‘Vishwaroopam’ and Tamil Nadu’s cinema of politics
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)
The most unfortunate aspect of the censorship controversy over Kamal Haasan’s new movie “Vishwaroopam,” which came out on Thursday, is that it is happening in Tamil Nadu. India’s southernmost state has a history of using cinema as a tool of political dissent and expression, particularly regarding the Dravidian movement, but that spirit seems to have vanished with the decision to release a truncated version of the film after Islamic groups said certain scenes offended them.
First, a recap: “Vishwaroopam” (background on that name here) is a spy thriller about a Muslim man living in New York, masquerading as a Hindu. He must thwart a plot by a group of Afghans to blow up the city. The film came out on Jan. 25 except in Tamil Nadu, where Muslim groups objected to the portrayal of some characters as bearded, wild-eyed “terrorists.” The state banned the film under India’s criminal code, and chief minister and former actress Jayalalithaa said she could not guarantee police protection at cinemas that showed the movie. She also said that the ban was a move to preserve “law and order.” Haasan agreed to remove seven scenes to mollify the groups.
The history of Tamil Nadu’s cinema is intertwined with its politics. The social, political and religious ideology that arose there over the years often was the work of prominent figures in cinema who gravitated toward politics. The influence of their politics was wrapped up in the films that they made. Many of these people dominate politics in the state today, but their stance on creative freedom contradicts their pioneering work in promoting progressive thought.
In 1952, the film “Parasakthi,” which lambasted Hindu religious beliefs and Brahmin caste hegemony, was released in Tamil Nadu. It was an instant hit – and all the more provocative because it debuted during the Diwali holiday.
“Parasakthi’s dialogues became so popular that roadside entertainers used to recite long passages from the film in market area of Madras and collect money from bystanders,” said MSS Pandian, cinema scholar in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly written in 1991.
When Hindu religious groups objected to the film, the government and Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari, allowed the film to be screened. According to a report in The Hindu newspaper, Rajaji was unhappy with “Parasakthi,” but said, “the course of freedom could not be dammed, and things could go on until people learnt themselves about what was worthless.”
Not surprisingly, politics played a role in the release of “Vishwaroopam.” In the early eighties, a wave of conversion of Dalits, or so-called untouchables, to Islam was reported in the districts of Ramanathapuram, Thirunelveli and Coimbatore. This was followed by communal clashes in the state.
The AIADMK party imposed restrictions on conversions and arrested several leaders of Muslim groups garnering Hindu support in the state. The DMK, which came to power later, released the Muslim leaders to try to win their votes.
Researcher P.G. Rajamohan described how the “Tamil identity” in the state was yielded to competing religious identities in one of his research papers. “The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) bid to secure more Hindu votes by curbing Islamist fundamentalist organizations and the DMK’s strategy of appeasing the Muslims led to a further polarization in the State’s political spectrum,” he wrote.
With India’s general elections scheduled for 2014, political analysts see Jayalalithaa’s ban on “Vishwaroopam” as a move to garner Muslim votes.
Jayalalithaa’s predecessor and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, a self-proclaimed atheist, banned the movie “The Da Vinci Code” in Tamil Nadu, saying that Christian groups protested. And now, Christian groups in Tamil Nadu have filed a complaint against Mani Ratnam’s “Kadal,” saying the movie is anti-Christian.
While India’s creative class and intellectuals express dismay over a growing intolerance of free speech, the political system finds ways to use that intolerance. Tamil Nadu has much to lose — not just the culture of artistic and political expression that its people built, but the pride that came along with it.