Tamil coin crunch leads to suicide

Venkateswaran's death raises fear in Kollywood

NEW DELHI — Indian police are determined to jail the moneylenders believed to be responsible for strong-arming renowned Tamil film producer GV Venkateswaran to the point where he hanged himself in his Chennai (Madras) home on May 3.

In a country with few traditional means of raising film financing, the police fear others in the Tamil-lingo film industry, dubbed Kollywood, may have turned to moneylenders in much the same way that the Hindi-lingo Bollywood industry, based in Mumbai, turned to underworld gangs.

“The money lenders are a scourge,” says a police spokesman in Chennai, adding that two special police teams had been established to uncover the circumstances of the suicide.

Cash-strapped showbiz personalities are known to resort to borrowing from usurers in transactions called benami.

The slippery slope downwards for GV, as Venkateswaran was known, began a few years ago when he backed a Michael Jackson concert that failed to come off.

Then followed a succession of failures including “Alavandanam,” starring a relative, Kamaal Hassan, whose niece is married to GV’s brother Mani Ratnam.

In the West, Ratnam is best known for his movie “Peck on the Cheek,” which is doing the rounds on the film festival circuit and was a runnerup as India’s Oscar entry.

Another failure followed in “Baba,” featuring Tamil star Rajnikanth, who was paid 400,000 rupees ($8,300) — a large amount by local standards. Rajnikanth later repaid the fee when he became aware of the producer’s debt crisis.

GV was banking on his last movie, “Shoka Thangam” (Pure Gold), to pull him out of debt. But it belied its name and was only a moderate hit.

Crushed by debt, GV turned to moneylenders and, according to a press report, unwittingly approached a member of a notorious gang based in the south Indian town of Madurai after exhausting credit lines in Chennai and Mumbai.

He was being hounded by moneylenders known for brutally exacting revenge on defaulters; in fact, police say they believe a usurer gave GV an ultimatum just hours before he committed suicide.

The producer, who friends said had talked of suicide in the past, wasn’t completely destitute at the time of his death.

According to one estimate, he had homes and land worth $5 million, but couldn’t sell them in time to satisfy the moneylenders. The usurers also are believed to have taken over some of his assets, including a seaside property.

While Kollywood may have fallen prey to moneylenders, Bollywood is loosening the underworld’s grip on its finances.

Some of the kingpins, whose extortion methods include murder and kidnapping, have been arrested and media analysts believe that only about a third of Bollywood movies now are made with laundered money.

However, the formerly profitable Indian film industry continues to struggle. Bollywood alone is estimated to have seen losses of about $58 million last year.

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