There is a sanitised and mendacious version about the events that led actor Vijay Sethupathi to pull out from playing the lead in 800, the biopic on the Sri Lankan cricketer and spin wizard Muthiah Muralitharan. It goes like this. There were ‘appeals’ that Sethupathi withdraw, given Muralitharan’s views on the Sri Lankan civil war, and the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils during that period. These appeals were heeded and Sethupathi wisely decided to call off his association with the film. He has been thanked for doing so and, as director Cheran suggested, the matter is now closed and nothing more needs to be said about it.
Really? This narrative ignores some important and less than palatable truths. Appeals that end up egging followers and hangers-on to raise a chorus of unfettered and confrontational social media posts have a name: threat. It is impossible to ignore that it was during this very social media frenzy over Sethupathi and 800 that vicious rape threats were made against his daughter. It is also difficult to disregard the fact that Sethupathi’s plight was received in the Tamil film industry, as well as in many political circles, with complicit silence. Those who helm political parties such as Kamal Haasan had nothing to say. The same held good for those who plan to do so such as Rajinikanth. In an environment such as this, only one conclusion has a truthful ring: Sethupathi was forced to withdraw.
That the Sri Lankan Army’s attempt to defeat the LTTE caused great and unforgivable collateral damage – particularly towards the end of the operation – is indisputable. But it is important to ensure that admiration for the LTTE – either covert or overt – is not cynically dressed up as genuine concern about what happened to innocent Tamil civilians during a brutal war. There are people in Tamil Nadu, backed by some political forces, that do exactly this. They have never paused to ask themselves why their concern for the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils has never extended to cover Indian or Plantation Tamils, who are much more economically and socially marginalised. They can be blind about the fact that the LTTE was responsible for killing several fellow Tamils, ranging from academics, politicians, and those in rival militant groups. As for the responsibility of killing an Indian Prime Minister, who died in a bomb blast that killed more than a dozen, it is an issue that hardly receives mention in some quarters.
There may be much to criticise about Muralitharan’s politics. It is public knowledge that he is a supporter of the Rajapaksas, under whose reign, the LTTE was cornered and decimated. But to paint him as a traitor to the Tamil race and someone who celebrated the killing of innocent civilians is an exaggeration. When director Bharathiraja suggested that the production house making 800 would do better if it produced a biopic on Thileepan, the LTTE leader that fasted to death in protest against the Indian Army presence in northern Sri Lanka, he reveals the mindset of key figures behind the controversy.
Those in the profession of cinema, who have been victims of censorship and pressure from politicians and intolerant sections of society, should recognise the importance of standing up for free expression. Occupying the pre-censorship space only serves to undermine the profession and what it stands for.