The little known Satyam Cinema at Pilukhwa, a sleepy township in western Uttar Pradesh, is least likely to provoke a debate on the projection of any community in films. Its audiences, largely working class men, get by with a regular fix of paisa-vasool films.
For these cinemagoers, Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, released in Hindi as Vishwaroop without any attendant controversy that preceded the film’s release in Tamil Nadu, could be just another action film about a good guy and bad guys.
With a large Muslim population, Pilukhwa has been lukewarm to Haasan’s much talked-about film. Here, Vishwaroop has lost out to Race 2. “We expected the film to do good business, particularly after the controversy, but the occupancy has not gone beyond 20 per cent,” says manager Shriram Saini. “I think our Muslim patrons have ignored the film.”
Shahid Khan, an LIC agent who has seen the film, says the common man is much more accustomed to cinematic language than clerics. “They like to say people are immature and uninformed because it keeps them in business. This aspect was very well captured in ‘Oh! My God’.”
The response is equally tepid in Aligarh where Haasan’s film has failed to find top theatres. Here, too, the largely Muslim audience has been indifferent to the film. Among the 20-odd people who braved a rainy evening to catch up with the film, Maneesh Kumar Singh says the film did not create any negative impression about Muslims on him. “It is a typical masala film where the hero is shown as a devout Muslim and the villain is a bad specimen of the community.”
At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the film has been talked about at another level. At a meeting of present and former secretaries of the AMU Teachers’ Association, some teachers expressed apprehension about the impact of the portrayal of Muslims in the film. “We felt the film presents the same point of view about Muslims which the Bush administration propagated. It could lead to an impression that a practising Muslim is a terrorist,” says Dr. Abdul Qayoom, president of the AMU Teachers’ Association. “We are not for a ban but certain scenes could have been revised,” he adds.
Dr. F.S. Sheerani, Coordinator, General Education Centre, sees it differently. “We know for a fact that there are terror groups in Afghanistan which are fighting in the name of Islam. So if a film reflects it, what’s the harm? Following certain rituals doesn’t make anyone a true Muslim. Islam doesn’t allow the use of religion in the battle for land. What’s happening in Kashmir, Afghanistan and for that matter Palestine is essentially about land and hence there is no need to see it through the prism of religion.”
From small towns of U.P. to a historic academic centre, Vishwaroop has found lukewarm reception at the box office. Things are only a shade better in the national Capital. Here, probably for the first time, Haasan’s film has opened well. At Delite in Central Delhi, which caters to a considerable Muslim population of Old Delhi, the film opened to 80 per cent collection. “Regular Muslim patrons have come to me and said there is nothing in the film that hurt our sentiments,” says R.K. Mehrotra, General Manager of Delite Cinemas.
As for box office collections, Girish Johar of Balaji Motion Pictures, which has released the Hindi version, claims Vishwaroop had broken the first three days’ record of Robot, the Hindi version of Rajinikanth’s Enthiran. “We have released the film with 1,000 prints across India and have got no report of untoward incidents, despite the fact that the Hindi version is released without the cuts that Mr. Haasan has agreed to in the Tamil version.”