Not quite death by a thousand cuts, but it is a distorted picture that Tamil Nadu sees
Now that the Tamil version of Vishwaroopam—vetted and pre-censored by alarmist Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu—has been released, what are the apparently inflammatory and incendiary content Tamil viewers will be spared? These are scenes that have already been seen by everyone elsewhere in the country and haven’t, so far, provoked rioting or communal outrage. But in Tamil Nadu, the film prompted: violent protests even before its release, state’s subsequent abdication to maintain law and order and a dramatic threat of self-imposed exile by Kamalahaasan. This wasn’t the first time the actor has courted the ire of Muslim groups, some of whom had expressed concern with how earlier movies Hey Ram and Unnaipol Oruvan had depicted Muslims.
Outlook spoke to two Muslim leaders, M.H. Jawahirullah, MLA, of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) and A.K. Mohhammad Hanifa, coordinator of the Federation of Islamic Organisations and Political Parties in Tamil Nadu, who were among those to have met with Kamalahaasan and the state’s home secretary R. Rajagopal in backroom parleys to discern specific instances from the film that had caused the controversy and the changes were finally promised to smooth things over.
Roadblocks A protest in Madurai
What follows is a listing of the edits sought by the protestors against those actually made by Raaj Kamal Films International to clear the way for Vishwaroopam’s release in Tamil Nadu:
- Recitations of all but one Quranic verse to be rendered mute. It was felt that the verses were “not used in a proper manner” and often quoted “out of context”. The only verse that the edited Tamil version will now contain is uttered by Kamalahaasan, where he prays to Allah to give him the strength to be able to flee from his captors. This verse, the Muslim representatives agreed, was shown in a positive manner.
Cut made: Muted Quranic verses
- Omar, played by Rahul Bose in the film, claims to have spent time in India, especially Coimbatore and Madurai. The Muslims want this reference to these two cities deleted. “This suggests that a terrorist like Omar finds safe havens in Tamil Nadu and that there are jehadis here,” says Jawahirullah. “This reference has the potential to create trouble in these two places that are communally sensitive and have already seen bomb blasts,” he adds.
Cut made: Muted the words “Tamil Nadula” and “Coimbatore, Madurai”
- Kamalahaasan’s character, Wisam Ahmed Kashmiri, is a RAW agent. He has been tasked with infiltrating Al Qaeda—to try and get as close possible to Osama bin Laden. A perfectly reasonable premise. What was thought to be contentious, though, was Kashmiri’s Tamil connection. He has a Kashmiri mujahideen father and a Tamil mother, which explains why he speaks Tamil. What they want edited is a dialogue by Omar where he tells his associate not to let him go as a ‘Tamil-speaking jehadi’ is apparently a very valuable asset.
Cut made: Muted the words “Tamil Pesura Jehadi”
- All instances of “Allah Ho Akbar” (God is great) to be cut, especially those uttered before criminal acts. One such scene that has receieved special emphasis has a young Muslim man proclaiming the article of faith before blowing up an American building.
Cut made: Muted the words “Allah Ho Akbar” in one instance
- A scene in the movie offers a gory frontal view of an American captive’s throat being slit. While he is being killed, after offering an apology for American killings in Afghanistan, a camera records the act. Reinforcing the militant Islam tone, the wall behind the hostage has a banner that features the kalima, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The offended groups want that banner morphed out in the final print.
Cut made: Visual distortion of the banner in the backdrop
- A man is publicly hanged by the Taliban, supposedly, for betraying them by smuggling in a device, which allows the Americans to track them. It is actually Kamalahasaan’s character who has it placed in the accused’s bag of opium. The Taliban never figure this out and hang the innocent man instead. Soon after he dies, everyone begins to rejoice: they fire their guns in the air and chant slogans that ask for the killing of traitors and infidels. “This scene has to be much more restrained. Why rejoice so much when an innocent is killed?” asks Hanifa.
Cut made: Muted euphoric words
Apart from these modifications, Jawahirullah says, the film will now carry a disclaimer stating explicitly that it is a work of fiction and not intended to hurt the sentiments of the members of any religious community. When asked whether this confrontation could have been pre-empted had the film carried such a disclaimer from the get-go, he replies that all filmmakers have a social responsibility. “And more so in a state where cinema is so powerful, so much so that the industry has produced five chief ministers. People here have confessed to committing crimes after being inspired by films. Without these changes, Vishwaroopam would have made it seem as though the Quran is a textbook in the hands of terrorists and the namaz a motivation for terrorist attacks.”
It has also emerged that the Muslim groups wanted more changes, including the deletion of all scenes where terrorists are reading the namaz, especially one where a Nigerian terrorist is shown readying himself for martyrdom and praying before he attempts to explode a nuclear bomb in New York (they had no problem with Kashmiri reciting the namaz when he is faced with the threat of a nuclear explosion). However, Kamalahaasan managed to strike a compromise after offering the changes listed above, arguing that further changes entailed high costs and delays.
As to why Muslims in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka or Kerala haven’t taken similar umbrage with the film, Hanifa argues that Tamil Nadu’s Muslims are far better organised. “We expressed our anger collectively and reaped a successful result,” he says.