The fragile society

'Vishwaroopam' has been banned by a state not known for communal disharmony

Even Kamal Haasan's worst critics cannot question his secular credentials. He has always been controversy's child, making films he was convinced about. Haasan has so far been attacked by Hindutva and casteist Hindu groups. But his films have not been banned. His only religion is his art. One can understand when a deeply hurt Haasan says he wants to move to a more secular state in India or to a secular country where he will be left in peace. From all accounts, his film Vishwaroopam does not deserve such a violent reaction from either fringe minority groups or the state government. The protagonist of the film is a heroic Indian Muslim. It is an action thriller that takes place in Afghanistan and New York. The film apparently does not have any major romance, comedy or item numbers. So those who are objecting to the film are confused by its somewhat stark documentary-like look. They apparently have no problem in allowing the release of an out-and-out commercial thriller like Vijay's Diwali movie Thuppakki, which also depicted Muslims as terrorists.

This film had also upset sentiments of people in the minority community. Following the protests, the film's producer and director immediately agreed to delete the so-called "objectionable" scenes. The movie was released without more controversy and went on to become the blockbuster of the year. In Vishwaroopam's case, there have been too many twists and turns. There was a ban on the film, which was lifted by a single judge of the high court. The state government went on to appeal, invoking Section 144, and had the ban restored. An overwrought Haasan has been calmed down by his film industry colleagues. He has met with the minority groups again and has agreed to make some cuts to their satisfaction. But it does not appear as though Vishwaroopam will release within the next day or two. The state government says it is worried about the law-and-order problems the release could create.

The Tamil Nadu government has criticised Haasan for rushing to the court. Ever since the Vishwaroopam controversy erupted, there have been murmurs of the return of vendetta politics. The much decimated opposition parties now have a cause to rally around. Is Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa annoyed at Kamal expressing a desire, at a public function in December last year, to see a "dhoti-clad Tamilian" (an apparent reference to P. Chidambaram) as prime minister? Or did Kamal selling the TV rights of Vishwaroopam to Vijay TV, when they were supposed to go to Jaya TV, annoy the powers that be? These are of course unsubstantiated rumours. Jayalalithaa has dismissed these allegations as baseless at a press conference. But the rumour mills will grind overtime as long as the ban lasts. Jayalalithaa has now promised to facilitate the release once Kamal sorts out his problems with the minority groups.

Or is Jayalalithaa trying to woo minority votes, as she has been perceived to be close to Gujarat CM Narendra Modi? Political observers are convinced that Muslim votes will be crucial in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, in which the AIADMK has to win a substantial number to be a force at the Centre. There is a sense of dismay about these developments.

The good news is that the film industry seems to have rallied around Haasan, although there was lukewarm support in the beginning, with him planning to release the film on DTH, antagonising distributors and exhibitors. Everybody is now worried that a fringe group can hold up a release. The state government has already cast aspersions on the censor board, creating yet another controversy. Should films with the censor certificate wait till all fringe groups are satisfied? Or should the troublemakers certify a film before it goes to censors?

It is sad that in the name of law-and-order, various state governments are banning films, books, etc. In a democracy, diverse points of view have every right to be expressed openly. One may disagree with them but to stifle dissenting voices is taking things too far. Vishwaroopam is the latest on a long list of films which have not been allowed to be screened on the pretext of hurting the sentiments of one particular community or another. The real tragedy is that Tamil Nadu is not known for communal clashes. Yes, there have been caste wars, but Hindus and Muslims have lived in harmony. The state is full of places which have temples and mosques side-by-side. A popular hanuman temple in Chennai is in Mosque Street, so named because of the mosque next to the temple. There is also a church a few buildings away. Is such a society so fragile that it can be hurt by works of art or by thought?

sushila.ravindranath@expressindia.com

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