Vishwaroopam: The story doesn't end here

The banning of the movie says something about the uneasy relationship between art and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both the state's dominant political parties grew as a result of its association with cinema

NS Ramnath
Published: 29, Jan 2013

I have been with Forbes India since August 2008. I like writing about ideas, events and people at the intersection of business, society and technology. Prior, I was with Economic Times. I am based in Bangalore. Email:

Just last Wednesday, the Madras High Court struck down a provision in a 60 year old law that demanded drama artists to submit their scripts to police for approval before they stage their plays. The state's Dramatic Performances Act 1954 was passed at a time when Tamil Nadu was still called Madras state, and Indian National Congress was in power. In that year (1954), the state government headed by K Kamaraj banned a play by thespian MR Radha saying it offended religious sentiments. The play was called Ramayana, and it came with a twist: Ravana was the hero, and Rama the villain. The play is mostly forgotten now. MR Radha passed away in 1979. But the rule persisted.

Those with neither training nor  instinct could now decide on the fate of plays. Sometimes, their approval came at the last moment, keeping the artists and audience in suspense. Sometimes, they demanded ‘objectionable’ scenes or dialogues to be cut. Art suffered. “The power conferred on the State government under section 3 as well as on the police commissioner/district collectors under section 4 is too wide and highly discretionary. Therefore, it cannot be held to be constitutionally valid and hence it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution,” the Madras High court judge noted while striking down the rules. Gnani Sankaran, who fought for the repeal of the rule called the verdict a victory for the freedom of expression.

Given this, there's an expectation among fans, artists and journalists in Tamil Nadu that Madras High Court will stand up for freedom of speech yet again and rule in favour of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam. Last week, Kamal's latest movie was banned by Tamil Nadu government for 15 days after a few Muslim organizations complained that the film hurt their sentiments. Kamal Haasan filed a case asking the court to lift the ban. On Saturday, the High Court judges watched the movie. On Monday, there was disappointment. The court asked Kamal to explore all possibilities with the state government while they pass the verdict. The case was heard at Madras High Court today. The verdict is yet to be given.

There are reasons to believe that it will be in Kamal’s favour. Those who have seen Vishwaroopam say there's nothing offensive in the film. Over the weekend I spoke to a few of my friends abroad who had a chance to watch it. Their views on the film varied. Some liked it, and some didn’t. But none found anything that seemed offensive. The movie has been screened in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala without any incident. More importantly, the legality of a state government passing such orders is suspect. In 2011, when Prakash Jha took a few state governments to Supreme Court for banning his film Aarakshan he won the case. A Hindu editorial supporting Jha that time quoted these lines from an earlier judgement: "freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence."



Economics of Vishwaroopam

While making a case for releasing his movie on DTH first, and in cinemas a day later, Kamal said, "Like justice, entertainment delayed is entertainment denied." He might have used a bit of poetic license to connect entertainment with justice, but he also displayed a poet’s instinct for anticipating the future. There are delays and that's going to cost him money.

The film might have had a good response from his fans abroad. However, for an Indian film, the bulk of its revenues has to come from domestic market. According to a KPMG analysis, domestic theatrical revenues account for three fourth of total revenues, and overseas theatrical revenues account for about 7%.


Again, within India, while the movie is being released in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, it’s the  third that’s expected to contribute the maximum. Kamal is well known in Andhra Pradesh too, and some of his best movies were in fact made in Telugu ( Swati Muthyam and Sagara Sangamam). He is known in Hindi too. Yet, it’s in Tamil Nadu that he has his most devoted fans, and it’s there he can hope to make most of his money.

Traditionally, in Tamil market, fans have anchored their expectations around two festivals. One is Deepavali (October / November) and another is Pongal (January). Kamal was targeting the Pongal season. That’s when people are in a holiday mood; they go out, spend a lot of money, and consider a few hours inside a cinema hall as time well spent. He missed that opportunity because theater owners were against him releasing the film first on DTH.

The date he subsequently chose - Januray 25th - was not as good his first - and releasing the movie this week will be worse. In the coming weekend, the film has to compete with another highly anticipated movie Kadal. Kadal will appeal to similar set of audience for two reasons: it’s directed by Mani Ratnam, and has a cast that will find a lot of resonance with the audience. In 1981, when Kamal’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye became a big hit in the north, two young actors - Karthik and Radha - made a dashing debut in the south through a super hit film called Alaigal Oivathillai. Mani Ratnam’s Kadal has Karthik’s son and Radha’s daughter playing the lead roles. The trailer of Kadal (which also has some haunting music composed by AR Rahman) suggests it will be ‘cinema as an entertainment’, rather than as 'cinema to make a point'.



David, starring Vikram, will also be hitting the screens on February 1st.


Vishwaroopam will have to compete with these two films this next weekend. The first few days are the most important for any cinema. That’s where most money is made.

A more insidious competitor is piracy. According to a PWC report, Indian cinema loses 14% of its revenues to piracy. The demand for pirated CDs/DVDs is at its peak soon after the film is released as potential film goers weigh the desire to watch a new movie against the time, cost and efforts involved in going to a theater. Kamal was betting big on tapping this demand through releasing the film in DTH premiere. That did not work out.

The big question now is whether the interest generated by all these controversies will offset the losses due to delays.

Politics and Cinema in Tamil Nadu In many ways, the core issue here is business than art. In fact, in one of the press conferences a couple of weeks back, Kamal called himself a mere businessman, fighting for his right to sell his product in the market he chooses.

But, we might be missing the bigger point, if we don’t recognize that it’s also about art, and freedom of expression. Not because Kamal Haasan is a talented actor, not because he is as passionate as anyone can get about movies, but simply because cinema, even if it’s a badly made cinema, is a  symbol of artistic expression. (This is also the reason why even those who had very low opinion about the talent of Aseem Trivedi stood up for his right to express his views through cartoons)

The banning of the movie says something about the uneasy relationship between art and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both the dominant political parties grew as a result of its association with cinema. CN Annadurai wrote movie scripts and dialogues, and so did M Karunanidhi. MG Ramachandran, the charismatic politician who ruled the state for years was also a charismatic star; and so is J Jayalalithaa. The state politicians have shown extraordinary desire to exert control over the film industry, and many artists have often shown extraordinary compliance. Extravagant functions to honour or thank politicians are common. Stars align themselves with one party or the other – and that often impacts their career in films. Vadivelu, a popular comedian, is no longer seen in Tamil cinema because of his caustic campaign against Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth (another actor who made a transition to politics) in the 2011 elections.

That uneasy relationship is evident in the present case too. Kamal Haasan received little support from his own colleagues in the industry, except for brief statements by Rajnikanth and Prakash Raj. He is fighting a lone battle. It’s in this political context that the complaint  gained over-sized importance.

The verdict, even if it strikes down the ban, should be seen only as a temporary solution.

  • Srinivas

    I have not seen this movie; but am wondering at the following aspects, irrespective of the film under discussion and the virulent opposition to its screening from the so called affected parties:

    - Who are these affected parties that seem to represent?
    - When the silent majority is aggrandized of their representation by these so called outfits?
    - Why is it a just and equitable proposition: when an affected party claims that its sentiments have been affected while the protagonist of the film is indeed been affected with the mounting losses?
    - Why is it that government must spring into action just at the whiff of the opposition to the movie?
    - Is it so proactive and responsive a government( wish it is indeed) to address the so called affected party or is this affected party a front to the government for the reasons best known to the political machinations?
    - If the government has been in the habit of banning the screening of the movies in general at the whiff of the opposition from the fringe groups, then why is it that same government did not act with same alacrity in other instances?
    - Understandable: that the other actors are equally silent for the want of protecting their own careers and business interests. But then what is the purpose of having those film chambers, producers guilds, actors' associations?
    - Even curious is the case of the observation from the honorable court: what specific arrangement would it expect the film producer to explore with the affected parties?
    - Does it not perforce mean that the film producer is indeed the guilty even without pronouncing it so explicitly( am a layman; doesnt know law; but believe has some common sense)
    - When a statutory body that is fully empowered has given its judgement in terms of certification then why is it that government must ban it?
    - Why is it the honorable court doesnt take cognizance of it in the first instance?
    - Why is it these fringe but seemed to be overly affected parties go to the relevant Courts and ensure that justice is meted out to them; if only they believe in what they claim and if only they have the gumption of conviction about this whole drama that is being played out while the government and other administrative machinery has become a mute spectators...rather willing parties to this episode?
    - Why is it that Honorable SC's ruling/observation/judgement is not taken into consideration by either the government or the Honorable HC of TN in allowing the film to be screened?
    - Why is it that Honorable HC of TN does not pronounce a firm emphatic judgement than confining itself to the advise?
    - Who is indeed affected? Is it the film producer who is waging a lone battle for no fault of his own or the so called groups who "seem to have been " affected by the ever sympathetic government?
    - What recourse does a common citizen would have in this society if such a 4 time National award winner in Kamal Hassan cannot escape the brunt of abject apathy and petty politics of various stakeholders in this sordid saga?
    - What if Kamal is associated with one of the major political players within TN: would it have been other way round? - Is it the essence of democracy in which claim to be living: that mere depiction of some thing that is contextual is utterly outcontextualized and re-interpreted for the benefit of the vested interests in the name of sensitivity?
    - If people are so sensitive, then why on earth do you want to see the movie? Why dont you save the hard earned monies?
    - If you have not seen the movie then what on earth makes you feel that it has affected you or even others?
    - Is there a reason in the dialogue? Is there any tolerance to dissence or difference of opinion or viewpoint?
    - Why not then get the permissions from the respective governments for the screening of the films by every producer?

    Its awful; disappointing and sad that creativity, art, expression, healthy dialogue, vibrancy of different perspectives are systematically stymied and muffled in the name of being affected by fringe useless groups...worse still ...its abetted by the respective governments in the name of protecting the interests...even worse is the fact that such incidents are becoming a recurring phenomenon across the nation......Who is there to protect the interests of the one who has invested heart, soul and hard finances into making of such a film?

    on Feb 2, 2013
  • S. Srinivasan

    A brilliant essay that puts the whole issue in perspective. This episode is the latest evidence for how low the Indian civilization has sunk. And how India doesn't deserve its best and the brightest.

    Anyone can form a group and claim the right to be offended by what others say and the government will side with them. Freedom of expression and freedom to engage in business don't matter before the need to assuage proclaimed offendedness.

    In the case of Vishwaroopam, the damage has already been done. The court order is a mere formality now. It can't change anything. In fact, I would say the court has made itself irrelevant. Kamal Hassan has lost huge amounts of money. The movie has effectively been killed. Insignificant Muslim groups, whose contribution to the society is unknown, have made a celebrity come kneeling before them. They have humiliated him in all possible manner. And politicians have learnt that they can get away with games like these. Now, if the judges get off their collective backsides and pass a judgement, is it going to make any difference?

    But there are several unanswered questions in this shameful saga to a completely neutral observer:

    1) Unless I am badly mistaken, ordinary Muslims aren't talking. Why is the larger Muslim society silent on the cultural terror tactics of a handful of self-styled representatives? Why haven't they risen in support of Vishwaroopam? If the same had happened with the Hindu community, with the Hindutva thugs protesting against the movie, the larger Hindu community would have certainly expressed its solidarity with the artist in every public forum. When are the Muslims going to stop their passive support to such practices?

    2) If the movie has been screened outside Tamil Nadu and it has not led to violence, what is the basis for the premise that it will lead to violence in Tamil Nadu? Why is the court not taking cognizance of it?

    3) If a movie is to be banned because there is not enough police in the state, why don't we ban elections too? And AIADMK's rallies and meetings? After all, political events require much more policing than the screening of a movie does.

    4) If a celebrity like Kamal can struggle so much to even release a movie, how can foreign direct investors be convinced to invest in the country and made to expect freedom to do business?

    5) Why should anyone bother with this shit-hole called India any more?

    on Feb 2, 2013
  • Vijay Sankar

    Nice one Ramnath.

    on Jan 31, 2013
  • Soma Visal

    How could a film be objectionable in one particular language and to one particular sect of the community in one partricular State alone, when it runs freely in other Indian languages? Heavy rumours are afloat in Tamil Nadu over this Vishwaroopam now. Why all the people are trying to get a political mileage at the cost of this Artiste? Instead should they all not sit and decide it over a cup of coffee? The only beneficiary now is the media channels which are having slots for more debates and vying with each other for TRPs. Of course, an unpaid super publicity for Kamal Haasan too!

    on Jan 31, 2013
  • Lakshman

    This is a brilliant piece of article - thanks for such a wonderful article!!

    on Jan 31, 2013
  • Aarif Ahmed

    Islamophobia is a common theme in Tamil film industry for the past 21 years right from Mani Rathnam's Roja (1992). Depiction of Tamil Muslims as traitors and terrorists is considered normal even by so-called free thinkers. CM Jayalalitha, after petitions by 24 non-profit charities, finally got the guts and heart to put a full stop to this cultural terrorism by hindu fascists under the guise of art. Also, Kamal must be arrested and penalised for inciting virulent hatred against the Tamil Muslim community abusing cinema as a tool. Only when a strong precedent is set, other actors in the cocoon minded Tamil film industry will stop such stereotyping and not violating the spirit of the secular Constitution of this country.

    on Jan 30, 2013
  • ashok pai

    The duplicity of the MSM is breathtaking. If this were a right wing hindu org protesting, there would be a scathing rebuke to it, the salman khurshids, teestas, the barkha dutts and the sagarikas would swoop down to defend the right to air their thoughts. right now, it's a right wing muslim organisation (yeah!!!! there can be right wing muslim orgs too - they are not "Secular" in any sense ). so we see, that the "secular" brigade is conspicuously missing yet again!!! where are those SRK apologists ? busy playing victims perhaps. so, why again are the "secular" brigade not responsible for breaking the fabric of the nation ? why are they not directly responsible for playing the communal card ? why are they silent on such issues ?

    on Jan 30, 2013
    • Thameez

      Mr. Ashok as Kamal himself told today in the press meeting that Muslims were instrumental in this 'war'. For the past 3 days there is war only between Jayalalitha Vs KamalHassan.

      on Jan 30, 2013
  • Rajesh bohara

    @Shoukath Ali You mean to say the freedom of speech of Non-Hindu like Mr.Owaisi and Mr.Zakir Naik, who are using it very efficiently one guy proving how strong he is and he can prove it in 15 mins and another proving all the religions except ISLAM are wrong, fake and doesnt exist and man made..... We never said ISLAM is wrong or All muslims are terrorist. The film just shows the Muslims who are terrorist.

    on Jan 30, 2013
    • ashok pai

      well said. i do not even understand why zakhir naik who openly insulted the hindu community by challenging the beliefs can walk around. if it were pramod muthalik speaking similarly, he'd be in the slammer before he could finish his speech. whereas mr. owaisi is getting a vip treatment!!!

      on Jan 30, 2013
  • Hema

    And if cinema is to come into its own in India, it needs to be beyond the control of politicians. When Karunanidhi was in power, his family had a stranglehold on production and distribution, which was disastrous for independence of thought and artistic vision in movies. And now JJ is flexing her muscles because Kamal Hassan reportedly attended a book release by her arch-enemy Chidambaram. Petty piliticking indeed.

    on Jan 30, 2013
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    on Jan 30, 2013
  • Shoukath Ali

    The ban was justified. One man's profit or loss must not be factor in deciding judgments on such sensitive cases. The overall impact on social structure and ethnic harmony must be a larger consideration to the courts and the governments. The author Mr Ramnath has no time to consider the right to free speech of non-hindu people of this nation. He is so worried about the right to free speech about the majority community in the guise of art. Where was Mr Ramnath, when the legendary artist MF Hussain was gheraoed and thown out of this country by hindu fascists.

    on Jan 29, 2013
    • ashok pai

      amazing! how thin skinned can you get ? so please tell me what was it that offended you ? I routinely see the movie / TV serials using hindu mantras while there's a fight scene going on - but never an azan. now do we ? hindus are not objecting to it, but now they should, given how thin skinned you are. all the award winning movies are about the plight of the kashmiris getting brutalized, but, what about the plight of the kashmiri pandits whose land it was before islam, the religion itself was born! where were you when the godra incident happened ? why is it that MF Hussain does not have a single unclothed muslim king/ prince/ queen, but all his unclothed paintings are of hindus ? dude, get real. if you want secularism, be prepared for a full version of it. get out of your ghetto

      on Jan 30, 2013
    • Rajesh bohara

      You mean to say the freedom of speech given to Mr.Owaisi who can prove in 15 mins that he is strongest and Mr.Zakir Naik who keeps arguing that only ISLAM is the real religion everything else is FAKE or MAN MADE..... What a efficient usage of Freedom of speech.,,,, I have seen the movie it has nothing wrong and nothing against Indian Muslims and it shows the muslims who are terrorist in bad light..... which is also the fact....

      on Jan 30, 2013
  • Soma Visal

    Feel Jaya lost her balances. Settling scoresd with Kamal? For what? Any clues?

    on Jan 29, 2013
    • Thameez

      Kamal told in a function that Dhoti clad person should be a PM, that is our Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in his own function and the arch rival to Jayalalithaa. Hope this is enough for you to imagine rest.

      on Jan 30, 2013
  • Kalyan

    Brilliant piece. Only Ram could have written this. Thanks Ram. Keep it coming.

    on Jan 29, 2013
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