On Vijay Sethupathi's exit, Shehan Karunatilaka wrote, “He has been dismissed from the crease not by the umpire’s finger, but by the boos of the crowd.”

Shehan Karunatilaka black and whiteWikimedia Common/Deshan Tennekoon
news Controversy Sunday, October 25, 2020 - 16:01

In a blog post that has now been published in the Times of India, Shehan Karunatilaka, a writer from Sri Lanka who is associated with the Muthiah Muralidaran biopic 800, expressed his disappointment over all that has transpired over the past two weeks with respect to the film. He shares a little about what aspects of Muthiah’s life the film would focus on and points out that for it to happen, they should be allowed to make the film first.

“Don’t condemn a movie before it is made. Don’t deny the creators a chance to explore one of Sri Lanka’s most interesting and divisive figures. Don’t let cancel culture become our latest import from the west,” he writes in his letter.

Shehan begins his blog by sharing that he intended for it to be an open letter to actor Vijay Sethupathi, who was meant to play Muthiah’s role in the biopic. This was before the latter announced that he would no longer be a part of the project following Muthiah’s request. On Vijay Sethupathi's exit, he writes, “He has been dismissed from the crease not by the umpire’s finger, but by the boos of the crowd.”

“This is what I would say to Sethupathi if he was still doing our movie and was open to opening open letters. Or wounds. Don’t cancel the match because a few in that section of the crowd are screaming ‘no ball’,” he adds.

Shehan goes on to write about why he decided to be a part of the project, as a screenplay writer, for which he shares to have written seven drafts already. He admits he wanted answers to two questions that he wouldn’t have had the “guts” to ask Murali himself in person. “1) What is it like to be called the Greatest Of All Time and a Cheat/Fraud/Chucker by the same set of fans? 2) What was it like to be a Tamil boy in a mostly Sinhala dressing room at a time when the two races were at war? (sic)” Shehan writes.

He asserts that for a writer, Murali is a “fascinating man and a mesmerising tale” and adds that for an artist, it would “be the role of a lifetime.”

“Sripathy (director) and I were never interested in telling the heroic tale of a great bowler. In doing a puff piece that glorifies or whitewashes,” Shehan says and shares that the script that they had written attempts to answer questions like — “How did a Tamil boy from the plantations whose family business was burnt down by Sinhala mobs manage to play for Sri Lanka and surpass the likes of Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and yes, Shane Warne in the record books? Was his decision to focus on bowling off-spin and avoid politics a wise one, or a callous one?”

The writer, who is known for his book ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’ and the most recent ‘Chats with the Dead’ puts forth questions on freedom of expression. “Who made the rules saying actors can’t play controversial figures or perceived villains? Was there an uproar when they gave an Oscar to a movie about Churchill, a man responsible for far more deaths than the LTTE. Arguably,” he asks.

Shehan continues, “We can make films about Stalin and Genghis Khan and Christopher Columbus. But not a smiling off-spinner from Kandy who happens to say the wrong things in interviews? Isn’t unravelling complex characters and examining historical legacies what art is supposed to do?”

Among other things, Shehan adds, “The movie I wrote ends in 2010 when Murali takes his 800th wicket. (I’d say spoiler alert, but the title got there first). Which politicians he shares stages with in 2019 is not a topic dealt with in the script of ‘800’. But there is a crucial scene where Murali, on one of his many charity missions for the Foundation of Goodness, meets with the top brass of the LTTE and has a heated discussion on the war. I won’t tell you what happens in that scene, for that would really be a spoiler. But let us make the film and we will show you.”

800, the biopic proposed on Sri Lankan cricketer Muthiah Muralidaran, received criticism from Tamil people on the internet. To be produced by Movie Train Motion Pictures and Dar Motion Pictures, it was perceived that Muralidaran, allegedly a supporter of the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka which is accused of committing genocide against the Tamil people, must not be glorified on screen, especially by a beloved actor like Vijay Sethupathi.

When reactions on social media blew out of proportion, with many from the Tamil film industry, including veteran director Bharathiraja discouraging the actor from doing the role, Vijay Sethupathi pulled out without issuing a clarification. Notably, Muthiah too, prior to Vijay Sethupathi’s announcement, requested the actor to disengage himself from the project, to protect his own future. Consequently, the project has now come to a standstill, with the producers yet to make further announcements. 

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