Vishwaroopam was more than a blockbuster in Kamal Haasan’s career. After it was banned by the then Jayalalitha government in Tamil Nadu, the controversy snowballed into a national debate about the freedom of expression.
This episode that was filled with high-voltage political drama even prompted Kamal to declare that he was contemplating to leave the state in search of a secular place to live. His words came from a place of frustration and helplessness. His 2004 film Virumaandi also faced political pressure because of its original title Sandiyar. The title was changed as it apparently had the potential to hurt the sentiments of certain caste members.
It seemed that when Vishwaroopam controversy broke out, Kamal Haasan sort of had enough. And he cried, “I am an artiste with no religious leanings and neither am I right or Left. I am fed up. I do not know what is going on.”
Some Muslim groups, even before watching the film, protested against the release of Vishwaroopam in 2013. The film was accused of showing the community in a bad light in spite of the fact that the protagonist of the film was an Indian Muslim, who was entrusted with the task of saving the world from terrorists.
Kamal’s ‘I will quit India’ statement was made after he seemingly exhausted all options to ensure a smooth release for the film. There were several rounds of negotiations with religious organisations and government officials that were led by Kamal’s late elder brother Chandra Hassan. The filmmakers even had a special screening for the agitating groups to assure them that the film had nothing to hurt the sentiments of Indian Muslims. But that exercise did not fetch the desired results as Kamal was asked to remove scenes adding up to nine minutes from the movie.
On the other hand, Kamal was also simultaneously pursuing a high court case against the government’s ban on his film. While at first, Kamal received a much-needed break as the court stayed the prohibitory orders issued by the district collectors against the screening of the film in Tamil Nadu. The judgment in favour of Kamal, however, led to midnight efforts by the state government to suspend the court’s order. The government on January 13, 2013, rushed to the residence of Acting Chief Justice Elipe Dharma Rao seeking to keep the ban on the film. And the government succeeded.
Owing to ban in Tamil Nadu, the film’s screenings were stopped temporarily in other parts of the country, including in some international markets.
And then came Kamal’s emotional presser. He held the press conference at his residence in Chennai’s Alwarpet.
“M F Hussain had to do it, now Haasan will do it. From Kashmir to Kerala, excluding Tamil Nadu, I will try to find a secular state where an artiste like me could stay. If I can’t find it in a couple of days, I will hopefully find another secular country,” he said.
His frustration and pain were evident in his words. He revealed that he was in debt as he had pledged his properties to fund his dream project, which cost him more than Rs 90 crore.
As there seemed no relief in sight, the Indian film fraternity came together to express solidarity with Kamal. From Rajinikanth to Ajith, Salman Khan to Shah Rukh Khan appealed to the protesting groups to allow the screening of the film.
After fresh rounds of negotiations, Kamal reached a mutual agreement with protesters as he agreed to mute seven scenes in the movie that were deemed offensive by Muslim groups. Two weeks after the film was banned by the government, Vishwaroopam finally released in theatres in Tamil Nadu. It made good money at the box office and won two National Awards.
Vishwaroopam also became a key force in nudging Kamal towards active politics. The actor, who thus far had limited his political views largely to the big screens, started amplifying his political criticism. In 2016, he set up his Twitter account and became very active. A year later, he launched his own political party.
Just like movies, in the last few years, Kamal’s character graph has gone through a massive transformation: “From I’m willing to quit Tamil Nadu to I’m now ready to govern Tamil Nadu.”
Vishwaroopam 2 is set to release in cinemas on August 10. Hope history doesn’t repeat itself in this case.