Heckler’s veto: On Vijay Sethupathi's withdrawal from Muralitharan biopic '800'

Films can be subjected to criticism after their release, but not stymied before they are made

October 21, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 11:56 am IST

Opposition from sections of Tamils has led to versatile Tamil film star Vijay Sethupathi withdrawing from a planned biopic on the Sri Lankan bowling legend, Muttiah Muralitharan . Opponents mainly from the Tamil film industry and political parties in Tamil Nadu claim that Muralitharan had “whitewashed genocide” by not raising his voice against the Sri Lankan state, and warned the actor against playing his character, contending that he would only jeopardise his career and alienate his fan following. It is a shame that these protests have prevented a talented actor from essaying a role based on the story of Muralitharan, who scaled Himalayan peaks in international cricket through talent and determination. Noting the unfair and unrelenting attacks on Sethupathi to the point of accusing him of being a traitor, Muralitharan appealed to the actor to keep out of the biopic . The ultimate decision may have been Muralitharan’s own, but it is quite clear that Sethupathi dropped the idea only after the onslaught. The film’s motion poster released recently had evoked great expectation among cinema aficionados, especially because of the actor’s highly convincing resemblance to the cricketer. Appropriately named ‘800’, in celebration of the number of Test wickets the bewitching off-spinner bagged, the biopic appears to aim at showcasing his rise in the backdrop of the violent ethnic conflict that shook Sri Lanka for three decades.

Exponents of art being cowed down by protests is not new to Tamil Nadu. The real problem in the latest example of popular intolerance prevailing over artistic ventures is that an old chestnut in Tamil Nadu politics — the idea that every Tamil should pass a ‘Tamil nationalist’ test — has been resurrected to stymie this project too. Madras Cafe , a Hindi film, could not be screened in the State after opposition to its portrayal of the LTTE. In 2008, a Sri Lankan producer was forced to give up his footage while he was in Chennai to process his film at a studio. Some of those who demanded that Sethupathi withdraw from the biopic have emphasised that they were merely making an appeal to him, given his past political views in favour of causes that resonate with the people of Tamil Nadu. Whether it was an appeal or a threat, it is a no-brainer that pressure was brought to bear on an artist to give up his professional decision. As for Muralitharan’s political views, it may be that some of his remarks were seen as supporting the Sri Lankan Army’s triumph over the LTTE and questioning the truth behind the grief of the mothers of the disappeared thousands. However, that is no reason to run down his monumental achievements in his chosen sport. And nothing prevents any detractor from questioning the film’s motive or content after its release. It is unfortunate that the heckler’s veto has prevailed.

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