The Indian state of Tamil Nadu was the stage on which a raging controversy played out recently surrounding the release of a Tamil film called Vishwaroopam.
The action flick, directed by and starring Kamal Haasan, was originally scheduled to hit theaters in Tamil Nadu on January 25. The release was delayed, however, in the wake of Muslim protests and the film was formally banned in the southeastern state on January 23.
The government of Tamil Nadu cited concerns over risks to law and order raised by the film, which portrays Muslims in a negative light, according to some groups.
Since its release in the neighboring states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where barricades were not raised, the film has been filling theater seats, and has received a positive reception around the country. It is estimated that the film’s ten-day ban in Tamil Nadu, its largest market, set filmmakers back around Rs 300-500 million.
When the ban was announced, Haasan was in Los Angeles for the Hindi and Tamil premieres of the film there. After returning to India, he joined a battle in the Madras High Court alongside the film’s production studio Rajkamal Films International.
After six hours of legal rigmarole on February 2, Tamil Nadu’s censors finally gave the nod to Haasan the next day, when he agreed to cut select bits and mute Quranic prayers and references to Tamil Islamic extremists in seven scenes. Haasan also ceded to a request to include a disclaimer in the film which clearly states it is a work of fiction to avoid further inflaming Muslim groups.
Thanks to this “amicable settlement” between the filmmakers and the offended parties, the edited film is set to debut in the predominantly Hindu state on February 7.
In a heartfelt letter dated February 4, Haasan thanked the Honorable Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, his loyal fans and the media for their support.
“I am ever grateful to the Tamilnadu and Indian People at large,” he wrote. “The media fought for my freedom as if it were theirs at stake – probably it is so.”
His letter added that “Many peers in the trade in Tamilnadu also reached out personally to enquire. Unbeknownst to me, the rest of my fraternity throughout the country raised their voices in my defense.”
Anupam Kher, actor and former chair of the Censor Board of India, spoke out on the matter, saying that no one has “the moral authority” to ban a film after it has been cleared by the board, and called the ban on Vishwaroopam “ridiculous”.
While this story had an overall happy ending, before the agreement was reached Haasan made a bold proclamation. If the government meddles in his future projects – in what he called a “political game” – he threatened to leave India for a secular country where he can live and work in peace.
“If MF Husain can do it, Kamal Haasan will do it… I am fed up,” he said. “If there is no secular state in India, I would go overseas.”
At a later press conference, the actor backed off his earlier statements and called them an “emotional outburst”, but reiterated his warning: “If this happens, again, I will leave the country.”