What Vishwaroopam ban really means?

The ban on Kamal Hassan’s magnum opus Vishwaroopam in Tamil Nadu evokes two emotions: sadness and anxiety.
What Vishwaroopam ban really means?
Sadness, for a gifted and hardworking film-maker such as Kamal Hassan for landing himself in such a mess, and anxiety, for the fall in the threshold of intolerance to artistic expression in a state that has been different from the rest of the country.

We haven’t seen the movie yet, and hence cannot comment on the way Kamal Hassan has depicted Muslims or symbols of Islam. However, several Muslim organisations in the state, notably the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), which have seen the movie, say that it “targets Muslims and their beliefs”.

Even with some scenes deleted, Vishwaroopam will affect the social-harmony and peace in the state, M H Jawahirullah, MLA and TMMK leader has reportedly said. Supporters of the TMMK and other organisations have also staged a protest against Vishwaroopam in front of Kamal Hassan’s office, where they burned the posters of the movie and shoe-slapped his images.

This has certainly landed the actor-director in big trouble, perhaps the biggest in his career of more than five decades. He has reportedly sunk about Rs 95 crore on the movie in the hope to get into the rare 100-crore box office club.

A ban in Tamil Nadu will ruin his finances. The film was scheduled to release tomorrow in about 500 theatres and unlike in Bollywood and other languages, Tamil movies recoup their investment mostly from theatrical release.

After the long lull following the 1998 Coimbatore blasts, this consolidation and hardline stand by Muslim organisations is a recent trend in Tamil Nadu and is certainly a reason for anxiety. It appeared to have erupted from nowhere in September 2012 in Chennai when the US consulate on the city’s busy arterial Anna Salai was attacked by a group of 2000 people. The protest was organised by TMMK against an anti-Islam film by an American that had outraged Muslims all over the world.

Reportedly, the bulletproof glass cabin of the visa section, CCTV and sunshades of the US consulate building were damaged while some protestors had even managed to scale its walls. The mob also pelted stones. The brazen attack had forced the consulate to close down its office for a few days.

The city was shocked to see a high security and strategic installation being attacked in broad daylight by a mob and wondered how such a large group of protestors had managed to evade the police and gather in front of the building. The failure of the police, especially the intelligence wing, to check the movement of people towards the building, let alone the subsequent attacks, is still a mystery. The story ended with the police arresting some TMMK workers.

In a month, the TMMK and its allies were outraged again. This time they trained their guns on leading actor Vijay’s blockbuster Thuppakki. The leaders and protestors said that some scenes of the movie, which was running to full houses by then, hurt the sentiments of Muslims.

The production team of Thuppakki immediately swung into negotiations with the protestors and acceded to their demands. The producer of the movie, the director and actor Vijay’s father met with 10 representatives of TMMK and 20-odd organisations and agreed to delete some scenes. There were also some unconfirmed reports that some dialogues were even added to make them happy. Vijay’s father even went a step ahead and promised that the actor would depict a Muslim character in a future film.

The latest target is Vishwaroopam and the resistance seems to be really tough.

These three incidences, in the space of a year, indicates that the TMMK and its allies are bolder and more assertive. Is it purely a sequence of reactions to a sequence of objectionable events, that seemed to have naturally occurred in a short span of time; or does it indicate a trend of political and religious assertion?

Although it has been in existence since 1995, till recently, the TMMK had been a non-political oragnisation with allegations of hardline posturing against them. Some of its members and leaders had been arrested following the 1998 Coimbatore blasts while another organisation, Al Umma was banned. There were also allegations that it was controlled by the former members of SIMI, which was banned by the NDA government in 2002. The TMMK had in fact asked the UPA government in 2005 to lift the ban.

Since 2009, the TMMK has a political front, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, and it was an ally of the ruling AIADMK in the 2011 assembly elections. The party had contested in three seats and won two. Coincidentally, the new form of public assertion of dissent and intolerance also began in 2012.

In terms of the response of the state government, this is only the third time that the state is banning a movie, that too a mainstream Tamil movie by a top-shot such as Kamal Hassan. The first was Oru Oru Gramathile way back in 1987 (here is an interesting reconstruction of the events published in New York Times), the second, the Da Vinci Code in 2006, and the third, Dam 999 in 2011.

The ban on the Da Vinci Code was lifted later while Dam 999, which reportedly favoured Kerala on the Mullaperiyar issue, sank at the box office.

Is the ban on Vishwaroopam a political strategy not to alienate Muslim voters, however small they are, ahead of the 2014 elections? Has the government given in to the protestors too easily?

Given that that film industry is an integral part of the social and economic life of the state, couldn’t there have been a middle path?

Wouldn’t this ban lead to an eruption of demands of caste and communal organisations? Or is it purely because of the fear of communal disharmony, particularly after the audacious September demonstration by TMMK and its allies last year?

Some might say that Vijay’s Thuppakki (apparently there are some similar events in both the films) got away easily thanks to political intervention — since he was close to the AIADMK and opposed to DMK, due to which he had really struggled during the previous government’s period — whereas Kamal Hassan is stranded, perhaps due to inadequate political patronage.

Will things change in the next two weeks? Will the industry back him?

One view is that it’s time that the Muslim stereotype in Indian movies ended. As many, including Bollywood director Kabir Khan noted, in 1992, it was Tamil director Mani Ratnam’s Roja that led to several movies “depicting the Muslim in his aatankwaadi stereotype.” Since then, the stereotype has been free of copyright for anybody.

But a censor board is there simply for that. If the censor board has passed it, India’s citizens need to respect that – whatever their religion might be.

Unfortunately, Kamal Hassan has been caught on the wrong foot, first with his DTH-obsession and now with this ban. Even if he is able to ultimately wriggle out, the ban will be too costly for him. Past experiences in the film industry show that delayed releases are in effect denied releases.


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