Over the last week, the announcement of a biopic on legendary off spinner Muttiah Muralitharan has caused a heated controversy in Tamil Nadu.

Several political parties and Tamil nationalist sympathisers have claimed that the movie an attempt to whitewash a figure who is problematic in Sri Lanka. They believe that the actor Vijay Sethupathi, a rising star of Tamil cinema, should not become a vehicle to glorify Muralitharan, whose politics, they allege, has damaged to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils.

But this attempt by Tamil nationalist groups to play super censor and dictate terms to the cinema star has not gone unopposed. Some in the Tamil film industry have strongly criticised the calls for Sethupathi to withdraw from the project.

However, in a statement on Monday, the cricketer said he had asked Sethupathi to withdraw from the project to ensure the actor’s career is not affected by the association. Muralitharan said that the film was facing hurdles as he had in many aspects of life. But he said that he was confident the hurdles would be overcome.

The statement was shared by Sethupathi on his Twitter page.

The biopic

The controversy began to bubble on October 8, when Vijay Sethupathi, took to Twitter to announce the launch of 800, a biopic on Muralitharan. The actor has in recent times been praised for his performances in movies such as 96 and Super Delux. He does not shy away from experimenting with complex roles and is now considered one of the leading stars of Tamil cinema.

The 800 number in the film title is a reference to the number of Test wickets that Muralitharan took in his career, which lasted from 1992 to 2010. His world record for taking the highest number of wickets has yet to be surpassed.

The movie is being produced by Movie Train Motion Pictures and Dar Motion Pictures.

The first look of the movie astonished many on social media given the transformation of Sethupathi on screen. Not many could miss the uncanny resemblance the star had to Muralitharan in the first-look posters. This sparked interest in the project, leading to the star’s name trend on social media.

However controversy immediately followed.

Two days later, legendary Tamil film director Bharathiraja, known for his Tamil nationalist sympathies, wrote an open letter to Sethupathi, pleading with him to drop out of the project. In the letter, Bharathiraja claimed that Muralitharan was a traitor of the Tamil race for the way he conducted himself during the civil war, which ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 and which left lakhs of civilians dead.

The Sri Lankan government has since been accused of conducting a genocide against the minority Tamil population. There has still not been a proper investigation into the alleged war crimes committed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now Sri Lankan prime minister, and brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the country’s president. In 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president and Gotabaya, his brother, was the defence minister.

Others were even sharper in their criticism of Muralitharan. Lyricist Thamarai equated the legendary bowler to a ball of “spit in history” and said that Sethupathi should spit the project out rather than letting it fall on him. She also said Sethupathi bore a greater resemblance to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Prabhakaran than to the cricketer. Thamarai suggested that Sethupati should instead essay the role of the LTTE chief rather than that of Muralitharan. Thamarai posted a picture on social media to prove her point on the resemblance.

Politicians such as Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan and Naam Tamizhar Katchi leader Seeman joined the chorus of appeals to the actor to drop out of the project. However, Thol Thirumavalavan stated that this should not be seen as attempts to curtail freedom of expression.

At the same time, Sethupathi also received support from big stars who urged him to take up the project.

Veteran actor Radikaa Sarathkumar slammed the hypocrisy of those going after Sethupathi and asked why no one was questioning Sun Network owner Kalanithi Maran, the grand nephew of former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, whose Indian Premier League team Sunrisers Hyderabad has appointed Muralitharan as a mentor.

Tamils of Sri Lanka

Though Muralitharan is a Tamil from Sri Lanka, he is of Indian origin, His ancestors went to Sri Lanka during the British rule to work in the tea, coffee and rubber plantations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often referred to as “estate Tamils” or “upcountry Tamils”, this community is primarily concentrated in the central regions of Sri Lanka.

In contrast, Jaffna Tamils or Eelam Tamils consider themselves the original inhabitants of the north and east of Sri Lanka and are seen as the descendants of the old Jaffna kingdom

Though both ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian speak the same language and are mainly Hindu, their role in Sri Lankan politics is markedly different.

Ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils, especially those of the upper-caste Vellalar communities, have through the years been accused of not considering estate Tamils as equals, given that estate Tamils were predominantly drawn from the lower castes in India.

In 1948, the estate Tamils were stripped of their citizenship and voting rights by the Sri Lankan government.Tamil Congress Party chief GG Ponnambalam voted in favour of the move and Tamil stalwart SJV Chelvanayagam opposed it. According to historian KM de Silva in his book A History of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese politicians were deeply suspicious of the estate Tamils and feared their domination in the central hill areas. The estate Tamils were also seen as enthusiastic participants in Left politics, something that fueled the Sinhalese nationalists’ suspicion even more.

It was only by the 1990s that most of the estate Tamils were given their citizenship back.

Muralitharan and Tamil question

While there were differences between the Eelam Tamils and the estate Tamils, both faced the brunt of Sinhala-Budhhist chauvinism. Muralitharan’s own life is a testimony to the violence that the estate Tamils faced at the hands of the Sinhalese people. As Andrew Fidel Fernando points out in his August piece in The Cricket Monthly, Muralitharan belonged to one of the few prosperous families in the community. But in 1977 and 1983, his family was attacked by anti-Tamil mobs and their factory and home were damaged.

Muralitharan was also one of the very few Tamils in the Sri Lankan cricket team in the 1990s. The controversies around his bowling action, which led to umpires accusing him of chucking the ball, made him a sort of a rallying point for the country, transcending communal divisions. By the end of his career, Muralitharan was easily the greatest cricketer Sri Lanka has produced and is arguably the greatest spinner the game of cricket has even seen.

But in public life, Muralitharan had continuously faced accusations of not doing enough to help the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, both during the civil war and in its aftermath. Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu see him as a collaborator because of his silence during the end stages of the bloody civil war in 2009 and because of his later support to the Rajapaksas.

In December, Muralitharan hailed Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an efficient administrator and chided Tamil Nadu politicians for interfering in the affairs of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

“Tamil Nadu politicians do not understand the problems of Sri Lankans,” he added. “They should allow our government to get on with governance.”

After the controversy over the biopic, Muralitharan put out an emotional statement saying he never justified the killing of innocent Tamils during the civil war. He said:

“There have been many allegations levelled against me that I supported genocide. For instance, when I made a statement in 2019 that 2009 was the best year of my life, it was misconstrued that I was celebrating the genocide of Eelam Tamils. As someone who has constantly spent his life in a conflict-zone, the end of the war in 2009, was a welcome change. I was happy that there were no deaths on both sides in those ten years. I have never supported genocide, and I never will. As a minority community living in Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka, Tamils battled low self- esteem. My parents considered themselves as second-class citizens and it was only natural that I too followed suit. After I succeeded in cricket, I wanted fellow Tamils to develop self confidence and come up in life.”

He also listed several of his initiatives to help Eelam Tamils, arguing that he has probably done more for them than for his own community.

The producers of the film have also clarified that the film will not in any manner show the Eelam Tamils in a bad light.