The plan for a biopic on the life and achievements of Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan has received a setback following opposition from the Tamil film fraternity and politicians. Actor Vijay Sethupathi, who was to play Muralitharan in the film, has withdrawn from the project, on the advice of the cricketer, after he (Sethupathi) was targeted by a section of the industry. Critics of the film, 800, view Muralitharan as someone who “collaborated” with the Sinhala majoritarian sentiment and “betrayed” the Tamil cause. The shrill political correctness on display refutes a nuanced understanding of politics, cinema and sports — the three strands in a complex narrative of the rise of a cricketer from an ethnic and linguistic minority to the stature of a national hero against the background of a long drawn-out ethnic war.
Muralitharan is arguably one of the greatest sportspersons of Tamil origin. His success as a bowler is unique in the history of cricket. His 800 Test wickets came in the face of tremendous odds on the field and off it. His bowling action, unusual because of a deformity in his throwing arm, came under extreme scrutiny and he had to fight allegations of chucking all through his career to emerge as one of cricket’s greats. Off the field, however, his loyalty — to his community and the nation-state — was always on test as his career overlapped with the war years, when people and opinion were polarised not just in Sri Lanka but also in Tamil Nadu. Muralitharan, of course, was careful to avoid conversations on politics, though some of his remarks during the last phase of the war were construed as supportive of Sinhalese triumphalism. The fact is Muralitharan belongs to the Tamil community constituted mostly of indentured labour from India that went to work in the tea plantations in Sri Lanka in the 19th century. The plantation Tamils organised differently from the Tamils of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka and were lukewarm to the militant mobilisations of outfits such as the LTTE. The complex political history of Sri Lankan Tamils apart, it is unfair to let Muralitharan’s stray comments on politics cloud his achievements on the cricket field.
Muralitharan’s life story has ample material for good cinema. By all means, the film must be criticised if it fails to do justice to it. But the current grandstanding in the context of the making of the film, with an eye on political gains in Tamil Nadu, cannot pretend to address in any way the real concerns of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
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