More to it than meets the eye

Muslim groups that allege a slur on Islam in Kamal Haasan’s ‘Viswaroopam’ risk being seen as apologists for Al Qaeda. More interesting is the film’s portrayal of an Indian intelligence agent safeguarding American interests on Afghan and U.S. soil. But neither is the reason why the film’s release ran into trouble in Tamil Nadu.

Published : Feb 06, 2013 15:10 IST

Kamal Haasan at the media conference that he addressed at his residence in Chennai on January 30.

Kamal Haasan at the media conference that he addressed at his residence in Chennai on January 30.

IN the film Viswaroopam a Faraday shield saves New York from being destroyed by a dirty bomb. It is something of a glib anticlimax, almost a narrative non sequitur. One feels a bit cheated as the denouement seeks refuge behind that shield. The trail of pounding action, blood and gore that leads us, along with the FBI and our own RAW agent Viswanath (Kamal Haasan), to this point seems so much wasted cinematic effort when all it takes to save the day is for a metal cover of sorts fortuitously lying around in the room to be slipped over the lethal contraption, like a tea cosy, to shield it from the electronic signal that will trigger it. It is Viswanath’s wife, Nirupama (Pooja Kumar), a nuclear oncologist, who suggests this last-minute ploy to foil the Al Qaeda plot to devastate New York. She has accompanied her husband to the room in the metropolis where the bomb is live and ticking and where a Nigerian Al Qaeda operative, all shaven from head to toe, is ritualistically self set to blow up the device with a remote. Neutralising him is not enough; the device can be activated by a call from the mobile phone of the Al Qaeda mastermind, Omar (Rahul Bose). As they desperately confer outside the door of the apartment on how to handle the situation, Nirupama comes up with the Faraday shield plan. Good science pips dark science at the post. The director in Kamal Haasan, it would seem, is trying to score a point over the action hero, but with unconvincing result. “That’s it?” you almost hear yourself exclaim, as instead of climactic heroics you get a primer on firewalling against nuclear detonation for the finale. Brain over brawn doesn’t quite work here.

A Faraday shield is perhaps what Kamal Haasan and Viswaroopam needed to prevent the layers of distorted and cross communication that plagued the film from the moment its release was announced. There was first the confusion about DTH versus theatrical release, which became an intra-industry issue. There was further confusion within this confusion about how far the threat of boycott by theatre owners if the actor-director stuck to his initial DTH-first-and-theatres-next stand and how far the rather modest bookings for the DTH premiering at Rs.1,000 per view (according to an industry source, fewer than 10,000 bookings had been made with two days to go for the scheduled beaming direct to home) was responsible for the compromise eventually worked out that the film would hit the theatres first and the DTH telecast would follow a couple of weeks later, of course at nowhere near Rs.1,000 per view.

One can’t help wondering why Kamal Haasan got himself mired in this distribution tangle in the first place. He perhaps had a premonition of religious objection from Muslim groups holding up the film’s release and sought to pre-empt it with a one shot DTH show which would put the film out there in the public realm as a fait accompli . As it turned out, however, the film was held back from his core constituency and market of Tamil Nadu and released, albeit in spurts and with interruptions, in some other States in the country and abroad. This staggered release, in turn, raised the danger of pirated DVDs of the film doing the rounds in Tamil Nadu before it formally opened in theatres across the State. The High Court asking the authorities to ensure there would be no video piracy while the matter was being disposed of seemed almost as naively hopeful as the protesters on the streets of Delhi holding up placards saying “Ban Rape”.

What are the possible sensibilities the film offends? The anti-imperialist one, for sure. The film does not seem to concede even collateral damage, which after all would be the euphemism for innocent civilians killed when the U.S. forces rain fire and death on swathes of the Afghan countryside from their flying machines. It does depict raw scenes of what bombing from the skies does to those on the ground, including dismemberment of bodies spurting out blood. But there is no presumption of innocence of the victims, even the non-combatants.

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, of course, deserve all that they get. Their kith and kin, weaned on their aggressive, or suicidal, or broadly jehadist ways are not any less dispensable, and without too many pangs of guilt. The one instance of guilty remorse our RAW agent exhibits is when a Pakistani Sheikh in their company is lynched by the Al Qaeda after they discover an electronic homing device in his bag which betrays to the U.S. forces their location in the Afghan mountain redoubts, and which actually belongs to RAW and had been unintentionally placed there by Viswanath’s assistant (another RAW agent who has accompanied him as a mole in the group). But then these are the occupational hazards of war and there is just so much pity an Indian secret agent needs to feel for a dead Pakistani. There is an emotional dissembling here in terms of valorising the lives of Afghans and Pakistanis vis-a-vis the rest, including the entire population of New York which has been saved (courtesy the Faraday shield, remember?), which is rather disturbing. Even more blatantly, when the U.S. gunships are upon them and the Afghan Al Qaeda fighters are scrambling to defend themselves and their families, Viswanath runs about deflecting their aim, in one instance swiping at the hand of a veteran (an all-too-brief cameo appearance by the versatile Tamil actor Nasser) taking a shot, with a shoulder-fired missile, at an invading helicopter, so that he misses it. The good guys in the film, if one has got the drift by now, are the ones, led by Viswanath, his RAW cohorts and boss (played by Shekhar Kapoor), who aid and abet the imperialist invaders.

The U.S. action is, of course, just and legitimate because it is to seek out, and take out, the terrorist Al Qaeda and their paramount leader, Osama bin Laden, who is hiding out in the mountain fastnesses and who makes an epiphanic appearance that Viswanath witnesses with awe from a distance. With both right and might so overwhelmingly vested in the U.S., it is as if there is little need for any thought to be spared for those at the receiving end of its military might. So all we get by way of contextual reference is a one-liner from Omar to an American hostage kneeling, his back to a masked Al Qaeda fighter behind him, and before a video camera that will capture the grisly act to follow. Omar asks the American whether he thought what the U.S. was doing (to the Islamic world) was right. The miserable man shakes his head to indicate that he doesn’t. Then, says Omar, we must do to you what you have done to us (or words to that effect), and the masked man steps up from behind and slashes the American’s throat. Put, and portrayed, thus, this singular act of throat slashing is clearly meant to, and does, become more despicable and culpable in viewers’ minds than the killings of tens of thousands of people in the region by the U.S. war machinery, which is airbrushed away as amorphous background static.

The RAW currying favour with the FBI is not an edifying sight and ends up looking like, even if that was hardly the intention, a screen secret service parable of the Indian government toeing the American line on its vaunted war on terror. Viswanath seems almost eager to ingratiate himself with his counterpart in the U.S. secret service. It doesn’t matter that the federal agency initially distrusts him, suspects that he might have something to do with Al Qaeda himself and roughs him up in an interrogation room (lightly, and mercifully with no water boarding or like degree treatment from the post-Iraq U.S. torture manual) before the Indian consular car arrives with his RAW boss and a diplomat, who bring the FBI up to speed on how, unbeknownst to the Americans, Viswanath has actually been fighting on their side and for the safety of the U.S.

American interests here, we are left to infer, are ipso facto Indian interests. Otherwise, it makes little sense to see this RAW agent go out on a limb to safeguard, uninvited, the interests of the U.S. on Afghan and U.S. soil, which Washington, with the hard and soft power resources at its command, is perfectly capable of handling itself.

Crony imperialism, then, is writ large on the film. But that is not why its release ran into trouble in Tamil Nadu. The burden of the objection from the fringe Muslim groups who have taken to the streets is, from what one can put together from their disparate responses, that the film is (or so they assume because most of them have not seen it) a slur on Islam in its use of recitation of Quranic verses and the kalima and plays into the stereotype which synonymises the religion with terrorism.

This would be true if, and only if, their objection pertains to the portrayal of Al Qaeda, who do incorporate sacred verse and ritual into their killings and suicide bombings because they operate in a different moral universe and what is terrorism for the rest of the world is, for them, holy jehad enjoined on them. And, as the poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar pointed out in a discussion on the subject on a television channel, this is indeed how Al Qaeda goes about it in real life. What the film does is to show this abuse of, this parasiting on, Islam by Al Qaeda to wreak terror. Isolating this sacral behavioural detail from its Al Qaeda context in the film (or in real life) and opposing it as anti-Islamic per se makes little sense and may actually end up looking like acquiescing in, or apologising for, the ways of Al Qaeda; and surely that is not what the protesters mean. The film is substantially about Al Qaeda and what they do, and this critical element of how they distort their religion for their diabolic ends is so germane to the plot that removing it—as Kamal Haasan is under pressure to because he has so much, including his house and property, riding on the film and failure to recoup in time from the box office will spell doom for him—may make Al Qaeda look like strange gratuitous villains even more inexplicably Islamic.

It is by now clear that artistic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, a censor certificate by the statutory body set up for the purpose, even repeated verdicts by the highest court of the land against films duly censored being prevented from being screened for the public, add up to nothing before random malcontents set to block a film from reaching its viewers. What makes the case of Viswaroopam more curious is the pussyfooting by the State government. The ostensible reason is intelligence supposedly available with the government about a law and order situation that could arise with the film’s theatrical release. That seems a bit strange because the film has been exhibited, even if in fits and starts, in neighbouring States.

In Kerala, in particular, the government itself took the lead by releasing the film through its own chain of theatres; and, even if accompanied by some street protests and demonstrations, other private theatres followed. With nearly a quarter of its population being Muslim, Kerala could be expected to be even more sensitive to any slight to Islam. Moreover, in the precariously balanced coalition that runs the State, the Muslim League enjoys strong representation and tremendous clout; and all it would have taken was for it to frown upon the film’s release for it to be stalled. That this did not happen is a tribute to the dynamics of more enlightened politics in the State. But that the more comfortably placed government in Tamil Nadu could not do as much for the film begs reason. There is obviously more to Viswaroopam than meets the eye.

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