Bengaluru: A Tamil biopic on veteran Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan has become a flashpoint in Tamil Nadu over what is seen as the celebrated bowler’s “support” for the Sinhalese-led government in Colombo during the country’s 26-year-long civil war.
The movie is titled 800 — the number of wickets taken by Muralitharan in Test cricket — and stars popular Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi in the lead. Its poster was released on 13 October, and Vijay is being criticised by many sections for signing the movie.
Muralitharan is a part of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil community and grew up amid the bloody civil war in the country’s north.
The civil war was triggered by a Tamil insurgency that erupted in 1983 in response to what the community described as an attempt by the majority Sinhalese to disenfranchise them, with the nation’s colonial rulers also believed to have played a role in fomenting differences.
The war was finally crushed in 2009, under a government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, then President and now Prime Minister. Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajabaksa, who was defence secretary when the war was crushed and is now the nation’s President, were accused of gross human rights violations against the Tamils in their bid to end the war.
Critics of Muralitharan resent the fact that he is seen as close to the Rajapaksas.
After the release of the poster, critics of Muralitharan dug up an interview where he is purportedly heard saying that 2009 was the greatest year in his life. His participation in Gotabaya’s election campaign in 2019 has also been a point of consternation.
He says May-2009 is the greatest day of his life. If genocide of Tamils is that great to him why can't his biopic be released in sinhalese!? pic.twitter.com/Ki0htAbk3h
— MAHENDRAN THANGAVEL (@RAJARAJAN1000) October 14, 2020
I am grateful to Cricketing legend Muttiah Muralitharan for joining the world’s first zero-carbon footprint election campaign – let us protect our Motherland ! #නිදහසේහුස්ම #ActioningTheBlueprint #VisionInAction #zerocarbonfootprint #VoteGOTA pic.twitter.com/5PeWqAZ37q
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) October 31, 2019
Muralitharan has denied all allegations in light of the controversy, offering his traumatic account of the war to claim that his 2009 remark was just meant to convey his happiness at the war ending.
The AIADMK and many other parties in Tamil Nadu have lashed out at the movie and those behind it.
Tamil Development Minister Ma Foi Pandiarajan said “Muralitharan’s point of view that the killings of Tamil were not genocide but crushing of the revolutionaries has hurt the sentiments of Tamils across the world”.
ThePrint could not independently verify if Muralitharan ever said this.
“If the movie is only about cricket, I don’t have a problem. But if it gets into the political turf and glorifies what Muralitharan said about Tamils, then it would be very difficult to defend,” the minister added.
A PTI report quoted MDMK general secretary and MP Vaiko as saying that Muralitharan has been “identified as a betrayer of the Tamil race” by Tamils around the world for supporting the then Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa during the 2009 civil war.
PMK founder S. Ramadoss said the news of Sethupathi playing the role of Muralitharan was “shocking”.
The actor should not support a history of “betrayal” out of “ignorance”, he was quoted as saying by PTI. The cricketer, he said, is a “betrayer” of the Tamils and a loyalist of the Rajapaksa brothers.
In an open letter to Sethupathi, famous Tamil director Bharathiraja asked whether he wants his “face to be forever associated with a racist person”.
“I speak on behalf of Tamil people all over the world, somehow try and avoid being a part of this biopic on the life of a person who hates the Tamil,” he wrote.
The opposition DMK has yet to comment on the issue.
The late DMK chief M. Karunanidhi courted several controversies for his statements on the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), the leading Tamil insurgency outfit during the war, and his alleged proximity to its chief V. Prabhakaran.
Muralitharan is the bowling coach of IPL team Sunrisers Hyderabad, which is owned by the Sun TV group run by the Karunanidhi family, which also leads the DMK.
The Naam Tamilar Katchi, a fringe outfit in Tamil Nadu, has started an online campaign #ShameonVijaySethupathi on Twitter to protest against the movie, with many social media users slamming the actor too.
“How could he (Vijay) wear the Sri Lankan flag on his chest? Shame on you. It is the same government that massacred our Tamil brothers,” said a Twitter follower.
#MuthaiahMuralidharan Traitor of Tamils. He would love to do anything for money. He is not more than these people. @ShaneWarne @sachin_rt @DhoniOfficial Why should his life to be recorded in cinema? It’s all to put out the genocide done by Sri Lanka .
— திரவியம் தென்றல் (@amizhdhan) October 16, 2020
I don't belong to NTK. I am Tamizhachi I raise my voice for Tamil peoples. I feel big saying i am Tamilan rather than compressing Tamils into Political party..
கட்சியை தாண்டி தமிழர்களின் குரலாக ஒலிப்போம் 🖤#ShameOnVijaySethupathi
— Dhivya dharshini (@dhivya_dharshin) October 14, 2020
— Ashwanth (@iam_ashwanth) October 14, 2020
In the movie’s defence
In 2019, when the launch of the movie was announced, Tamil Nadu saw many protests. Sethupati had made a request at the time that the movie should not be judged before its release.
“I would not do anything that would lead to hurting my people. I would not like to lose the support of the people who have always bestowed their love on me,” Sethupati made a statement then.
Dar Motion Pictures, under whose banner the movie is being released, has defended it, saying “art is beyond boundaries; it unites people all across”. “Artistes belong to the world. We wish to spread only positivity, love and hope,” it added, saying the movie is “purely a sports biography” and should not be politicised.
“We as the producers assure this film will not showcase any scenes that would belittle the struggles of Eelam Tamils in Sri Lanka or hurt their sentiments in any way,” it stated.
Muralitharan, who is married to the daughter of an eminent Tamil doctor couple from Chennai, said in a statement issued in light of the controversy that he personally suffered because of the war.
He said his 2009 remarks were misconstrued, adding that he knew the extent of loss caused by the war.
“I’m hurt to be portrayed as a person against Tamils. I’m providing this explanation for neutral minded people as only wrong news is being shared even though I know that I can’t pacify those who oppose me,” he added.
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