Is Vishwaroopam really stereotyping Indian Muslims as terrorists?

Is Vishwaroopam stereotyping Indian Muslims as terrorists?
Even as we wait for the Madras High Court’s verdict on the ban on Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam in Tamil Nadu, one cannot stop thinking how a film on Taliban/Al-Qaeda terror and the American “war” against it can denigrate Indian Muslims.

Other than the main villain of the movie – ostensibly modelled on the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar – dropping names of places such as Madurai and Coimbatore to tell the audience how he is conversant with Tamil, there is no reference to any militant activity in India.

Non-Tamil characters speaking Tamil, or any other Indian language for that matter, is not new in Indian commercial cinema. We have heard the entire senior brass of Indian Army or civil servants in Delhi speak in Tamil. These are inherently flawed situations that audiences don’t object to. Everybody does it, and everybody has to do it.

However, Coimbatore and Madurai are not figments of anybody’s imagination.

In Coimbatore (1998) 50 people died and 200 injured in a series of blasts across 11 places while in Madurai, a low intensity bomb went off in 2012. Since 2010, there were at lest six incidents of bombs exploding or being detected in the city. Even if Omar’s claim of connections to these two places in Vishwaroopam are taken at face value, it actually rules out an Indian terror design at these places and indicates a foreign hand.

The main objections of the groups protesting against the movie are that it stereotyped Indian Muslims as terrorists.

Did it?

The movie is not about Indian Muslims, it is about Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The rogues or terrorists in the movie are the Taliban and the Jihadi networks dominated by the Afghanis. If at all anybody has suffered an image issue, it should be the Taliban and not Indians.

Then as summarised in an article on , there are obvious charges about the beard, the salwar kameez, speaking in Urdu, evoking the name of Allah etc. But we have seen and heard this many times before – not from Vishwaroopam, but routinely from the Islamic militants’ propaganda materials themselves. Are those incensed by Vishwaroopam saying that Taliban and Al-Qaeda don’t kill people in the name of a religion? And their terror-propaganda materials don’t exist?

Images and other socio-cultural constructs are part of the grammar of cinema in establishing a milieu, the central characters and the plot. It of course leads to some stereotyping because that in itself is the technique used for the construct. Even some of the most sensitive and well-informed film makers are not immune to this, when they make movies about alien contexts and cultures. Take a look at Life of Pi – it’s full of stereotypes.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda image has been shown to us first not by Kamal Haasan, but by the real images from the field by the terrorists themselves and various public sources, not just the imperial media. Kamal hasn’t done anything original on this, other than copying them. His costumer could have worked a bit in fixing the details, whether it is the salwar kameez, the beard and the pakul (the Pashtun cap that the Pakistani army guys wear when they appear live on Indian television news programmes)

The article also refers to Muslim names being commonly being misused in Indian films: “And the most of the characters that portray the role of underworld mafias are shown as Muslims. And these characters definitely say “Assalamalikum” and “Masha Allah” and indulge in killing, extortion, drugs smuggling and women trafficking.”

Yes, it’s true; but they originate from media reports on smuggling, distribution of counterfeit notes from Pakistan, sending recruits to Pakistan for training and fighting in Kashmir, and sometimes even spying for ISI. Most often, these reports are sourced to the government, the police, the NIA etc.

Taking the reference to Taliban in a popular film as a reference to Indian Muslims and militating against an artistic expression is perhaps a conscious effort at fomenting trouble. It’s not only against the principle of free speech, but also against the principle of secularism, which is about a social order that is free from religions without being critical of religious beliefs.

In a complex democracy like India with a million beliefs, it is certainly not easy. But that is the only sensible way people can live in harmony.

It has been the job of the secularists to justify the conduct of organisations and rabid individuals with flawed logic and suspect agenda, every time they resort to aggression and violence on the streets in the name of a belief or faith.

What is tiringly repetitive is that the people the secularists often defend are sometimes indefensible; and that the latter’s language of human rights and conflation of agenda with issues of Dalits and other marginalised groups is just a cover for fanning disruption.

Not surprisingly, their maze of confederated organisations, ranging from human rights NGOs to media, rival the complexity of shell companies involved in shady deals or money laundering.

And secularism is not about equating Islamic terror with saffron terror or justifying one for the other. Both are dangerous and inimical to the peace and harmony of the country.

Some of the organisations that are up in arms against the movie have faced charges of fundamentalist activities and violence, and some leaders have even spent time in jails.

The mere presence of the organisations, that have either been noted for past radical behaviour or have morphed out of organisations of disrepute, is a serious cause of worry. For instance, the march in Thiruvananthapuram – where the movie was running to packed houses peacefully – as well as in other locations in Kerala, was Popular Front of India (PFI), which according to the Kerala government had connections with SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), an oragnisation banned by the Centre.

The state government had reportedly said that its activity was a threat to national unity and security. Its activists have been allegedly involved in the hand-chopping of a college professor for a controversial question paper that the latter had set. The former Kerala chief minister and CPM leader VS Achuthanandan had charged that the PFI had plans to Islamise the state over a period of twenty years.

Similarly, the TMMK in Tamil Nadu, which in fact triggered the trail of events against the movie, had also been alleged to have had links to SIMI, and its leaders had been arrested in connection with the Coimabatore blasts.

The fear of minorities, of intimidation and marginalisation by the majority, is real and needs to be sincerely addressed, but that is where the Constitution and the State have instituted safeguards. In addition, the Indian citizenry has demonstrated remarkable and consistent responsibility in protecting the interests of minorities and maintaining at least a minimum standard of secularism.

However, the irresponsible and violent acts that exploit and misinterpret the idea of secularism, that too by groups and individuals with a questionable intent, can only vitiate the atmosphere. They have to be defeated with utmost political and social resolve.

Secularism is not about protecting the fundamentalisation of one faith or the other. It is also not about stifling free speech, whether by Kamal Haasan or MF Hussain.

Secularism is everybody’s responsibility.


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