Tamil filmstar Vijay Sethupathi’s decision to opt out of a biopic on legendary Sri Lankan Tamil cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan is another tragedy to befall Tamil Nadu’s love-hate relations with the island nation. Tamil nationalists, sections of Tamil Nadu politicians, and personalities from the Tamil film world can claim victory, but it is doubtful if the axing of the movie (for now) will do any good to Tamils in Sri Lanka.
On the contrary, this movie, about a Tamil who arguably has more fans today in Tamil Nadu than LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ever did, will be certainly made one day. It may be made by Bollywood if not in Kodambakkam, and a Farhan Akhtar might star in it, if not a Vijay Sethupati. The loss would be of Tamil cinema — an opportunity lost to tell a unique Tamil tale.
Muralitharan, one of the finest bowlers ever (800 wickets in Tests and 534 in ODIs), has a compelling personal story. If identity is so crucial to Tamils, they should be celebrating his storied life. Here’s a Tamil with a contribution to cricket that is inspirational. He earned his spurs in what was a landscape of bloodshed and violence in Sri Lanka, particularly for the Tamil community in the island.
The charge against Muralitharan is that he supported then defence secretary and now President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presided over the military destruction of the LTTE in 2009. The cricketer has been accused of describing 2009 as the best year in his life, which was read as supporting the killing of the many innocent Tamils in the war. Muralitharan’s refutation that he never supported the killings has made no difference to his critics.
Will Sri Lankan Tamil political aspirations and post-war reconciliation advance now that the movie has been axed? If anything, it was LTTE’s obduracy, no less than of the Sinhalese leadership, Prabhakaran’s dogged refusal to think politically and his determination to turn the LTTE into an all-out war machine and fight to the end, that took down the Sri Lankan Tamil community. After a quarter of a century of bloodbath, what did the LTTE achieve for the Tamils? Even Sri Lankan Tamils, including former Tigers, are asking this question. One ex-LTTE fighter who left Sri Lanka after the war told me: “In 1983, we didn’t have much but we stood on our legs. Today, we have lost whatever little we had and are on our knees.”
Muralitharan, in any case, does not belong to the North or East of Sri Lanka, which formed the geographical territory of Eelam. He belongs to the Hill Tamil community (also known as Indian-origin Tamils) which also suffered at the hands of Sinhalese chauvinists even though it had no role in the Eelam campaign. Muralitharan has spoken about how his father was attacked in the 1977 anti-Tamil riots. In any case, Eelam champions had little interest in the privations of this community, which mostly works in the tea plantations of the central hills in conditions that were subhuman until a few years ago.
The Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu remain in thrall of the LTTE, even though Sri Lankan Tamils have had mixed feelings about them. There is only one Sri Lankan Tamil hero for them. The danger, in the eyes of Tamil nationalists, is this: The biopic, 800, would have shown up a different Tamil hero. Is this why he had to be called a traitor? The same Muralitharan was a star when he played for the IPL franchise Chennai Super Kings (CSK). By his own admission, he loved being in a Tamil crowd while in India. No one asked him then which side of the war he was on.
Tamil Nadu has not painted itself in glory on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The state’s political leaders encouraged Sri Lankan Tamil “boys” to wage war in Sri Lanka. Backing violent nationalism in another country was easier, especially as it reaped political rewards at home, until, of course, the boys grew up and started biting back. By then, most of the same politicians were either too much in with them, or too scared to defy them. By 2005, LTTE literature had started describing Prabhakaran as the “leader of world Tamils”, the honorific that always belonged to DMK leader, M Karunanidhi.
It is arguable if Tamil Nadu’s influential politicians could have scripted a less bloody ending to the war. Compromise is not a dirty word; it only means taking a careful middle road after balancing the interests of rival sides. It is tempting to think that 30 years ago, Tamil Nadu politicians could have become a bridge between Colombo and the Tamil militants, and even, perhaps, between Delhi and Colombo.
Before the war ended, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then the president, urged Tamil Nadu politicians to visit Sri Lanka. The invitation was spurned. After the war ended, when agriculture scientist MS Swaminathan was to visit Colombo, pressure was brought on him not to go. Had he shared better farm technology with Sri Lanka, would it not have helped Tamil farmers too?
There is still time for Tamil nationalists to rethink their position on Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. The more they shout from Chennai, the less it is going to help the Tamils in Sri Lanka. What Tamils want today from the Sri Lankan government is accountability, justice, equality. Nixing a movie on a Tamil cricketer is not going to get them that.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2020 under the title ‘Caught out by spin’. The writer, a historian of the LTTE, reported from Sri Lanka for many years.
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