Following the heated debates and hate hashtags that trended on social media, former Sri Lankan Tamil cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan has issued a statement from the UAE, where the IPL is currently on, that he has requested actor Vijay Sethupathi to withdraw from 800, the biopic on the cricketer's life.
"Because of the misunderstanding regarding me, there has been tremendous pressure on Vijay Sethupathi. I don't want an excellent artiste to suffer because of me. Considering his future career and the roadblocks he might face, I have requested him to withdraw from the project. Every time, I have handled the obstacles in my path and won. That is how I've reached this stage. This film would have served as an inspiration for future cricketers, and that is why I accepted to be a part of that. I am sure we will take it to them. A new announcement will be made shortly by the production house, and I stand by them. I thank all those who supported me during this time," said the statement. Vijay Sethupathi posted this on his official social media handle.
Considering the success of biopics about cricketers such as MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and documentaries such as Sachin: A Billion Dreams, a film on the much-loved Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan sounded like a walk in the park. And when the name of a star-actor like Vijay Sethupathi got attached to this project, one expected the film's journey from paper to screen to become even smoother. But this transition has been anything but smooth given the troubles the cast and crew of this film have been facing, since the initial announcement.
More recently, this even saw #ShameOnVijaySethupathi trending on Twitter, a day after the film's official motion poster was launched last week. Another hashtag that soon followed was #BoycottVijaySethupathi, increasing the intensity of the social media outrage this announcement sparked. This soon generated many debates online, with one segment wondering why an Indian actor should even play a Sri Lankan in a biopic. Others chimed in asking Vijay Sethupathi to stay away from the film, given it had the potential to hurt Tamil sentiments.
Before we delve deeper into the issue, here's some background on the film. Titled 800 (based on the number of wickets scalped by Muralitharan) the film is being directed by first time director MS Sripathi and is being produced by Movie Train Motion Pictures and DAR Pictures. Accomplished names in the crew include Sam CS, the composer of Sethupathi's hit Vikram Vedha, and DOP RD Rajasekhar.
Back in July 2019, the cricketer had made a statement that he was honoured that an actor of Vijay Sethupathi's calibre was playing him in his biopic. He added, "I am glad to be collaborating with DAR Motion Pictures on the film. We are looking at a late 2020 release date. I have been actively collaborating with the creative team for the past several months and I'll continue to support this project through its duration," he had said.
Following the recent uproar, the crew behind the film added that their intention was not to paint the portrait of a flawless hero. The film's co-writer Shehan Karunatilaka, in an interview to The Hindu recently, said they were more interested in the shades of grey that formed the part of the cricketer's persona. Which means that, though he was considered a genius among large sections of cricket lovers, there was also the other, especially in Australia and England, who considered him a "bowling action illegitimate".
Hero or otherwise, there was a section of people who didn't want a film to be made about a cricketer who, they believe, did not support the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Critics pointed to an old video where Muralitharan described 2009 as the best year of his life, even though 2009 saw the peak of the Sri Lankan civil war being fought between the National Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Another controversy erupted when Muralitharan backed Gotabaya Rajapakse last year. He later went on to win the elections. This is important given that Gotabaya was defence secretary when the LTTE was wiped out.
On Saturday, Muralitharan issued a statement amid the response that followed the film's announcement and said that he was initially hesitant to participate in such a film about his life. "But, later, I thought the movie would be the right opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of my parents, teachers, coaches and co-players in my success," he said.
"I have experienced the horror and the pain caused by the war. We lived amid a war in Sri Lanka for more than 30 years. How I managed to join the cricket team and tasted success despite these circumstances is what 800 is all about," the release said.
Muralitharan alleged that his statements have been twisted to portray him in a bad light. "For example, in 2019, I had said that the year 2009 was the happiest year in my entire life. But, when people write, they claim that the year Tamilians were slaughtered was the happiest year in my life," he wrote in the Tamil release.
The response from industry insiders has further added fuel to the debate. Teejay, a singer who played Dhanush's son in Asuran, had rejected the offer to play Murali's younger version in the film. In an interview, he alluded to his Sri Lankan Tamil roots (his mother is an Eelam Tamil).
What followed was a host of other seniors in the industry urging Sethupathi to step back from the role. Director Bharathiraja came forward and said, "You have a long way to go. Why do you want to give your face to a betrayer forever? Somehow, try to say no to the project."
Others who supported Bharathiraja's view included lyricists Vairamuthu and Thamarai, while politicians such as PMK founder S Ramadoss went ahead and called the Sri Lankan cricketer a "betrayer." In a statement, he said. "Muralitharan is a betrayer of the Tamil community. Sethupathi is loved by the people because of his roles on screen. He too will be considered a betrayer if he goes ahead and plays Muralitharan in the film."
In contrast, Sethupathi also found his share of support from film personalities. Senior actor Radhika Sarathkumar backed him completely. She tweeted, "People who are asking Vijay Sethupathi not to act in the Biopic are jobless people. Moreover, Muralitharan is working as the chief coach for the IPL team Sunrisers Hyderabad."
"One of the owners of this team is a Tamilian and belongs to politics. Why isn't (anyone) questioning this? "Even though Sunrisers and Sun TV proprietors are having political connections they can professionally and clearly manage politics, sports, and Entertainment. Likewise why our cinema industry people should not view entertainment from a political angle," she added.
Her husband, actor-politician R Sarathkumar, too supported this view and posted a release that said, "One should not damn actors. They have the right to choose a character. The movie world will lose its freedom if there are demands that an actor should act only like this, and in certain roles," Sarathkumar said.
Politician Karti Chidambaram too said it was wrong to bully the actor for participating in the film. He tweeted, "Will the fringe, of all spectrums, start deciding which actor can act as which character in any movie? Will they also decide on whom movies can be made? Perhaps they should issue an "advisory" on historic and mythological characters that can and cannot be portrayed and by whom."
The Sri Lankan issue has even earlier created several cinema-related controversies. Back in 2014, Santosh Sivan's film Inam/Ceylon was pulled out of theatres following protests by Tamil fringe groups. For Inam, it started with the demand to remove five scenes from the film, which was about the survival of a refugee. The film was taken off screens within days of its release, even though it had received a 'U' certificate from the censors.
Even Vijay-starrer Kaththi faced similar issues when producer Lyca Productions' head Subaskaran was linked to business dealings with the then Sri Lankan President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, which resulted in Tamil fringe groups protesting the release of the film.
The backlash for 800 was intense, especially since it was directed against a much-loved actor. With this decision by Vijay Sethupathi and Muralitharan, yet another sordid chapter in politics taking over art comes to a sad close.