'Vishwaroopam' films and the confused Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim framework
It's not unusual for films with a patriotic theme to release around Independence Day. This August, we had the Hindi film Mulk hitting the screens on the 3rd and Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam 2, releasing on the 10th. Both of them, interestingly, are about terrorism and Islam. While Mulk bravely takes on Islamophobia, Vishwaroopam 2 is the sequel to a film that saw protests for its anti-Muslim politics, although the hero (Kamal Haasan) plays a Muslim man.
The first film, Vishwaroopam, was supposed to release for Republic Day in 2013, but because of the protests (which Kamal firmly believes were politically motivated), it hit the screens only outside Tamil Nadu. It was February 7 by the time the film was allowed to release in the state. Whether the protests against the film had the invisible hand of then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa as Kamal has often alleged or not, it is worthwhile to examine if it was indeed anti-Muslim as projected.
In Vishwaroopam, Kamal plays Wizam, an Indian agent who leads a double life as Vishwanath, a married Kathak dancer in New York. In his parallel life, he is a Tamil Brahmin man with exaggerated effeminate mannerisms. He is married to Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), a Tamil Brahmin nuclear oncologist, who has no clue about her husband's real identity.
At the very beginning, we hear from Nirupama that hers is a marriage of convenience and that she really cannot bring herself to respect her husband. She is having a fling on the side with her boss, Deepak (Samrat Chakrabarti). However, in her desire to find something unsavoury in her husband's life that she can use against him, she unwittingly unleashes a chain of events that leads to the discovery of Vishwanath's real identity. In the second film, we're told that Wizam was born to a Pakistani father and Indian mother, and was dishonorably discharged from the army as a ploy to create an alternate identity for him. Along with Ashmita (Andrea, who also plays a Tamil Brahmin), he becomes a RAW agent.
A good portion of both the films is set in Afghanistan, covering a terrorist camp led by Omar (Rahul Bose), which has been infiltrated by Wizam and other agents like 'Imtiaz' (actually a Hindu man) who are feeding information to the Americans about the group's activities. Omar appears to have been heavily inspired by the real life Mullah Omar, who was the supreme commander and 'spiritual leader' of the Taliban. Omar was wanted by the US government for allegedly housing Osama Bin Laden and other militants after the 9/11 attacks. In the film, too, Omar plays host to Osama and he is one-eyed, like the real life Omar was.
However, while not much is known about Mullah Omar's family, Vishwaroopam and Vishwaroopam 2 have sub-plots involving his imaginary wife and sons to establish his misogyny and cruelty, Wizam's contrasting good nature, and the American "ethics" of warfare.
Throughout the films, we're repeatedly presented the Good Muslim vs the Bad Muslim. For instance, Wizam is the embodiment of the Good Muslim:
He prays regularly, even praying for an American officer who was rude to him;
He does not enjoy violence – while Omar and his gang ghoulishly replay the video of a beheading, Wizam walks away in disgust;
He is courteous to women and children, to the extent that he can forgive his own wife's infidelity. Omar on the other hand is autocratic, and his wife and family fear him;
Wizam repents when someone loses their life because of him – when Thaufeeq is killed, he can barely watch the hanging, and in the sequel, he is haunted by the violence. Omar however, has an army of workers who are exposing themselves to cancer for the higher cause, he likes to collect newspaper clippings of young suicide bombers.
But most importantly, the definition of a 'Good Muslim' is someone who has assimilated other cultures (read Hindu.) In Wizam's case, we see this repeatedly. He is a trained Kathak dancer, an art form that evolved during the Bhakti movement and usually tells the story of Hindu gods (although there are trained Muslim Kathak dancers, too.) The first time we see him, Wizam is dancing to a song about Krishna.
Later, just before he changes to his true self, Wizam calls out to Krishna when he's getting beaten up by the terrorists.
When questioned why he's doing so despite being a Muslim, he says he is a Muslim but also a good artist who has become integrated with his role. When he transforms into who he actually is, the background score goes 'Vishwaroopam' (the universal form, referring to the Hindu god Vishnu/Krishna). The first time this score plays, he's actually transforming into his real self – a dashing Indian Muslim agent.
In contrast, Omar hates everything that is not 'Islamic' – from his son learning English to his wife getting modern medical treatment for her asthma. For Omar, as well as the other terrorists, the only name on their lips is that of Allah. The films constantly place the Good Muslim, Wizam, on the team of the Hindus (from Nirupama who saves the day with the Faraday Shield in the first film and diffuses an underwater bomb in the second, to Ashmita and Colonel Jagannath – all of them speaking the Tamil Brahmin dialect) or white men (the British Dr Dawkins and the Americans battling the terrorists), while the Bad Muslim is surrounded only by people of his own religion, shouting slogans in praise of Allah before committing acts of violence.
In the process, there's very little examination of how religious bigotry works both ways, something that Mulk raised quite eloquently. There are hints to this in the first film – 'Imtiaz' reminding Wizam that he isn't actually a Muslim, a black American officer making jokes about Allah. In the second film, we have a superior doubting Wizam's credibility because of his religion. But all of this limited representation of Hindu bigotry is in the security context and doesn't extend to how normalised it is in everyday life.
Later, we get a line from Wizam chiding a Brahmin bureaucrat (who is a traitor) thus – "I'm a Muslim who loves his nation, a Muslim who is ready to give up his life for his people. It's not sinful to belong to any religion, brother, but it is wrong to be a traitor." When the latter kills himself in the film, the blood splatter is in the shape of south India – possibly a salute to Dravidian anti-caste, secular politics that Kamal is keen to find a place in soon.
However, such reiterations of patriotism by Muslims on screen are not new. We've seen this repeatedly in several Indian films across languages and they only go to underline the community's lack of acceptance in the mainstream. On the other hand, Hindus, as a community, are never required to "prove" their patriotism – on screen and off it – and the Vishwaroopam films don't question this either. This, despite the fact that the sequel has released at a time when the clamour for "Hindu rashtra" is growing louder and more violent by the day.
A lone turncoat Hindu character appears like an exception (given that everyone else from the community and caste group is saving the world), while Wizam appears to be the only Muslim capable of having any compassion or patriotism. The only other "Good Muslim" characters are Omar's wife and kids who want a different life and Wizam's Alzheimer afflicted mother - but they have very little agency and are dependent on their saviour, Wizam.
Further, the films aren't interested in looking at how powerful capitalist countries in the West have exploited the Middle East and what has really made the region as unstable as it is today. Ironically, it is the jihadi Omar who says in the first film that Americans will not shoot at civilians in a war zone! While in the first film we're led to believe that this was a miscalculation and that the Americans indeed killed Omar's wife and children, in the second, it's revealed that the Americans actually rescued them with Wizam's help. Given how often we've seen news reports about American war excesses and civilian killings, this pandering is far from innocent. It also obfuscates the politics of terrorism, making it only about religious fanaticism.
As good an actor as Kamal Haasan might be, the whole premise of the Vishwaroopam films is rather troubling when you realise that he, a privileged Hindu man, has produced and directed a film where he plays a Good Muslim disguised as a privileged Hindu man, and is supported by characters who share his real life religious and caste identities. And the fact that it is through him that we're learning what a Good Muslim man should be like.
In other words, the question begs to be asked – is it in his place to define this, through art or any other medium? Doesn't Kamal belong to an industry where Muslim actors have had to adopt Hindu names in order to be accepted by the audience? Isn't it true that mainstream heroes rarely play Muslim characters on screen? Doesn't this speak of how the community is often isolated from the mainstream and how we're all guilty of participating in this majoritarian culture?
This doesn't mean that actors should only play roles that reflect their real identities but they should be all the more careful and balanced when attempting to represent a minority identity. Vishwaroopam and its sequel may have been well-intentioned but they fare poorly on this score.