Why Sri Lankan Veteran Cricketer Muralitharan’s Yet-To-Be-Made Biopic Has Become Controversial

by M R Subramani - Oct 16, 2020 01:21 PM +05:30 IST
Why Sri Lankan Veteran Cricketer Muralitharan’s Yet-To-Be-Made Biopic Has Become ControversialMuttiah Muralitharan (L) and Vijay Sethupathi as Muralitharan
  • The personalities of both actor Vijay Sethupathi and cricketer Muralitharan are the subject of discussion in the context of this controversy.

Last week, when DAR movies went public with their plans to make a biopic on one of the most successful cricket bowlers in the world, Muttiah Muralitharan, there were little indications that it would lead to a controversy.

Titled 800, the number of wickets the Sri Lankan off-spinner took in Test cricket, the film will have Tamil movie actor Vijay Sethupathi in the lead.

DAR movies said it had plans to dub the movie in other languages too, particularly Hindi, Kannada, Bengali, Sinhala and Telugu.

DAR movies said the film would be “purely a sports biographical film” and its shooting will begin next year.

However, the movie came under flak this week with social media trending #shameonvijaysethupathi after the actor being signed for the film.

If DAR movies had expected the making of Muralitharan’s biopic to be a smooth affair, it was probably mistaken, given the cricketers’ past history.

With regards to Sethupathi, the story has taken two curious turns: as to who is opposing him, and who is supporting.

Till now, Vijay Sethupathi could has been seen as someone opposed to the Union Government, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Elements opposed to Hindutva, BJP and Modi have always looked upon him as one who they can rely on to embarrass the Centre on issues, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.

But where Vijay Sethupathi has been caught on the wrong foot is that he has fallen foul of those supporting the cause of a separate Tamil Eelam State in Sri Lanka. These elements are in Sri Lanka as well as India.

Among those who have come out against Vijay Sethupathi donning Muralitharan’s role are people from the Tamil film world itself, led by veteran director Bharathi Raja. There are others such as Naam Tamilaar Katchi leader Seeman who too are opposing this.

However, Vijay Sethupathi is now getting support from unexpected quarters. The BJP and its leaders such as Subramanian Swamy and former Karnataka IPS official, K Annamalai.

Both support the movie with Swamy, in particular, tweeting that Muralitharan is the most brilliant spin bowler to date in cricket history and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) that fought for a separate Eelam has become extinct.

What forces those who favour a separate Eelam to oppose Muralitharan or a biopic on him? There are two reasons for this.

One, last year the off-spinner had supported Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election. He was even tipped to be made the governor of the Tamil-dominant Northern Province but it hasn’t happened yet.

Rajapaksa is being held responsible for the wiping out of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 and allegations of genocide have been made against him and the army.

While supporting Rajapaksa, Muralitharan denied that any genocide took place in Sri Lanka, angering Eelam supporters.

The wiping out of the LTTE included the killing of its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran by the Sri Lankan Army along with his family, especially his 12-year-old younger son, Balachandran.

Though LTTE has become extinct, those who have supported the cause of a separate Eelam continue to nurse such hopes, especially in Europe, Australia and Canada.

The other issue the Eelam supporters have with the Sri Lankan off-spinner, who had won many a Test match single-handedly for his team, is that he has never supported the cause of either the LTTE or a separate Eelam.

This is because people are not aware of the exact reasons behind Muralitharan's refusal to take up the political cause.

Muralitharan, born in April 1972 at Kandy in Sri Lanka, and was the eldest son of Sinnasamy Muttiah, who tasted success as a biscuit manufacturer.

The off-spinner’s grandfather, Periyasamy Sinasamy, went from southern India to work in Sri Lanka plantations in the 1920s, when the British ruled both nations.

Though Sinasamy returned to India and settled in Trichy with his daughters, Muralitharan’s father opted to stay back in Sri Lanka.

The off-spinner went to one of the schools that produced popular cricketers for the island nations, St Anthony’s College.

An event that took place in 1977 had a deep impact on Muralitharan. Then, his family had to face an attack by a furious mob of Sinhalese during the pogrom that took place between July and August that year.

In Kandy, Tamils living in Sinhala-majority areas were attacked. The off-spinner family’s house and factory were burnt. But it was the Sinhalese who saved them from the furious mob.

“They (helpful Sinhalese) came and stopped the crazy people (furious mob) before they killed us. We never forgot that. We rebuilt them (home and factory) and moved on. That was our family way. We are businessmen, not politicians,” the off-spinner told popular cricket writer Peter Roebuck in an interview.

Muralitharan told Roebuck that the situation became normal for him after 1983, particularly after he moved to a hostel for studies. At the hostel, he lived with students from both communities - Tamil and Sinhala.

This probably explains why Muralitharan has kept off from politics, concentrating only on his career.

The sudden outburst against the Lankan off-spinner is surprising since he was considered as “Chennai’s own son-in-law”.

Muralitharan is married to Madhimalar, whose family ran the Malar Hospitals in upmarket Adayar locality before the Fortis Group took over. The off-spinner had also represented Chennai's CSK proudly in the Indian Premier League cricket.

He has also been involved in Tamil Nadu Premier League as a mentor of Thiruvallur Veerans.

Thus, the whole controversy over his biopic raises a question: are these protests over Muralitharan’s actual background or are pro-Tamil elements upset over Vijay Sethupathi signing up for the project?

Probably, the pro-Tamil elements are seeing an opportunity to push their cause with elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly round the corner.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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