The DMK-led government in Tamil Nadu, led by Chief Minister M K Stalin, is facing significant criticism for its recent move to acquire a portion of the land belonging to Modern Theatres in Salem. The historic Modern Theatres, once a bustling centre for film shoots, have become embroiled in controversy as the government endeavours to install a statue of former Chief Minister and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi on the premises.
The current owners, including real estate owner Ravi Varma, his son Vijayavarman, and other family members, claim they are facing pressure to relinquish a section of the land near the entrance where the government intends to erect Karunanidhi’s statue. Modern Theatre’s owner TR Sundaram had previously engaged Karunanidhi as a scriptwriter for in-house productions.
Varma alleges that the Salem district collector, S Karmegam, has been pressuring them to provide the land for the statue installation. He stated, “There is a threat to our family members, and they would legally face the issue.”
The controversy took a turn when Varma detailed a series of events, including a meeting with Chief Minister Stalin on February 15, 2023. Varma claims that he was asked by the Chief Minister if he was willing to give away the land. Subsequently, officials from various departments surveyed the premises on December 1, 2023, and, without Varma’s permission, the Highways department began demolishing structures.
Varma expressed surprise at the escalation of the issue, stating, “I never thought that this would escalate into such a big problem and receive so many threats and torture.”
The attempted takeover of Modern Theatres’ properties has sparked strong opposition from political parties such as the BJP, Hindu Munnani, as well as the general public and cine historians. The case underscores the delicate balance between preserving historical landmarks and the interests of the current property owners, leading to a contentious debate around the government’s actions and their implications for landowners.
முதல்வர் ஆசைப்படுகிறார் என்பதற்காக ஒட்டுமொத்த அரசு நிர்வாகமும் ஒரு தனி நபரை பழிவாங்குகிறது.
அடுத்தவன் சொத்தை அநியாயமாக அடித்து பிடுங்குவது நியாயமா முதல்வரே ? pic.twitter.com/BYuY9FJzYG
— Selva Kumar (@Selvakumar_IN) December 15, 2023
Amidst escalating tensions over the DMK-led government’s attempt to acquire a portion of Modern Theatres land in Salem for installing a statue of M Karunanidhi, the state Highways Department has entered the fray by claiming ownership of 1,347 sq. ft. The department conducted a survey and erected a boundary stone, asserting that the arch is situated on government land known as “Road Poromboku” on Yercaud main road.
The controversy gained traction after the owners of Modern Theatres, Ravi Varma and family, alleged that they were being pressured to part with the land near the entrance for the proposed statue. Varma disclosed a series of events, including a meeting with Chief Minister MK Stalin in February, during which discussions about the land arose. The district collector allegedly conveyed the government’s intention to install Karunanidhi’s statue at the entrance.
Highways Minister EV Velu initially denied the charge and defended the department’s claim, stating that the arch stood on land owned by the state Highways Department. However, in the face of public outrage and resistance, Velu later clarified that the government had no plans to erect any statues at the site. He emphasised that the arch was located within the department’s land, part of an 8.9-acre plot in Kannankurichi village on the Salem-Yercaud Highway.
Velu explained that the government’s intention was to preserve the old arch as part of the road widening project. The land survey revealed that the arch was entirely within the department’s property, leading to the placement of boundary stones without affecting any existing structures.
Furthermore, unconfirmed sources suggest a political angle to the dispute, indicating that the present owner of Modern Theatres comes from a Congress family with a longstanding political history. The government allegedly seeks to acquire an additional 3.5 acres of land, designated Poromboke, as an intimidatory tactic due to the owner’s refusal to part with the land for the installation of Karunanidhi’s statue.
TR Sundaram in 1935, set up the Modern Theatres. It earned the title of South India’s inaugural major cinema establishment. The Modern Theatres Cinema Company, with a legacy spanning over 150 films in languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, and more, is particularly notable for producing the first-ever colour film. He chose Salem instead of Chennai, fearing Madras would be targeted during the Second World War. He married an English woman but converted to Christianity. He studied in Chennai and London, debunking the Dravidian lies that only Brahmin could pursue higher education.
TN BJP President K Annamalai hit out at Chief Minister MK Stalin for vying for land that does not belong to him by trying to erect his father’s statue. Taking to social media platform X, Annamalai shared a press release ( in Tamil condemning this action.
பிறருக்குச் சொந்தமான இடத்தில் தனது தந்தையின் சிலையை அமைக்க முயற்சிப்பது, எக்காலத்திலும் அவரது தந்தைக்கோ, அவரது சிலைக்கோ எந்த வித மரியாதையையும் பெற்றுத் தராது என்பதை தமிழக முதல்வர் திரு @mkstalin அவர்கள் உணர்வது நலம். pic.twitter.com/vB4GwFq7ZT
— K.Annamalai (@annamalai_k) December 13, 2023
The current owner of Modern Theatres, Ravi Varma, and his family have raised strong objections, leading to a standoff with the state government.
Speaking on the issue, Tamil Nadu BJP President K Annamalai highlighted the historical significance of Modern Theatres, emphasising their role in shaping the careers of prominent political figures, including former Chief Ministers MGR, Karunanidhi, Janaki Ammal, and Jayalalithaa, as well as other notable personalities. Amarar TR Sundaram Mudaliar, the founder of Modern Theatres, was recognised as a pioneer in the film industry, introducing various innovations, such as the first dual role in Tamil cinema, the first talking film in Malayalam, and the first colour films in Tamil and Malayalam.
Annamalai questioned the justification behind installing Karunanidhi’s statue at a location created by the founder of Modern Theatres, indicating potential discomfort for the late DMK leader himself. He suggested that Chief Minister MK Stalin could consider alternative locations, such as Arivalayam or educational institutes associated with the DMK, for honouring his father’s memory.
The BJP leader criticised the government’s focus on renaming and reshaping historical narratives while facing challenges in governance and addressing issues of corruption and family interference. Annamalai urged the Chief Minister to prioritise effective administration over symbolic gestures, pointing out that erecting a statue on land belonging to others would not be respectful to Karunanidhi or the statue itself.
The controversy has raised concerns among the public, with debates unfolding on whether the DMK government’s actions align with principles of transparency and ethical governance. Critics argue that land grabbing charges have been a historical issue associated with the DMK, and the current dispute adds to the party’s legacy.
The discussion has expanded to the broader question of public funds and priorities. Critics question the necessity of spending public taxpayer money on statues, arches, and naming projects after Karunanidhi, especially when the party has received substantial donations. They highlight the need for responsible financial management and express skepticism about the government’s use of public funds for partisan projects.
Hindu Munanni, a cultural organisation, suggests alternative locations for erecting statues, such as the DMK headquarters in Arivalayam, Kalaignar TV, or Sun TV office entrances. The organization contends that the courts have already ruled against the erection of statues in public places and urges the High Court to take suo moto action if the DMK proceeds with its plans.
The debate reflects broader concerns about the misuse of power, historical revisionism, and the ethical considerations of using public resources for political symbolism. As the Modern Theatres land dispute continues to unfold, it has become a focal point for scrutinising the government’s actions, inviting discussions about governance, accountability, and the preservation of cultural heritage.
The incident has fueled a broader debate about the government’s ambitious plans for Karunanidhi’s 100th birth year celebration, involving the installation of statues, pen memorials, and naming buildings after the late DMK patriarch. The controversy underscores the delicate balance between historical preservation, political symbolism, and the rights of property owners, amplifying concerns over potential misuse of power and intimidation tactics.