Nothing anti-Muslim about Vishwaroopam

Undaunted Kamal Haasan addresses the media outside his office in Chennai, Photo: Reuters
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The U/A certificate was issued to Vishwaroopam without any application of mind,” claimed the Tamil Nadu government in the Madras High Court, defending the ban on the film. What’s more, it alleged that the certification of films itself was a “very big scam that required a full-fledged probe”.

The judge did not find merit in the ­argument and allowed an interim release late on the night of 29 January. In less than 24 hours, the release was stayed again after the Tamil Nadu government appealed against it. Kamal Haasan, who has written, produced and directed Vishwaroopam, ­besides playing the lead role in it, could now approach the Supreme Court.

The strong words used by the government’s counsel, however, point to a larger motive behind the J Jayalalithaa government preventing Kamal Haasan from ­entertaining his fans on the big screen in Tamil Nadu.

Kamal, who pledged all his property to fund Vishwaroopam, says he along with his “Muslim brothers” have been “trashed in a political game”. Even though he says he does not know who is behind it, it’s not difficult to guess who Kamal is hinting at.

Political analyst Gnani Sankaran says, “Jayalalithaa is trying to corner the Muslim votes with the 2014 General Elections a year away. By attacking the censor board, a statutory body, she is actually belittling the Centre, taking her antagonistic stand against the UPA a step further. She is using this ­opportunity to show that the Central ­government is insensitive to Muslim ­concerns. But I doubt if such steps will ­actually help anyone politically because the average movie buff knows it is just a film.”

The others have been no better. The same desire to pander to the Muslim ­constituency made even the DMK suggest to Kamal that he should work out a compromise with the Muslim outfits. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) Chairperson Leela Samson has said the film was “certified with due diligence”, and described the government’s arguments as “misinformed” and the expressions used in court “deplorable”.

Those who have watched the film (including this writer) in states other than Tamil Nadu, have found nothing in the film that should offend the sensibilities of Indian Muslims. Vishwaroopam has been running to packed houses in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, both states with a significant Muslim population, and there has been no breakdown of law and order.

In contrast, by taking the interim stay as an affront and going in appeal against the order, the Tamil Nadu government makes one wonder if there is more to it than meets the eye. And the Muslim outfits’ claim that the entire movie, save one song, is offensive, seems to be an attempt to ­target Kamal deliberately.

“Are we living in China or North Korea?” asks lawyer and film critic L Ravichander. “Yes, someone’s sentiment is hurt, but that is a woefully inadequate reason to ban someone else’s work. In our films, the villain could be called Ram or Rahman, what is the big deal? This way, no creative pursuit — be it cinema or ­literature — can flourish. Anarchy and protests also have their limits in a ­democracy.”

Vishwaroopam is the story of a Muslim RAW agent, who was once a covert operative in the al Qaeda and later saves New York City from a possible terror attack. The story is quite clear that the villainous Muslims are those who are in the al Qaeda, while the Indian Muslim (played by Kamal) is the hero of the film. The ­entire film is set in Afghanistan and New York.

Muslim groups, however, feel that the al Qaeda terrorists shown reading the Holy Quran would make people at large believe that all Muslims are terrorists. Another objection is to the name ‘Umar’, which the top terrorist (played by actor Rahul Bose) goes by. Muslim organisations say Umar bin-al-Khattab is the name of the second Khalifa in Islam, a revered figure, and the terrorist’s name should be changed. But then the Taliban head is Mullah Omar and no one asked him to change his name. ­Kamal has, however, agreed to make a few changes to find a way out of the mess.

A PIL has also been admitted in the Andhra Pradesh High Court against Vishwaroopam and one of the petitioners, Amjedullah Khan of a political party called Majlis Bachao Tehreek in Hyderabad, says, “It is a calculated move by the fascist ­Hindutva forces through their agents like Kamal Haasan to influence innocent non-Muslims and mislead them about Islam. It is an age-old strategy of anti-Muslim forces to portray Islam in a bad light by ­indulging in blasphemy.”

Preposterous as it sounds to accuse Kamal — given his track record as a brilliant filmmaker and a shrewd businessmen — of using his 95 crore venture as a vehicle to propagate anti-Muslim propaganda, the fact remains that either the Tamil Nadu government fell for such extreme ­arguments hook, line and sinker, or used them to get at Kamal for reasons no one is publicly willing to talk about.

Film stars and politicians have always had an uneasy relationship in Tamil Nadu, despite top politicians, including Jayalalithaa, DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, and Vijayakanth, having their roots in ­Kollywood. During the DMK regime, even top actors complained of being arm-twisted by the production and distribution network controlled by the Karunanidhi family. Actor Vijay, who owed allegiance to the AIADMK, had a tough time getting his films released during the DMK years. Things have not changed after the regime change with top comedian Vadivelu, who campaigned for the DMK, finding his career screeching to a halt since May 2011.

Little surprise then that conspiracy ­theories abound in Tamil Nadu. One of the theories links the government’s decision to Kamal expressing a desire at a public function in December last year to see a “dhoti-clad Tamilian” (an apparent reference to P Chidambaram) as prime minister. Given the frosty relationship between ­Jayalalithaa and Chidambaram, there is speculation if this would have angered Amma. Karunanidhi did not mince words when he told the media on 30 December that “Kamal Haasan’s dhoti-clad PM remark may have caused Vishwaroopam to be banned”.

Another unsubstantiated theory relates to Kamal selling the TV rights to ­Vishwaroopam to Vijay TV, when Jaya TV was also reportedly in the fray.

What is surprising is that barring Rajinikanth, Ajith, Prakash Raj and Bharathiraja, no one from the Tamil film industry has come out in Kamal’s support. Others like actors Khushboo, Jiiva and Jayam Ravi have been tweeting their support, but for a legend of Kamal’s stature, Kollywood has failed him. Clearly, very few want to get caught in this battle between Kamal and the State.

Kamal, who upset the exhibitors with his plans to release Vishwaroopam first on DTH, had to back off in the face of threats from cinema theatres not to screen his film. But the ban and the charge that the “unity of the country could be affected” by Vishwaroopam has been the last straw. “MF Hussain had to leave, now Haasan will have to,” the actor told the media, adding, “Tamil Nadu does not want me.”

One of Tamil Nadu’s most celebrated sons now wants to move out of the state to a more “secular state” or even leave ­India, if it cannot accommodate an artist like him. It’s shameful for Tamil Nadu as well as India.