Viswaroopam – The Silence of the Lambs

At the start, I wish to make a confession. I am an unabashed Kamal Haasan fan. I mean, who isn’t?

Okay, maybe people who haven’t watched his movies aren’t. And such people have probably lived under a rock all these years.

Kamal Haasan has had an unbelievably rich and storeyed career in filmdom. He is an actor, dancer, producer, script writer, and director beyond compare. Anyone who’s seen his movies, be it Sadma in Hindi, Nayagan in Tamil, or Pushpak in Silent Movies (although technically this movie was made by the Kannada Film Industry) would be left star struck. And mind you, these are just a few of his great movies. With all apologies to fellow Kamal Haasan fans, words fail me when I try to describe the caliber of this man, rather, legend’s gravitas and charisma.

And yet, it’s extremely shameful that an artiste of such stature has been made to grovel in order to see his latest film see the light of day.

And why so, do you ask?

First, let me give you all a background to this statement:

Kamal Haasan‘s long-awaited magnum opus, Viswaroopam has been slated for release since the dawn of the New Year. Yet, the release has been put off since the past two weeks for commercial reasons, owing to the maverick thespian’s wish to release the film in DTH ahead of its theatrical première. Needless to say, this bold and never-before-heard-of maneuver was clipped in its wings thanks to the powerful theater owner lobby in Tamil Nadu.

As is custom in India, Haasan had also decided to specially screen the movie to representatives of all sections of society to gauge any perceived offense to any group from its plot.

Sadly, this movie has backfired on him as some fringe Tamil Muslim groups have taken to the streets in protest at an Al Qaeda angle in the plot that they claim paints the Muslim community in a bad light and demanded a ban on its screening in Tamil Nadu.

At first glance, one would be inclined to be dismissive as no major Indian movie hasn’t faced protests from one element of society or the other. Also, given Haasan’s popularity in Tamil Nadu, a ban would have been unimaginable.

But a ban was imposed.

In a development that has set an incredibly bad precedent, the Tamil Nadu Government has decided to ban the movie on the basis of these fringe elements – this in spite of the Censors have already given certification to Viswaroopam.

Tamil Nadu Government has decided to ban the movie on the basis of these fringe elements – this in spite of the Censors have already given certification to Viswaroopam.

In a mad rush to be seen as “secular” governments of other neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have also banned the movie, setting off a Domino Effect.

Now, films have been banned before in India. Aandhi, a movie allegedly based on Indira Gandhi’s personal life was banned by her Government in the 70’s. It saw the light of day only when her regime collapsed after The Emergency.

Other movies that have faced bans in one part of India or the other include director Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Aamir Khan starrer Fanaa, and films that have been based on the Gujarat Riots of 2003 like Parzania and Firaaq.

Some of these movies were banned due to vendettas between concerned parties, while others were banned as they posed a threat to “law and order”.

But before we take an in depth look at this scenario, let’s come back to Kamal Haasan.

Any sensible person who has followed Kamal Haasan‘s life would be hard pressed to claim that he’s a communalist.

Haasan is an avowed atheist, and made the movie Anbe Sivam as a reflection of his beliefs.

Also, people who now accuse Kamal Haasan of being anti-muslim need to be reminded of his controversial movie Hey Ram, in which he courted the fury of the right wing Hindu elements by allusions of an alleged conspiracy theory that involved the RSS planning the assassination of Gandhi.

Haasan has been made into a media circus where he has been shown running from pillar to post trying to get the ban overturned. One High Court judge did overturn the ban, only for the Tamil Nadu Government and police to defy the court’s writ. Another HC Judge had the ban reimposed and Haasan was advised to compromise. Haasan has now appealed to the Supreme Court for justice and at the time of writing there is yet to be any resolution on the matter.

What has been stunning about this entire controversy is the studied silence of Haasan’s colleagues in the Tamil film industry. While it is no secret that Tamil films and politics share a deeply intertwined symbiotic relationship, the total lack of spine is astounding. Even Rajinikanth had been guarded in addressing Haasan’s plight.

Haasan has been candid to admit that the enormous losses have put a strain on his personal finances.

It all came to a head when Haasan gave an emotional press conference two days back voicing his angst and dismay at the turn of events. It is understandable after all, given that Viswaroopam cost approximately 100 crore to make and given that Haasan himself is the producer. With a ban on the film in its core language market, Haasan has been candid to admit that the enormous losses have put a strain on his personal finances. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, he lamented his loneliness in this battle and vowed to move out of Tamil Nadu to another “secular state” in India; if not, even move out of India, like artist MF Hussain did a few years ago after being hounded by right wing Hindu elements for his scandalous paintings of Hindu Goddesses.

Cinema is art. And the golden rule of art is that we can only love or hate, praise or criticize, recommend or avoid. But we do not have the right to ban it. To do so would be a violation of one’s freedom of speech, which is a cornerstone of a thriving democracy.

Think about it. The one thing we Indians pride ourselves about, especially while comparing ourselves to Pakistan is that we are a democracy. But what sort of a democracy is it if appeasement is used to silence the freedom of expression of a prominent citizen like Kamal Haasan? What chance do ordinary citizens like you and I stand if a person like him can’t even fend for himself?

And what about those of us, the silent majority who wish to see this movie? Aren’t decisions in democracies made by means of popular sentiment? Why not allow movie goers to see the movie and pass their own judgement?

It’s not just Haasan who’s being victimized. This culture of intolerance has permeated all strata of Indian society. Examples of people similarly hounded include eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy for alleged SC/ST comments, Facebook users Shaheen Dhada and Renu Shrinivasan for their criticism of a forced Bombay bandh in the aftermath of Bal Thackeray’s death, and victims of moral policing attacks like the Homestay in Padil, Mangalore, to name a few.

Such incidents, like I said earlier, set a dangerous precedent if they are allowed to go without some form of redressal, or at least, a reprimand. It is within democracy to protest if some things are unacceptable to a certain section, but to attempt to threaten and bully the other side into submission like in Haasan’s case is nothing but a sign of a burgeoning Mobocracy.

While the protestors are guilty of this crime, we are also equally guilty of not trying to stand up against such injustice. Although Haasan’s outburst has shamed some prominent film personalities into being more vocal in their support, these gestures are all penny wise, pound foolish as most have used only social networking forums like Facebook and Twitter instead of going to the streets to sort out this matter amicably without having to compromise.

Who knows, this matter may sort itself out tomorrow. Who knows, Haasan may succumb to the pressure and compromise, cutting an hour’s worth of footage as rumoured. Everyone can then go to the theaters with their tickets, tuck into their seats with their popcorn and soft drinks, and enjoy the movie.

But the larger issue still remains.

This “Chalta Hai” attitude must not persist. One cannot allow lumpen elements to have their cake and eat it too. The silent majority must remain silent no longer. Today it is about a film. Tomorrow, it could be the way you live your life. Take a stand before it is too late.


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