From Kerala to Tamil Nadu, a lottery king’s safe bets

After the Congress's Abhishek Manu Singhvi burnt his fingers appearing for the controversial lottery agent Megha Distributors in the Kerala High Court, Tamil Nadu Advocate General stepped in to defend owner Santiago Martin. Even as Kerala protested, one man remained unfazed — Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi.

Martin, or the "Lottery King" as he is better known, has after all revived two films based on popular stories written by Karunanidhi, which had been lying in limbo for some time.

This comes at a time when the Congress is raising heat in Kerala over irregularities in Martin's lottery business, allegedly under CPM patronage. There are many cases still pending in Tamil Nadu against Martin over the same matter.

Against this background, earlier this year, Santiago helped revive Ilaignan (Young Man), a film based on Karunanidhi's popular work Thai Kaviyam, which in turn was inspired by Maxim Gorky's Mother. Announced three years ago, with young lyricist Pa Vijay as the producer and hero, it never really took off — till Martin decided to have his own production company.

Now, after a formal launch in Chennai, attended by many including Karunanidhi — who wrote the script, screenplay and dialogues — and producer Martin, the shooting is on at various locations around Tamil Nadu.

"Ilaignan was the first venture by Santiago Martin's production company. Since then, he has taken over the production of another project, Ponnar-Shankar, yet another film that was almost shelved," says a veteran producer requesting anonymity.

Ponnar-Shankar is based on a very popular historical work by Karunanidhi, about two warrior princes who once ruled Kongunadu — present-day Western Tamil Nadu, including Coimbatore — and where they were worshipped as gods.

These are just two of the several scripts that Karunanidhi, a prolific writer in Tamil cinema, has written. Sources in the DMK claim that whatever he earns is given for philanthropy.

The DMK's defence in Martin's case is that he is a legitimate businessman who runs an entertainment channel, despite the cases against him.

The leader in lottery business till 2003, Martin had taken the first hit when the then AIADMK regime headed by J Jayalalithaa imposed a surprise ban in Tamil Nadu — a Rs 14,215 crore per annum market then. But after that, he thrived, and bought the TV entertainment channel SS Music in an attempt at acquiring respect.

He became a familiar name in Kerala in 2002, when the state government allowed conduct of online lotteries. Martin's Smartwin was the online lottery operator for the Sikkim government in Kerala. In 2005, Kerala banned the online lotteries, but Martin managed a re-entry through paper lotteries of Sikkim and Bhutan.

In 2007, CPI(M) daily Deshabhimani accepted a bond of Rs 2 crore from Martin. The severe criticism that followed forced the party to return the amount. In July this year, Congress legislator V D Satheeshan alleged in the state Assembly that the LDF government had illegally given sanction for lottery agencies associated with Martin to conduct new lotteries in Kerala.

While he keeps a low profile now, that's been no setback to the lottery king's empire. His business interests in his pocketborough Coimbatore have grown to include a textile showroom in his wife Leema's name, a nursing college, and recently-floated property firm Martin Promoters.

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