Vishwaroopam is a spy thriller made on a budget of nearly Rs.100 crore by actor-producer Kamal Haasan. The antecedents of the Vishwaroopam controversy seem to go back to June 2012, according to Mohd. Ismail Khan, “when Hindu Makala Katchi objected to Kamal Haasan’s latest big budget movie Vishwaroopam. They protested against naming a Tamil film in Sanskrit, which according to them insults Tamil sentiments. It might have been the early sign for atheist Haasan that the vaastu of this movie is not good for its karma”. Soon after the trailer of Vishwaroopam was released along with the posters there was a media buzz that Haasan who has experimented with Hinduism, castes and other conflicts in past, was this time presenting his depiction and interpretation of international terrorism.
Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu who purportedly had apprehensions and objected to the movie met Government officials and a special screening of the film was organised for them. But after watching the movie, the apprehension of those Muslim groups were converted to the belief that the ‘movie depicts Islam in a negative light’ and they condemned it as anti-Muslim film.
The movie which was scheduled to be released in the whole of South India was banned in Tamil Nadu, followed by restrictions in Hyderabad after protests from some Muslim organisations like Majlis Bacho Tehreek and Jamaitul Ulema. In Karnataka the restrictions were put in place by police who perceived law and order problem.
Kerala the only south Indian state which screened the movie witnessed clashes in front of theater between SDPI and left student wings. After protests from Tamil Muslim Diaspora the film was also banned in UAE and Malaysia.
In Tamil Nadu, the Muslim Munnetra Kazagham (TMMK) was at the forefront to prevent Vishwaroopam from getting released in TN. Its President and MLA Prof. Jawaharullah, said, amongst other things that “…In the movie Islam is shown as a barbaric religion which encourages throat slitting and public executions.” On the other hand, after the ban was imposed Kamal Haasan issued a public statement saying that any Indian Muslim watching the movie will feel proud by the character played by him as a Muslim RAW agent saving USA.”
Regarding the freedom of expression of artists which many felt is being curtailed due to the ban on Vishwaroopam, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazagham (TMMK ) chief asked where were the champions of freedom of expression when Tamil movies like Kaatrukku enna veli on the sufferings of Tamils in Sri Lanka was banned by the Indian Government. He said, “There was no hue and cry when Kaatrukku enna veli was banned, there was no statement from Rajnikanth or other cinema personalities condemning it. Why are they selective in their approach, why do they see intolerance only when Muslims are protesting?”
In response, Jawaharullah said, “As an Indian Muslim and as a Tamil Muslim, I didn’t feel any pride at all, watching us portrayed as terrorist’s sympathisers.” To strengthen his argument in favour of a ban, the TMMK chief cited the example of the recent ban on Dam 999 movie in Tamil Nadu considering the ‘sentiments of Tamilians’, and a ban which was also upheld by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, there was a buzz in the South that Kamal Haasan’s movie was targeted by Chief Minister Jayalalitha as Kamal Haasan failed to launch his movie on the DTH platform with Chief Minister’s Jaya TV as promised. Since TMMK is an ally of AIADMK they were singling out his film and targeting him. But the TMMK chief termed those allegations “absolutely baseless.” Regarding the freedom of expression of artists which many felt is being curtailed due to the ban on Vishwaroopam, the TMMK chief asked where were the champions of freedom of expression when Tamil movies like Kaatrukku enna veli on the sufferings of Tamils in Sri Lanka was banned by the Indian Government. He said, “There was no hue and cry when Kaatrukku enna veli was banned, there was no statement from Rajnikanth or other cinema personalities condemning it. Why are they selective in their approach, why do they see intolerance only when Muslims are protesting?” When asked has his organisation started to play the role of cultural police to control cultural and artistic freedom, TMMK chief said they are not against artistic freedom of expression. But he said that this freedom has to be coupled with social responsibility and it definitely cannot be carried out at the cost of Muslim beliefs. He also added that Tamil cinema is a very powerful potent force which changes the political and cultural structure of the State. So the cinema personalities have social responsibilities which they have to take care off while making a movie.
But it is not up to TMMK or other groups to decide the fate of the film or to resolve whether Vishwaroopam is indeed an anti-Islamic film or it crosses the border on freedom of expression. Ultimately, the judgement of the courts will be not just supreme but important in setting a precedent for the future. Haasan earlier said he doesn’t want to be drawn into talk of a political aspect to the ban on the spy thriller made on a budget of nearly Rs.100 crore. The film-maker said he was “ruthlessly used as a vehicle” by groups seeking a political profile and called for an end to “cultural terrorism”. On the positive side, in the light of the controversy surrounding the release of Vishwaroopam, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has announced that it plans to set up a committee to review the Cinematograph Act under which the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) regulates the public exhibition of films by granting them certificates under different categories. Films in India can be exhibited publicly only after they have been certified by the Censor Board.