Vishwaroopam: Who won the battle?

Everybody involved in the melodrama can claim victory.

By R. Chandrasekaran

CHENNAI: The decks have finally been cleared for the release of the multilingual film of the multifaceted actor Kamala Haasan’s spy thriller Vishwaroopam in Tamil, in Tamil Nadu. Vishwaroopam will release in Tamil Nadu theaters on February 7 if everything goes well for the actor-turned-writer-cum-director-cum-producer.

However, the question that remains is, who won the battle of wits in the controversy over banning the release of Vishwaroopam, and now likely release of the film in the state? Is it Kamal Haasan or Muslim organizations, politics or ‘cultural terrorism’ or just plain ego? Everybody involved in this melodrama can claim victory as everyone can interpret the agreement to suit their logical ends.

However, the events that unfolded threw a lot of interesting questions, especially the authority to screen Vishwaroopam. This is not the first time that a movie was banned for a particular period of time or the producers had to cave in to the demands of the protesters against a particular scene or scenes in a movie, be it in any Indian language or English.

Kamal’s previous Tamil flick, Manmadhan Ambu too faced a problem with the Hindus, who wanted a few lines from a song to be deleted. The song was written by none other than the actor himself. While Kamal Haasan reluctantly deleted the portion in deference to the wishes of the producer Udayanidhi Stalin, son of DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin, the actor had openly said then he would not have deleted those objectionable lines if he was a producer of the film. The movie had a mixed run later and cannot be labeled as a blockbuster.

Similarly, an English movie Dam 999 was banned by the Tamil Nadu Government in 2011 since it had shown its cause in an inter-state river water dispute with Kerala poorly. The State Government is yet to lift the ban and the Supreme Court too refused to come to the rescue of UAE-Indian co-produced film, which was directed by Sohan Roy.

It is a tough call for anyone to predict as to which one will attract the attention of the forces behind calling for a ban or removing any objectionable scenes or even know what objectionable scenes is. Even the title name is not spared. For instance, the badshah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan starred movie Billu Barber was renamed as Billu in 2009 following a protest from Salon & Parlour association.

It is not as if it is only the Hindus or the Muslims or the affiliated associations that take offence of even the slightest provocation. Politics too has its own dose of medicine in upsetting the calculations of the cine stars. Another Southern star and Tamil matinee idol Rajnikanth, and Sharukh Khan too, had to face the music of the regional parties.

While some Karnataka parties tried to stop Rajnikanth’s Kuselan movie in 2008 for his comments on Cauvery water issue, Shahrukh Khan had to face the wrath of Shiv Sena for his movie My Name is Khan after his comments on Pakistan cricket players’ participation in the cash-rich Indian Premier League. Franchisees decided not to bid for Pakistani cricketers in view of the doubts over the issue of visas to them and preferred to stay cautious. Both the films bombed at the box office.

Similarly, the Gujarat government has banned a film Firaaq in 2008 for portraying families caught in the aftermath of the communal riots in 2002. In the previous year too, the state had to ban a film Parzania following an opposition for the movie’s content on Gujarat riots. In 2006 too, the state had banned a film Fanaa after a protest against raising Narmada Dam height.

In 2005, shooting of film ‘Water’ had to be abandoned in Varanasi after protests for depicting Hindu widows. The production unit had to shift the venue to Sri Lanka to complete the film. In the same year Sikh community took offense against a film ‘Jo Bole So Nihaal’ for portraying them poorly.

If the film ‘Bombay’ had raised controversy for its portrayal of communal riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1995, Shiv Sena activists allegedly indulged in disrupting the Deepa Mehta-directed ‘Fire’ for portrayal of lesbian relationship. The protests later percolated to other states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Coming back to the latest Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, there was protests galore. If someone were to take a look at the last two weeks of happenings surrounding the release of Vishwaroopam; southern matinee idol’s latest flick, off-the screen scenes seems to have completely overshadowed the reel life scenes thereby generating a good amount of interest for the movie. This was amply demonstrated by a good opening for its Hindi version.

In Tamil Nadu, Vishwaroopam was banned on January 23, two days before its release on January 25 after some Muslim organizations objected to some of the scenes in the film. This has generated tremendous heat among the various sections of the people terming the action as infringement of the freedom of expression. While the Tamil filmdom was cautious and remained silent immediately after the ban announcement, Kamal’s friend and actor Rajnikanth threw his weight behind him and urged Muslims to settle the issue amicably. This allowed others like director Bharathiraja and lyricist Vairamuthu join Rajnikanth to support the actor.

Indeed some of the behind the scenes action by some film personalities brought moderate Muslims led by Congress MP J.M. Haroon to come to the negotiating table even as the case was heard in the Madras High Court. However, the deal struck with them failed to placate the demonstrators, who wanted a complete ban of Vishwaroopam. This clearly demonstrated at least two things, one was that the actor should have reached out to the demonstrators rather than the moderates and the other is the government’s power. Then, what made the demonstrators climb down?

The moment Kamal Haasan stated that he had to search for a secular state outside Tamil Nadu, support for the actor started swelling from across the country. Suddenly, the government and the Muslim organizations felt that they became the target of the opposition parties and also villain of the whole episode. The opposition parties, which were mindful of the Muslim vote bank, preferred to train its guns against their bete noire and hurled various charges against the Chief Minister.

As things started going out of control and leading towards the actor slowly and steadily, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa not only refuted any personal vendetta but offered her government’s help to mediate with the protestors after clarifying that her intention was to maintain law and order situation.

However, the neighboring southern states such as Kerala and Karnataka have not encountered any issues in screening Vishwaroopam though there were some anxious moments. Of course, there were other nations such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, who have banned the film. This raises doubts over the government’s argument.

Meanwhile, support started pouring in for Haasan though there was set back from the High Court. While the actor was initially inclined to take up the matter to the Supreme Court, some of the leading artistes like Sivakumar and Radhika Sarathkumar have counseled for a tripartite consultation paving the way for Vishwaroopam release.

Their contention seemed to have had some ground. They believed that even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the actor, Vishwaroopam’s release in Tamil Nadu needs the support of the government to avoid any law and order problem. This has forced Haasan to come to the negotiation table.

Muslim organizations too felt that allowing the matter to be dragged on will only spoil their image. While they wanted to cut at least 15 portions, Haasan had explained the technicalities involved and how those 15 portions could affect the storyline of the movie. Ultimately, both the sides agreed to make seven changes in Vishwaroopam after four hours of discussions and the length of the film is reported to be the same.

If the reports are to be believed, the objectionable portions will be muted. A member of the 15-representatives of the Muslim organizations told the Times of India that “Kamal has agreed to seven changes but no cuts or removal of scenes. He will mute all the agreed ‘objectionable’ portions.”

This is a clear indication of a climb down by the Muslim organizations. The saving grace is that Vishwaroopam will carry a note that this is purely fiction and not against any religion. One wonders why it took so much time for this agreement when the actor acceded to their request and showed them the film on January 21 itself.

While the government indicated that Kamal had agreed to show the Vishwaroopam only after its persistent efforts, it could have very well arranged for tripartite discussions immediately after the screening to Muslim organizations to avoid the ban that is said to have cost the producer anything between Rs.300 – Rs.600 million loss.

The fact that the Hindi version of the Vishwaroopam is having a smooth run in Maharashtra and in the North suggest that there seemed to be nothing significantly objectionable for the Muslims to revolt against the film. In the words of K Hariharan, a film maker, “This is just to satisfy some egos and for some people to get publicity. Ultimately, the Telugu and Hindi versions will be available on DVDs.”

Interestingly, the protests and the subsequent agreement raises a question whether the certification given by the Film Censor Board is void or can be challenged by the cultural terrorism. The politics and the vote bank clearly come into play in such crucial matters. While the politicians do not want to hurt any minority community or caste fearing loss of votes, film personalities want to expose the nuances of the happenings around, and what it entails for them.

If Haasan feels happy that there was no cut in Vishwaroopam except toning down some scenes, Muslim organizations can claim victory for forcing the actor to accede to their toned down demand. The government too can claim victory for upholding the freedom of expression.

However, the reality is that ego and intolerance are the winners. As long as the government is ready to accommodate communal organizations’ wishes, film personalities will continue to face this problem. A film can have an end, but their struggle will continue.


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