The '800' saga: Why the Muthiah Muralidaran biopic has caused a storm

For someone who has not followed politics in Sri Lanka, the objections against the film could be hard to fathom.
Muthiah Muralidaran
Muthiah Muralidaran

Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi withdrew from 800 on Monday, days after the film was embroiled in controversy. A biopic on Sri Lankan Tamil cricketer Muthiah Muralidaran, several social media users and people from within the Tamil film industry raised objections to the film, and asked Vijay Sethupathi to walk out of the project. Tamil nationalist party Naam Tamilar Katchi also got involved, telling the actor that he must step away.

For someone who has not followed politics in Sri Lanka, the objections against the film could be hard to fathom. Muthiah Muralidaran, after all, is one of the world's greatest cricketers and is a Tamil man himself. So, what is the problem?

Much of the anger stems from the fact that Muralidaran is considered to be close to the Rajapaksas. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President of Sri Lanka and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary when the nearly 26-year long civil war in 2009 came to an end, and virtually wiped out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. The government was accused of gross human rights violations, war crimes and genocide against the Tamil community. Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka while Gotabaya is the President.

A willing pawn? 

In an attempt to appease those who were objecting to the film, Muralidaran had earlier issued a letter stating that he has never supported the killing of innocent people. However, Thiru Rajan, a student activist from Jaffna, alleges that Muralidaran’s defence that he has never endorsed violence is hollow.

“In interviews to publications even in India, Murali has clearly praised President Rajapaksa. He has said that he is a good administrator. He has also dismissed the human rights violations that took place after 2009 in the Northern Province as 'drama'. All this is an indicator of where Murali’s politics stand," he says.

Mario Arulthas, Senior Advisor with People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), points out that Muralidaran was often used by the Sri Lankan government to project an image of unity internationally, even as discrimination against Tamils continued in the country.

"Since Sri Lanka’s independence, the state has been shaped by its elevation of Sinhala Buddhism. What this means is that the state and the majority population push the narrative that Sri Lanka is first and foremost a Sinhala Buddhist country. This ideology was detrimental to numerically smaller groups, such as Tamils and Muslims, who faced discrimination and violence. Tamils resisted this narrative and demanded equal rights, but their demands for autonomy, and eventually a separate state, were violently countered by the Sri Lankan state – resulting in the war," he explains.

Cricket, played in over a 100 countries, came in handy to keep up the government's image in international arenas.

"In parallel, the state also fought back by portraying their version of unity. The Sri Lankan cricket team as a whole was often used by the state to project a more 'cuddly' image of Sri Lanka, particularly as human rights violations harmed Sri Lanka’s image internationally. But the state’s vision of a 'united' Sri Lanka is a majoritarian and hierarchical one, one that places Sinhala Buddhism at the top, one that grants Sinhala Buddhists more privileges than other ethnic groups, and one in which Tamils and Muslims should know their place. They would wheel out 'model minority' individuals such as Muralidaran, to claim not only that the country was united, but also that those demanding more political rights belonged to an extremist fringe. Muralidaran supported these efforts by publicly saying that Sri Lanka was a Sinhala Buddhist country and making political statements undermining and dismissing legitimate Tamil demands and concerns," he adds.

Muralidaran’s complex identity 

Although it was the LTTE which assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the organisation has always enjoyed support in Tamil Nadu among the public and political parties due to the idea of Tamil brotherhood. While the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, have not spoken about the biopic, Vijay Sethupathi's terse tweet (Thank you and goodbye) confirming his withdrawal from the film, suggests that he was under pressure to walk out.

However, just as there are many who felt strongly that the film must not be made, there are several who have spoken out in support of Muralidaran and said that his story - the rise of a boy from a Tamil migrant family, who became an international cricketer in a war-torn country - is worth telling. In fact, LTTE chief Prabhakaran had reportedly supported Muralidaran's career in international cricket. 

In The Cricket Monthly in August this year, Andrew Fidel Fernando wrote a personal account of what it meant to grow up with Muralidaran as a cricketing icon, and how he has struggled to reconcile the bowler’s on field persona and charity work with his highly problematic political statements. As he points out, Muralidaran was a popular figure in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, and not only among the hill-country Tamils but also the Tamils who originally came from the old Jaffna Kingdom. The hill-country Tamils are from families that migrated to the island country from Tamil Nadu.

Andrew wrote about a widely circulated photograph in Sri Lanka which shows Muralidaran at an exhibition match in Jaffna, with adoring fans.

“Here, on Murali's back, in the middle of a cricket field, is a supporter who has raided the pitch, leapt up and wrapped himself around the bowler to plant a gleeful kiss near his right eye. Another pitch invader in touching distance is lit up likewise with elation,” he wrote, adding that in 2002, Muralidaran even reportedly met with LTTE cadres at a celebratory dinner in Jaffna.

Muralidaran could speak Sinhala and Tamil with ease, becoming an “emblem of unity”, as Andrew put it. “Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, Burgher - whoever you were, here was a Sri Lankan for all to rally around. While battles still raged over his action, the rallying was almost a national imperative, the Sri Lankan public's initial blindly jingoistic stance proved increasingly right by biomechanical revelations,” he wrote.

The cricketer also gave generously for charitable works, building 1,024 homes across villages in the Northern Province which was badly affected in the 2004 tsunami.

However, despite his charity, Mario Arulthas points out that Muralidaran did not merely keep silent about the violence against the Tamil people, he helped whitewash it. And that's what people are angry about.

"I don’t think many were expecting him to come out and agitate for Tamil rights. Any such action would have cost him his career - which also says a lot about how “united” the country is. But he chose to say that Tamil war victims were misleading David Cameron (the then PM of the United Kingdom). He chose to say that everyone was safe in the country while Muslims were being attacked in Kandy. He chose to endorse the Rajapaksas during the election. It’s his involvement in the whitewashing of the state’s horrendous crimes during the war that has frustrated people. If those are his convictions, then others have every right to critique them," he says.

Muralidaran’s politics

Even though the producers of the film, DAR Pictures and Movie Train Pictures, said that the film would focus on sport, the motion poster suggested that the civil war would be in the backdrop. And it cannot be otherwise. It is a well-documented fact that Muralidaran's family was persecuted by anti-Tamil mobs in the 1970s. His father was hacked in the violence.

But, in interviews, Muralidaran has insisted that despite these events, he did not grow to resent the Sinhala people.

“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 once told popular cricket writer Peter Roebuck in an interview.

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

Over the years, Muralidaran and his family developed close ties with the Rajapaksas and shared an amicable relationship with them. However, a majority of the Sri Lankan Tamils hold the Rajapaksa duo responsible for the genocide against their people. Muralidaran’s brother, Muthiah Prabhakaran, was Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s candidate from the Nuwara Eliya District in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. The Rajapaksas belong to the same party.

In his letter addressing the controversy, Muralidaran had claimed that his comment about 2009 being the best year of his life was twisted. He said that all he meant was that he was happy that the war had ended. But, the anger against him is not over the lone statement. Muralidaran was actively involved in his brother’s campaign and in his campaign speeches, he had made several statements vehemently endorsing the Rajapaksas. He had even shared the stage with a controversial, extreme right-wing Sinhala politician, Wimal Weerawansa, who had advocated banning the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan National Anthem. 

Muralidaran had said that it was at the behest of the Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that he had requested his brother to contest elections from an SLPP platform. “Even though I am not interested in politics, based on the request made by the President, I am introducing my brother to represent the upcoming General Election,” NewsWire had quoted him in July, 2020.

In the past too, Muralidaran's multiple statements ratifying the Rajapaksas have earned him a reputation of being ‘too close to the Sinhala oppressors.’

A Tamil activist and journalist based in Colombo tells TNM that during his years as part of the Sri Lankan cricket team, till 2009, Murali was accused by the Tamils of being silent on the crimes against Tamil civilians. But in the last decade, he has made statement - and his statements have been even more problematic.

“Today he says his family faced violence, but he still has openly said there has been no genocide. This is an insult to hundreds of thousands of families that suffer. He opposed Tamil Nadu politicians speaking for our rights and said that the country should be ruled by the Rajapaksa family. This is why many feel he is a collaborator," says the journalist.

Muralidaran's roots are, in fact, in Tamil Nadu. Muralidaran's grandfather, Periyasamy Sinasamy, had migrated to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu in the 1920s to work in the plantations in central Sri Lanka. His father, Sinnasamy Muthiah, is now a successful businessman who runs biscuit manufacturing factories in Kandy. But despite Muralidaran's ancestry, no political party from Tamil Nadu has come forward to support him in the biopic controversy. Not only because this would be a political misfire, but also because Muralidaran has, in the past, distanced himself from political parties in the state.

In December 2019, in an interview to Hindustan Times Muralidaran had said: “Tamil Nadu politicians do not understand the problems of Sri Lankans. They should allow our government to get on with governance. I support President Rajapaksa because he is the right person to lead our country.”

Though Vijay Sethupathi has left the project, Muralidaran has expressed hope that the film will still be made. It seems unlikely that anyone from the Tamil film industry will be ready to sign the project, given the backlash and controversy.

Senior journalist Rohini Mohan, author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War, says, "Muralidaran is a sportsman, not a politician. As a minority targeted in Sri Lanka, he should not have to defend his decisions and silences to Tamil nationalists wanting outspokenness whatever the consequences. Bravery is a gift, not a template response. Whatever Murali's legacy, it could have been addressed in the movie."

Muralidaran critics like Mario Arulthas are however of the view that the movie would not have addressed the flaws. "It is a shame that Muralidaran's extraordinary cricketing achievements and incredible life story are completely undermined by his politics. A biopic that truly reflects his life and Sri Lanka for what it is, would be welcome," he says.

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