“Cultural terrorism” is trending phrase in social media after its usage by Padma Shri, Ulaga Nayagan Kamal Hassan. Vishwaroopam, billed as his magnus opus, is turning out to be his nemesis much to the chagrin of his beloved admirers and fans. The ping ponging of the courts is not surprising for many, as it is quite typical in the Indian legal system. The ban of the movie has left a rather bitter taste for Kamal and he has claimed that he would be homeless if the ban was not lifted and has gone so far as to suggest that he would leave the state of Tamil Nadu to find a true secular place. Good luck to him finding such a place in India inspite of Secularism being enshrined in the constitution.
I have not seen the movie but I have spoken to people on both sides of the fence who have seen the movie. (I confess that I am a massive fan of Kamal Hassan). That, he is Hindu born Brahmin and is an atheist by choice, is something that has been in the open for a long time and it is out of question to think that he is a Hindu Zealot clamouring to hurt the feelings of Muslims. He has also been extremely consistent on his political leanings or the lack of it, so one cannot suggest that he is playing into the hands of political groups. Though it might be possible it would be rather ridiculous to think he would pawn his possessions to rake up a controversy just to ensure box office hit. The DTH controversy already did that.
So, what is the hue and cry about? A group of leading Muslim organisations have termed that the movie will hurt the feelings of Muslims as it has depicted the community in poor light and has the potential to cause unrest in the country. (Media readings suggest that when the issue was raised none of these organisations had actually seen the movie.) Let us assume that for fire to be there, there must have been smoke. The main objection stems from the fact that in a few scenes the Afghani based terrorists have been shown to perform rituals, like reciting verses from the Holy Quran during the course of the day and also indulging in dastardly acts. I, as a practising Hindu would definitely be offended if someone took an oath on the Bhagavad Gita and went about planting a bomb and killing innocent women and children. But context is everything, when you see through a pigeon hole the pan of your vision is exactly the size of the pigeon hole. When you open the door the vision has significant periphery, which has the ability to radically change the meaning. Keeping in mind that what has been portrayed in Vishwaroopam is not something new and that which has been regularly used by Hollywood movies (and in some Tamil movies – remember Roja – a Kashmiri militant praying), this ban seems to be over the top. Mind you, Hollywood movies have to be censored as well by the same board and I do not recall the Muslim community protesting movies ‘The Body of Lies’ or ‘The Siege’. It would be very interesting to see how the community reacts to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.
For starters the movie is not based in India and to add there is not a single character in the movie who is an Indian Muslim, but for the protagonist, (not prota kada kaaran, as comically questioned by a facebook-er) our very own Kamal Hassan. Kamal is a good guy in the movie and goes after the bad guys and that is the one line story. Rightly or wrongly, popular media have stereotyped the typical terrorist to be a machine gun wielding man of middle eastern appearance, a glowing beard and a turban. Whilst, this profiling is unfortunate, it does have basis. Think of the top 3 terrorist attacks anywhere in the world in recent times and I would say 9 out of 10 times you would see that those attacks have been perpetrated by groups owing allegiance to the Muslim faith. How this portrayal could be different in this movie beggars belief. May be Kamal should have casted Danny DeVito for the role of the terrorist, in an Armani Suit, with Ray ban goggles holding a .22 rifle.
Whilst, I can rationalise the hurt (if any) our Indian Muslim brothers and sisters feel, I do not believe anything out of the ordinary has been said or shown in this film that warrants a ban on the basis that it could cause widespread communal distress. If that is the case then every Hollywood movie that is based on terrorism (and Roja for that matter) has the same potential and hence cannot be shown in Tamil Nadu. What blows me away more is the knee jerk reaction of the Tamil Nadu Government to ban the movie in spite of certification to appease a section of the community and merely playing vote bank politics. Overruling the Central Board of Film Certification, a Statutory body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India smacks of arrogance, makes a mockery of the Censor board and challenges the intelligence of the individuals representing the board.
The childish behaviour of the Indian courts is just another thorn in Kamal’s flesh. To put it in layman’s terms, you go to court because you cannot resolve an issue between two parties. For a judge to suggest that the parties go away and amicably resolve this between themselves, shows cowardice, naivety and sheer irresponsibility. You could argue that arbitration is indeed legal and can provide a quicker end to the controversy, but the courts under the cloak of ‘potential to incite social unrest’, have lost the chance to set a precedent against Cultural terrorism. For reasons best know the social unrest applies only to Tamil Nadu. The movies have been running to full houses in Kerala, Karnataka, AP, the rest of India and rest of the world. Compared to Tamil Nadu, Kerala has more than twice the Muslims and it has not reported any violence caused by this film. But, by the time this article goes to print who knows communal elements in the other states could well have picked this as an opportunity to test tolerance.
In my view I do see there are fragments in the movie when taken out of context, and only when taken out of context, have the potential to upset a Muslim in general, but those scenes are just a depiction of happenings in that part of the. The way the entire issue has panned out in the last couple of weeks it does look like there is more to the eye than meets. It is widely rumoured that the film rights not being given to a channel close to the ruling party is one of the reasons for this mayhem. It has also been suggested that Kamals’ suggestion that a “Dhoti clad” politician should become the PM of India and has not gone down well in some quarters.
For his part Kamal has done himself no favours by naming the movie Vishwaroopam, a strong Hindu religious icon and compounding that with an Arabic styled English font for the title. The Holy Quran is written in Arabic. This in itself causes a clash of cultures and probably would have sown questions in the minds of Indian Muslims. On the other hand, one viewer suggested that he was surprised that the Hindu Brahmin community or the Women’s organisation have not gone up in arms to some of the insinuations of the lead character in the movie. Thank you very much – I have had enough for the day. I am half drained figuring out if is this really about showing the Muslim community in bad light or is it a part of a wider political agenda or maybe it is clever ploy by the TN Government to reduce the power consumption in the state, thus redeeming itself from the pathetic power situation in the state.
Whatever it may be, Kamal for the love of his profession in the last 50 years, for his contribution to Tamil and Indian cinema hardly deserves this. It is indeed a sad day where political correctness is curbing creativity. Today it was Vishwaroopam, tomorrow it will be something else. I do have a suggestion, let us all go and watch Tom and Jerry – Oh no we can’t do that because there is a lot of violence in it – Jerry beating up Tom all the time, the bulldog chopping the cats head.
Only in India, that is Bharat.
[Note: This article was written a few days before the two groups came to an agreement and the TN Goverment lifted the ban]