Is Kamal Haasan a Muslim? No, by all accounts. But on Sunday, a column in The Financial Express accused the legendary actor of making perceived “anti-Hindu” remarks because of his alleged Islamic faith.
The online version of the column, by Manika Gupta, has since removed the offensive paragraph. Here is what Gupta said:
“He is not only inciting enmity between the two groups but also forgetting that his own religion has instances of worst condition of women. He should focus on triple talaq and issues like that rather than bothering about one-off reference in the Mahabharata. Only if he could mind his own business!”
The occasion for the gross misunderstanding was a comment Haasan made about the Mahabharata. In a recent interview to a television channel, the veteran actor and filmmaker wondered why Indians celebrate an epic about two family factions going to war after gambling away a woman without her consent. Haasan was referring to Draupadi.
Haasan is a self-declared atheist, but he is not originally a Muslim. He was born into a Tamil Brahmin Iyengar family in Paramakudi in south Tamil Nadu in 1952. He was initially named after the Parthasaraty deity at the Pallava-era temple in Chennai. His lawyer father, D Srinivasan, later changed the name to Kamal Haasan. The story that has been doing the rounds for years is that Srinivasan wanted to honour his friend Yaakob Haasan, with whom he briefly shared a prison cell during the freedom struggle.
This theory is incorrect, Haasan clarified some years ago. According to him, Kamal means lotus and Haasan is derived from hasya, the Sanskrit word for laughter.
The Financial Express column reflects both the increasing communalisation of public spaces in India and the repeated attacks on the freedom of expression. Kamal Haasan’s outspokenness has courted trouble from fundamentalist critics from all faiths. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded a ban on his 2015 production Uttama Villain. According to the ultra rightwing organisation, the drama, which traces the encounter between a eight-century theatre artist and a contemporary star, insults the god Vishnu.
Haasan’s most bruising encounter with his detractors followed the release of his 2013 movie Vishwaroopam. The rightwing Hindu Makkal Katchi demanded that Haasan use a Tamil word for the title of the terrorism-themed thriller instead of a Sanskrit one. Muslim groups wanted a outright ban. The movie was finally released after Haasan, who put up a spirited fight, agreed to mute five lines of dialogue.
Some of the attacks were purely agnostic in nature. When Haasan tried to use a direct-to-home platform to release his film, movie distributors and exhibitors protested that he was causing them losses.