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The first signs of trouble for Vishwaroopam, the trilingual, mega budget espionage thriller written, directed and produced by noted actor Kamal Haasan — who also played the lead character — came over a month ago when several Muslim organisations raised objections over the alleged portrayal of the community in a poor light. Aided by a sympathetic government machinery, the protests grew wider and louder, forcing Kamal Haasan to shed his initial reluctance and agree to modify certain portions at a meeting convened and moderated by the state Home Secretary.
This, however, is only the latest in a series of such cases where leaders of community outfits, acting as super censors, have organised protests.
The most recent case before Vishwaroopam imbroglio was another Tamil film, Thuppakki, starring the most successful hero among the younger generation, Vijay, and directed by A R Murugadoss of Ghajini fame. If Kamal played a Research and Analysis Wing operator in his film, Vijay acted as an army officer in Thuppakki, which went on to become one of the biggest hits in Tamil cinema — but not before facing some hurdles.
The Federation of Islamic Movements and Political Parties — the same umbrella group that campaigned against Vishwaroopam — alleged that the film portrayed the community as terrorists and traitors. On November 14, a day after its release, a group of Muslim activists landed in front of the actor's residence on the outskirts of the city, protesting the depiction of their community members as anti-national.
The leaders of the outfits approached Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's office, urging her to intervene in the matter. The day after the protest, the Home Secretary convened a tripartite meeting where the producer, director and Vijay's father S A Chandrasekaran, himself a veteran director and producer, agreed to cut five scenes, besides tendering an apology for hurting the sentiments of the community, though unintentionally. Chandrasekaran went a step ahead and said that his son would play a Muslim in his next film.
The protests were not limited to films made in Tamil language alone. Exactly two months before the agitation over Thuppakki was staged, the outfits rose in protest against the controversial short video clip, Innocence of Muslims, which sparked outrage and violence across the world. In Tamil Nadu, activists belonging to various outfits, including Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) and Tamil Nadu Thouheed Jamaat (TNTJ), laid siege to the office of the Consulate General of the US here on September 14.
Protesters broke through the barricades and security rings that were placed outside the consulate, and pelted stones, burnt the US flags, destroyed CCTV cameras and threw sandals into the compound. Similar protests were held at several places across the state.
The protests were considered intelligence failure on the part of the police and the then Chennai City Police Commissioner, J K Tripathy, was removed from the post.
Observers say that the authorities were unnerved by the stealth and fury of the protest, and were keeping this in mind while dealing with the later protests.
The federation was in the news earlier over the question of the marriageable age of a Muslim girl. Last June, Perambalur district collector Darez Ahmed, a young, proactive civil servant who won awards from the state government based on his work in the most backward district, directed the social welfare department officials to stop the marriage of a Muslim girl. Though the marriage was held with the permission and presence of the parents of both the bride and the groom, she was found to be only 17 years old. The member outfits of the federation staged a protest in the district against the administration, stating that a Muslim girl who has attained puberty, agreed to be 15 years of age, can marry as per the Muslim law.
It has to be noted that while Muslim organisations have earned the ire of the liberals and neutral observers over these protests, they are only one of the many who are in the habit of getting offended far too easily. This small but vociferous group pervades caste, religion and politics to include the Hindu right wing, influential caste groups, and mainstream political parties of varying sizes.
For instance, there are several cases of protests against films and actors staged by the Hindu Munnani, and Hindu Makkal Katchi, a religious organisation that is diagonally opposite to the Islamists in ideology.
It was the HMK that first raised protests against Vishwaroopam, alleging that the title was Sanskrit and demanded a Tamil title.
The Hindu Munnani had protested several times in the past against films, including Kamal Haasan's Dasavatharam (for alleged wrong portrayal of tussles between Saivite and Vaishnavite schools in the 16th century), against Vaanam (for alleged anti-Hindu scenes), against a little-known Vanakkamma (for depicting gods smoking and consuming alcohol), against actor Khushboo (for allegedly having sat cross-legged wearing footwear near the idols of goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati during the puja function of a new film) and most recently, against actor Trisha (for her remarks that apparently encouraged drinking among women).
The PMK's protests against Khushboo for her comments of pre-marital sex, and against the biggest superstar of Tamil cinema, Rajnikant, for onscreen smoking and drinking are also well-known.
Kamal Haasan was the target of protests over his film, Thevar Magan, for allegedly glorifying violence by the Thevar caste. Later, he was forced to change the title of under-production film Sandiyar to Virumandi, after the first title ran afoul with Dalit outfits, including Puthiya Thamizhagam.
The same organisation protested against the film Maayi, which, they alleged, retold the 1957 caste riots in a way where the Thevar community is lionised while the Dalit side of the story is blacked out.
A bilingual on slain forest brigand Veerappan is stuck in the courts after his wife Muthulakshmi petitioned that the film portrayed her dead husband erroneously which, she claimed, would affect the cases pending against her. Another example is Bharati Kannamma which led to protests in southern parts of the state for the storyline that has a Thevar girl falling in love with a Dalit boy.
Among the prominent outfits in the federation is the TMMK, a Muslim welfare organisation whose political wing, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, was an electoral ally of AIADMK in the last Assembly election. Its leader M H Jawahirullah, a former state president of the proscribed outfit, Students Islamic Movement of India, is one of the two MMK candidates who were elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The outfit has claimed to have no connection with SIMI, though it did not help that some of its leaders demanded a repeal of ban on SIMI.
Sympathetic observers opine that while the organisation has taken extreme positions on issues connected to the community, it does not support violence by and large. On the other hand, they add, it has helped to bring many in the community to mainstream activism and politics.
Similar is the case with two other member outfits of the federation, the much-maligned Popular Front of India and its political offshoot, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Like TMMK, the PFI and SDPI are charged of having connection with SIMI, which they have denied. The PFI was formed first in Kerala, into which Manitha Neethi Pasarai, a Muslim outfit based out of Tamil Nadu, merged soon afterwards.
The PFI courted criticisms from all sections of the society after its activists were charged in the notorious case of chopping a college professor's hand in Kerala for insulting the religion. The SDPI, on the other hand, has positioned itself as a socialist democratic party that claims to have the support of all weaker sections of society irrespective of religion, caste, community and language.
In the local body polls held in 2011, the four-year-old SDPI won two corporation councillor seats, two municipal councillor seats and 70 panchayat councillor seats.
There are also other Muslim organisations who are part of the protests against Vishwaroopam. Prominent among them is the Tamil Nadu Thouheed Jamaat, a group that broke away from the TMMK, and India Thoueed Jamaat that was formed after the further split in TNTJ.
WHEN SUPREME COURT UPHELD FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Vishwaroopam is not the first to be banned apparently to prevent breach of peace. One of the significant cases in the past was the 1989 film Ore Oru Gramathile (once upon a time in a village). Through the story of a Brahmin woman IAS officer, whose father procured a lower caste certificate for her, the film took a stand against the caste-based reservation policy.
This heckled many in Tamil Nadu and there were protests against the film and its producer S Rangarajan, also the publisher of The Hindu.
When Rangarajan applied for Censor Board certificate, the examination committee refused to grant it, but the revising committee for review and recommendation granted 'U' certificate. It was challenged in the Madras High Court in December 1987, contending that the film treated the reservation policy of the government in a biased manner. The writ petitions were dismissed by a single judge, but the Division Bench that heard the appeal revoked the 'U' certificate.
By this time, the film was chosen for a national award though it had not been released. The verdict came on a Friday, and that Monday the award ceremony was scheduled. The next day, the producer and the Centre moved the Supreme Court.
"The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression," stated the Supreme Court order on March 30, 1989.