‘For the Tamil Nadu protestors to openly ask popular film actor Vijay Sethupathi not to play Murali in 800 is a travesty in every sense. It may have given them a cause to tell the world, and the governments in New Delhi, Colombo and Chennai, that the Sri Lankan ethnic issue was still alive in the state -- more so, during the current run-up to two major events in the first half of 2021,’ says N Sathiya Moorthy.
This apocryphal story is not about Muthiah Muralitharan, that legendary Sri Lankan cricketer, who was recently in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. Instead, it is about a Sinhala cricket aspirant from an interior, rural setting, with little or no knowledge of English.
At the national team selection, one of them from the typical elite, ‘Colombo Seven’ background to which the post-Independence leadership in every field, from politics to industry to sports, still belonged, reportedly remarked about the young man sitting in front of him: ‘So, this thing wants to play cricket?’ And it was not about the dark skin colour of the aspirant, but then there are shades of grey in South Asia’s equatorial climate.
But someone also whispered into the selector’s ears that the youth had played for a pedigree school, after spending his earlier years in an interior district -- and that the ‘thing’ concerned may not be able to speak English fluently but could understand the spoken word, after all.
Ask any upper middle class or upper-class resident of Colombo of three generations and more, and he or she will explain in great graphic detail, how the annual ‘Royal-Thomian’ cricket game, since commencement in 1879, has been played without break even at the height of the Second World War. That is one occasion where old boys from the two elite schools, Royal and St Thomas, would gather and have a gala time, with tents and celebrations -- age, no bar.
Commonly known as the ‘Battle of the Blues’, going by the common colour in the flags of the two schools, ending with A-Level (equivalent to Plus-Two in India), the local media continue to go ga-ga over the past performance and current form of individual players from Royal College, Colombo, and S Thomas College, Mout Lavinia, which has now become a city suburb. The advent of television has meant that they to do not want to miss out on what any outsider would imagine would be the finals of the 21st century world cup or T-20 finals.
Much of that elitist approach to what was once the white man’s game for the gentleman has changed, also in Sri Lanka, especially after Arjuna Ranatunga & Co won the coveted World Cup for the first time in 1996. Today, Ranatunga is a serious politician, like his father. He was a junior minister for a time under President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-08) and a senior cabinet minister under rival Sirisena-Ranil duo (2015-19). His father was a politician, and one of his four brothers, Prasanna Ranatunga, is also in politics, on the side of the Rajapaksas’ ruling SLPP.
All of it only goes to show that the turf in which Muttiah Muralitharan played already had those bowling doosras at the likes of him even before they had settled down at the crease. But entering politics is a done thing for professionals, including retired officers of the armed forces, but then their loyalties depended more on their family’s inherited ideological thinking, than as an opportunity to serve the people, or just one more occasion or innings in their lives.
India, too, has had its own share of cricketers in politics, especially since the BJP’s stars began swinging high from the Vajpayee days and reached the zenith under incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- Chetan Chauhan, Kriti Azad and Navjot Singh Sidhu, to name only a few. Mohammed Azharuddin was in the wrong party, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In this overall background, it was not easy for Murali to challenge the Establishment, which was even otherwise loaded against the ‘minorities’ as the perception goes. But what those who made shrill catcalls against a biopic on the man who holds the 800-wicket record in Test cricket, possibly do not even know that the ‘Jaffna Tamils’, to which all of the LTTE leadership belonged, still look down contemptuously at the ‘Upcountry Tamils of Indian origin’ -- the community to which Murali belongs.
If anything, next only to ‘Team India’, the protestors in Tamil Nadu should be celebrating Murali, whose ancestors actually belonged here, and his generation too proudly acknowledges it. This is unlike the Sri Lankan Tamils who are the victims of ethnic atrocities, war and violence in the country, who did not really have a good word about Tamil Nadu, Tamil people, or even the language that is spoken in the state. They put everything of theirs at least a couple of rungs above that of Tamil Nadu’s language, culture and literature.
Why, when the majority Sinhala-Buddhist leadership of the country wanted the ‘Estate Tamils’ disenfranchised and rendered them stateless in the very first year of independence, 1948, the dominant Sri Lankan Tamil party, namely, the ‘Ceylon Tamil Congress’, mostly voted with the government move in Parliament. A reluctant India, already with its hands full because of the Partition violence, refugee and restoration problems alone came to the help of the ‘Estate Tamils’, even if belatedly.
For the likes of Muralitharan, who is a product of not only Sinhala racism, Sri Lankan State’s antagonism, living and growing itself was a challenge that none in this part of the Palk Straits could imagine. From the fifties till the late eighties, they lived under the constant fear of Sinhala-Buddhist ‘nationalists’ first and the left-leaning JVP militants targeting them.
Then until a decade ago, they were caught in the crossfire of the armed forces and the LTTE, neither of which consulted the ‘Estate Tamils’ before they commenced the war, nor consoled them for the inconveniences. That was possibly the time when the families of those condemned to centuries of wretchedness in the ‘line houses’ of interior tea estates could have looked up, but the war in which they were no part of, meant that they would have to wait until another day, to stir out.
As if this were not enough as a class, Murali suffered personal losses. His father suffered cut wounds in his back, and their small business was burnt down by Sinhala protestors. If someone said that Murli converted all that impotent rage and helplessness of his growing up years internally and produced the cricketing magic that he became, there can be no two opinion about it -- wholly correct or not.
It is this that the small band of protestors in Tamil Nadu have sought to hide from their own next generations -- on how to be a Tamil, rather human, in worse than adverse conditions, and bowl them over, too. That they did it all in the name of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Tamil community, is what is even more of a disbelief.
For those who do not know, the LTTE would declare informal ceasefire at the warfront for the hours that Sri Lanka was playing a crucial match, for their fighting cadres and leaders alike to watch the same on TV.
The rule was if Sri Lanka was playing India, then the LTTE would back Sri Lanka -- though most players other than Murali were Sinhalas or non-Tamils of any stock. If not, India was their favourite, too, even after the IPKF days, which again a small group of protestors in Tamil Nadu continue to show in poor light.
In this background, for the Tamil Nadu protestors to openly ask popular film actor Vijay Sethupathi not to play Murali in 800 – the title of the biopic, with reference to his record wicket haul --– is a travesty in every sense. It may have given them a cause or them to tell the world, and the governments in New Delhi, Colombo and Chennai, that the Sri Lankan ethnic issue was still alive in the state -- more so, during the current run-up to two major events in the first half of 2021.
One, is the UNHRC session at Geneva in March, when Sri Lanka’s ‘war crimes probe’ issue is to be taken up for final discussion and vote. Already, the Rajapaksa government has declared his intention to stay away, reversing the decision of its predecessor to co-author a Western resolution, more than once in the 2015-19 period.
The second, of course, is the eagerly-awaited assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, due by May. It is more likely that similar groups may take up the current issue kind of arguments ahead of the UNHRC session and spread it on until the assembly polls.
It is another matter that even at the height of the conclusive stage of the Sri Lankan war in May 2009, MDMK’s Vaiko, the champion of the Tamil cause in the island-nation with personal affinity and respect for LTTE boss Velupillai Prabhakaran, lost his native Sivakasi Lok Sabha seat, that too by a huge margin.
This showed that for the Tamils in India, sympathy for their ‘umbilical cord’ brethren in Sri Lanka was one thing, and electing their political representatives was another. There is nothing to suggest that despite it all forming a part of the poll campaign in the state since, the voter is impressed one way or the other to make it a decision-maker for him, be it Lok Sabha polls or assembly elections.
This time round, as much as the Sri Lanka-related issues, the dastardly act of someone threatening Sethupathi’s young daughter if he did not withdraw from the 800 project, is likely to get reminded in the voter’s mind, whenever related issues are discussed in the poll arena and TV talk-shows.
All major political parties and leaders in the state have condemned the threat in unequivocal terms, it can only blunt the edge of limited ‘ethnic sympathy’ in the state even more, considering that everyone from the earlier generation would like to see and hear more about Murali and his travails, tribulations and success story.
The cyber crime police has since arrested the man who tweeted the message, and he has reportedly apologised.
Next only to Vijay Sethupathi walking out of the 800 project, after Murali had advised him on that count -- the cricketer also issued a long statement in self-explanation -- comes the announcement on the making of a new movie, this one on LTTE’s Prabhakaran. Bobby Simha, who won the National Best Supporting Actor Award for his comic-villainy in Jigarthanda (2014) is donning the LTTE supremo’s role.
If one went by Bobby Simha’s ‘get-up’ in what is now known as the ‘first-look’ posters of Seerum Puli, or ‘Raging Tiger’ -- a reference to the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’, the militant-terror outfit that Prabhakaran led -- the two-part movie promises to be as interesting as it can be exciting.
It is another matter that none of the earlier LTTE-centric movies, including Kuppi (2006) referring to the cyanide-bottles that the cadres used to carry on their person, and more so about the end of the Rajiv Gandhi assassins in at the suburban Konanakunte home in Bengaluru, did not set the silver screen ablaze. Nor did R K Selvamani’s Kutrapatrikai, (2007) fare well at the box-office, though the blame is often placed on the censors holding back the film for years, given the sensitivity of the subject matter, in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (1991).
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.