovered from a hideout.
The “highlight” of the search according to a press release issued by Surabhi Ahluwalia, the Commissioner of Income Tax was the seizure of Rs 77 crore of unaccounted cash stashed away by the financier, GN Anbu Chezhiyan. The actor, of course was Vijay.
A day later, it was business as usual in the Tamil filmdom. IT raids are not uncommon in an industry that deals with crores of rupees and it is only natural that an actor who has been throwing subtle hints at stepping into politics gets into trouble with the sleuths.
Fans and a section of the media got busy pointing out how the actor was unfairly targeted, not realising that the outcome of the raids pointed to a larger malaise threatening the industry that the top heroes were equally guilty of fomenting.
With the raids, Anbu Chezhiyan who is referred to as ‘Madurai Anbu’ in film circles, was back in the spotlight.
Anbu Chezhiyan’s family hails from Pammanendal near Kamuthi in Ramanathapuram district. An arid village populated with Seemai Karuvaelam trees (prosopis julifora), the locals are mainly engaged in charcoal making for years, as agriculture had become virtually non-existent.
Anbu’s father, Neelamegham was a simple school headmaster. “Most men in the village receive at least 10-20 sovereigns of gold in dowry when they marry. While the unschooled pawn the jewellery and join the truck loading business, the better educated ones become financiers or shop owners. Being a headmaster’s son, Anbu’s wife too might have come with a fair share of dowry,” says a local resident and a student of Neelamegham.
Locals say Anbu moved to Madurai in the early 1990s. He started lending petty cash to street side vendors and pettikadai owners (small roadside shops) for exorbitant rates of interests.
Business flourished and his clientele changed. He started advancing loans to film distributors in the region and soon realised the potential of the industry. “He was smart and exacting and developed a nexus with a few politicians around this point of time. He is favoured by politicians from both the main political parties,” says a villager.
Anbu Cheziyan’s parents continued to live in Pammanendal. “His father tried to persuade him to settle down in his native place as a Panchayat or block president but Anbu was not interested. His father was a simple man who lived off his pension until the end. He was frugal and disciplined,” he added.
In the latter part of the 1990s, Anbu had become a distributor himself. He started financing aggressively with the money that he made as a distributor. “When you’ve been in distribution long enough, some of your films may hit a ‘jackpot.’ If you lend it on commission, you’ll derive an income from it. Even banks make Rs 200-300 crore of profit. This individual has been in this business for about 25 years; his capital doubles every three years,” Kalaippuli S Thanu, a top Tamil film producer and a long-time patron of Madurai Anbu describes.
“I started hearing his name around 2003-04. He had strong political backing but his power was concentrated around Madurai,” recollects the former head of a renowned production house.
He soon discovered that the film industry needed heavy cash inflow. Producers who were looking for a break from North Indian moneylenders turned to Anbu who is said to have captured the market with attractive interest rates. He made powerful friends in the film and political circles.
“During his initial years, he enjoyed the backing of MK Alagiri in Madurai until he became a power centre on his own,” says the former industry insider. MK Alagiri is the elder son of the late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi.
The IT raids on Anbu Chezhiyan’s premises unearthed important documents like property documents, promissory notes and post-dated cheque leaves that served as collateral for the funds advanced.
Several producers and actors have gone on record to state that they would sign on blank stamp papers before taking out the loan. “Anbu will demand all the documents including the property deeds and lab prints of your film. You cannot release the film until the dues are settled with interest. In case the producer cannot pay back in cash, he will have to part with the area rights to compensate,” the former deputy head of another leading production house that has made several big-ticket movies in Tamil, confirmed.
KE Gnanavel Raja, an established producer and distributor in the Tamil film industry has been articulate and critical of the alleged methods employed by Anbu Chezhiyan and his pack of goons to recover money from his clients.
“Since the early 2000s, Anbu Chezhiyan has been financing films in the Tamil film industry. Tamil cinema has always relied on financiers as films are expensive commodities and nobody could have that much cash in hand. But traditional financiers have been understanding of the pitfalls in the industry and cooperated with the producers. You cannot call up and demean the ladies in the house, abuse or threaten to extract money,” he said in an interview in 2017, referring to Anbu.
Madurai Anbu rarely dabbles in small budget products. “His range will start with Vishal, Simbu, Suriya and so on. Funding will be available for big stars who have a fictitious market. As soon as a movie is announced, Anbu’s side will make a courtesy call conveying his ‘vaazhthukkal’ (best wishes) for the film. The producers end up asking him to finance the project. He will demand the lab letters for a few areas in lieu of which, he will release the funds. He will stay quiet while the shooting is on and kick up a storm closer to the release date unless the dues are settled,” says an industry source.
Chezhiyan’s transactions have long transcended usuries. “Financiers like Anbu are lending money as unsecured loan and, will extract the maximum value for money. So he’s not just after the interest, but also film rights. Madurai Anbu has a firm grip on the theatres in the region and could ensure that your film does not release in the area without his nod,” the production head of a famous production banner revealed.
“No money was taken from Anbu but he sent word clearly threatening that the theatres for which rights are not given to him would be set on fire. He paid for the Madurai rights of a Rajinikanth film at 2 am entirely in cash. His is almost entirely an all-cash deal and so nothing ever gets into the books,” he added.
Industry sources say that the Rs 77 crore recovered during the course of the raid could only be the tip of the iceberg. Madurai Anbu is a favoured financier as he could magically produce large sums of money running to tens of crores in hard cash, instantly. “The producer borrows based on the budget of the film. Anbu has a price for the money he lends. Producers also have an option of borrowing in white or black. The banks or other financial institutions do not lend to the film industry. Private financiers have long exploited the opportunity and hiked up the rates,” an industry source details.
“At a glance, his offer and rates of interests will seem harmless. But by default, certain area rights will have to be given to him or he will grab them through his cronies,” Gnanavel Raja further pointed out. “A veteran film producer like Aascar Ravichandran was arm-twisted into parting with the Tamil Nadu distribution rights of Baahubali 2 that he had legally procured from another distributor who had purchased the same from its producers,” he added while contesting for the President post in the Chennai Kanchipuram Tiruvallur District Film Distributors Association election in 2017.
“If you ask Vishal or Gnanavel Raja now, they will say Annan (Anbu) is a good guy. They needed a scapegoat at that point and they used him,” alleges Kalaippuli Thanu. “I’ve had very comfortable business dealings with him. We need not offer anything in exchange nor are there any difficult terms and conditions, we just need to request and the amount will be transferred via RTGS. He’s not that kind of a person, he’s an innocent person. Many ordinary people have turned producers because of his timely help. If you go to bank, they make you sign over 38 papers. That Thambi (Anbu) is like God, he releases the cheque just like that,” Thanu adds.
“Those who approach Anbu know for a fact that they will not leave empty-handed. The film business requires money in crores. His clients are aware that he has that much of money stashed up and that cannot be completely clean,” cites a resident of Pammannendal.
“When a big-budget film flops, producers are unable to repay and he takes away their assets that were offered as guarantee. Or they borrow some more for another big budget film to make good the losses incurred and repay the debts. He’s got them into a web,” Hansraj Saxena, producer and Proprietor of Sax Pictures told The Lede. “The fault lies with the producer. Is he coming to your office? Why are you running to him? You gave him the key to control the industry,” he says.
“The standard lending rates are 24 to 36%. This is not very high as even builders pay the same rate. Anbu knows how to collect his money, well. For instance, (actor-director) Sasi Kumar owed Anbu around Rs 12 or 14 crore two years ago and my due from him was one crore. The outstanding amount that Anbu owed would be around Rs 2 crore, while the money I lent is still stuck. I attached someone’s property who has not settled their dues since 1991. I have attached their property but the money is still not repaid. Anbu is not asking for hafta or mamool, he’s asking for the cash he’s owed,” another leading financier, distributor and producer in Tamil cinema industry states.
Evidently a man who enjoyed some very special powers in filmdom, Anbu Chezhiyan has preferred to largely stay behind the curtains. He makes rare appearances at press meets and is rarely interviewed. The most useful yet feared man in the Tamil film world who has ruled the roost for close to two decades, has had a brush with the law every now and then.
His name first echoed in the media circles after veteran film producer and director Mani Rathnam’s brother G Venkateswaran was found hanging by his veshti (dhoti) from the ceiling fan at his residence in Harrington Road in Chetpet, Chennai in May 2003. He had incurred severe financial losses and was allegedly being pursued by Madurai Anbu and his men for the repayment of his debt.
Following the incident, the Tamil Nadu Government even brought the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Charging Exorbitant Interest Act, 2003 prohibiting daily vaddi, exorbitant interests, hourly vaddi, kandhu vaddi, meter vaddi or thandal. All of these are local names for different types of interest by private moneylenders, charged at different rates.
In an interview with Tamil magazine Vikatan, Anbu shrugged off all the charges against him. “I was introduced to G Venkateswaran during the making of Tamizhan. I had bought the area rights for Madurai and had collected a huge amount from the theatre owners in the regions and passed it on to GV sir. But the movie did not do well at the box office. I approached him to compensate us for our losses. He told me to wait until his next film Ei Nee Romba Azhaga Irukkai released to pay us back. But the movie flopped. His next film Sokka Thangam did average business but the profits weren’t enough to recompense us. So I demanded the money back. Director Panchu Arunachalam took up the responsibility of settling my dues and got me a few cheques from GV sir. But some of them bounced. The cash he owed me wasn’t much and he had promised to settle them by June. I am not sure why he took the step after that. He was a man who dealt with crores of money every day. His brothers too could have helped him settle what was owed. But the truth is that I have not been able to recover my capital,” said Anbu.
He went on to ask, “If a Marwaari funds a producer, he’s a financier and if a Tamilian does it, he is a Kanduvattikkaran?” (Usurer in Tamil)
Anbu Chezhiyan was said to have disbursed ‘speed vaddi’ credits for a fixed daily interest that may run up to over 30% in the long run.
In 2011, he was arrested by the Madurai police based on a complaint by SV Thangaraj, producer of films like Meesai Madhavan and Sundara Travels. Thangaraj had repaid Rs 1 crore over and above the Rs 20 lakh that he had borrowed from the financier in 2004.
Anbu had confiscated the producer’s property documents and got him to sign on blank cheques and stamp papers. Despite him repaying the loan, Anbu Chezhiyan had usurped his assets worth Rs 2 crore. Police stations refused to register a complaint until the then SP of Madurai, Asra Garg took up the case.
“Prima facie, we knew the complaint was genuine. So we arrested him. We faced unprecedented pressure post his arrest. There were calls from within the department asking us to release him. We got calls from a few top politicians and members of the ruling party to release him,” says a top police officer who served in Madurai at the point.
“Many of my peers even told me, ‘avar bhavyamaana aalu’ (he’s a humble person). Quite clearly he enjoyed the support of powerful politicians and perhaps he was helping them hide their cash too,” he assessed.
In 2017, Anbu Chezhiyan was dragged into the spotlight when his name was explicitly mentioned in the suicide note of B Ashok Kumar, a film producer and cousin of actor Sasi Kumar.
“Our biggest folly was borrowing from Anbu Chezhiyan. He has treated us extremely poorly in the past six months. He threatened to abduct the women in my family. Who could I ask for help? All the chiefs, officials and film body heads are on his side. He cannot be touched,” he lamented in his suicide note.
The Tamil Nadu film producers’ council headed by Vishal lashed out against Anbu Chezhiyan in the aftermath. Police was forced to take action but Anbu had absconded.
“A special team was formed to nab him. So following our information, we looked for him in Theni, Madurai and Bangalore where he was supposedly hiding with another financier for a few days. He seemed to have been tipped off about our whereabouts at every point and he would move from the place before we could even get to him,” a police officer who was part of the special team constituted to find Anbu, said.
The producer’s family later withdrew the case allegedly under pressure.
While the film industry grapples with debts and death traps set by cut-throat financiers, it is perhaps time they introspect and remedy the situation before it gets worse.
“AVM, Roja Combines, Lakshmi Movie Makers, RB Choudhary, Kavithalaya productions, AM Rathnam, Aascar films – most of the older producers are no longer in business thanks to this vicious web of finance and debt,” an industry source exclaims.
Half the budget of a big mass entertainer is set aside for the hero’s remuneration and the rest goes into production. “Heroes should stop taking remuneration six to eight months prior to shoot. For example, an actor wanted to build a house, so he demanded Rs 10 crore in advance, requesting the producer to consider it as his three-movie advance. The interest starts compounding for the producer. There are barely three production houses in business in Tamil now who can cough up Rs 5 crore in advance without borrowing from others,” a prominent distributor and producer, disclosed.
Hansraj Saxena says that producers need to get real about the size of the market for a Tamil film. “Take the case of Rajinikanth for example, he has a market of his own. Producers can exploit it without getting into a financial web. Rajinikanth, Shankar and AR Rahman combo made a film called Sivaji. The film was sold for Rs 3 crore in Hindi. But we (Sun Pictures) made a movie - Endhiran with the same combination adding Aishwarya Rai, which required an additional budget. It was a Rs 150 crore budget. We did Rs 68 crore in Hindi thanks to the unprecedented hype we generated and took Rajinikanth’s business to heights,” Saxena reasons.
The demand from actors and directors to be paid upfront, the high remuneration demanded by technicians and unprofessional behaviour by crew members are some of the factors, being listed by producers, that are bringing Tamil cinema down.
“The director of a big budget entertainer that flopped recently demands Rs 35 crores. Even in Bollywood no one demands that much. I remember a music director wanted to go overseas to compose and was insistent that we booked the same suite that Michael Jackson stayed in,” cites an industry source.
“Until a year ago, (Telugu actor) Mahesh Babu’s business was about Rs 125 crore. Suriya’s is Rs 85 crore. Why is he demanding the same remuneration as Mahesh Babu then? Mahesh Babu is charging much lesser for a Rs 130 crore business than top Tamil heroes like Vijay who demand Rs 50 crore. How is that viable?” asks an industry insider.
“When the director cannot control the production costs, problem arises. There are a few producers and directors who are extremely strict about the production schedules and limit the number of unproductive hours. In the Tamil film industry, it’s common to hear “Saappadu potte azhinjiduvaaru!” (He will be destroyed just by paying for food expenses) If the extra expenses can be checked, it’s good for the film,” says a former industry insider who has helmed some big projects over a decade ago. “A good production controller could help rein in the costs and ensure that the shoot is on schedule,” he says.
However, Tamil film industry is not quick to embrace change. The current model favours the likes of Anbu and made them indispensable while handing over control over a big chunk of the business. Other stakeholders in the business including the top line heroes refuse to engage and expand their market share shying away from marketing their own films unlike stars in the neighbouring states and Bollywood.
“Actors don’t promote their films in their primary market of Tamil Nadu. Salman Khan is a big star. His total business is around Rs 250 to 300 crore. His Tamil Nadu business may be only Rs 3-4 crore. Even for this tiny 1% market, he flies down and does the PR in Chennai for an entire day. Our heroes think they are cat’s whiskers,” a producer cum distributor shares. “Artistes should come on a backend deal and not demand their payments in advance. Directors should stick to budget,” he adds.
In fact, Anbu being hurled back into the news wheel was perhaps a mere casualty in the larger scheme of actions designed to target an actor nurturing opposing political ambitions.
Yet as insiders point out, the Tamil filmdom in its current state is furnishing a conducive eco-system for loan sharks like Anbu who will thrive and continue to prey on the vulnerable.