The first thought after watching Kamal literally breaking down, without visibly betraying his angst and anxiety, was the lack of safety for ordinary citizens in the country, and the farce called freedom of expression and right to life.
“An icon breaks down” - my journalist-friend Karthik tweeted from Kamal’s office in Chennai.
And it summed up everything.
Here is a real icon, who straddled the Tamil and south Indian film industry for over five decades - ever since he was a child - helplessly telling the world that he was on the verge of bankruptcy and might be even forced to leave the country.
All because he made the most ambitious movie of his life and it cannot be released in his home state. He always spoke of raising the production values of Indian films and the all the reviews so far have show that he has won hands down. It’s been running in the rest of the country and also overseas markets to packed houses, but it’s Tamil Nadu where it matters.
With today’s turn of events, particularly after the government continued to stifle him by stopping the screening of Vishwaroopam in some B and C centres this morning despite the HC interim relief last night, it is pretty clear that the issue is not as simple as it appeared initially. It’s not just the opposition of some Tamil Islamic groups that is preventing the film from getting to the theatres, but something much bigger than that.
And it is not likely to stop easily.
When Kamal went to court against the ban, the general impression was that it would be a cakewalk for him because of the judicial precedence on Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan. Jha had taken three states to the Supreme Court and had won a favourable verdict and the states were asked to provide police protection for the screening of his movie. Going by the this SC order, Kamal should have got immediate relief.
Although the state government has appealed against the interim order of a single bench of the High Court that lifted the ban on the movie and the prohibitory orders in districts, many still believe that the judicial precedence on the issue will work in Kamal’s favour. Let’s wait till the afternoon when the division bench takes up the petition by the state government.
But, the issue is not legal one, but an enabling environment.
Kamal may win the case, but will still not succeed in peacefully running his movie in the state’s theatres. If the state government and the police are hostile, it will be very difficult for the theatres and the rest of the film fraternity to support him. The question is if the theatres will fight it out for just one movie? They are in the business, not for one movie and one star; and they are not out there to prove a point on freedom of expression. Movie-screening is high-stake business these days.
For the same reasons, the tepid response from the Tamil film fraternity was not surprising. The industry voices were surprisingly guarded and steered clear off protestations against the government. They all said good things about Kamal and expressed relief and happiness. I am sure Kamal must have been deeply disappointed by the betrayal of his colleagues. Even his old time friend and superstar Rajinikanth didn’t come out completely openly, other than appealing to the Muslim groups to see reason.
This sense of isolation is indeed scary. You realise that all the sense of collegiality and fraternity is illusory. When it comes to the crux situation, you are all alone, except for your fans and family.
Kamal Hassan is no small fellow. In mainstream Indian cinema, he is a legend and has always pushed the barriers of commercial cinema, in terms of content, genre and scale. He also can speak at least five Indian languages.
He is the only Indian actor to have won four national awards - three as an actor and one as a producer - and 19 Filmfare awards. He has also taken unconventional and brave positions, whether it is on religion, beliefs, relationships, institutions such as marriage and family, food habits and production values of Indian films.
He has been among the first to come out in support of social causes such as AIDS, blood donation, cancer etc. He was at the vanguard of change in Indian cinema and had tied up with FICCI to raise the industry standards.
He also has a tremendous fan following in all the southern states, and also in Hindi.
Still, when he needs all the social capital that he has built over the years, there is almost nothing to save him. Now even the commercial capital is threatening to abandon him.
That makes one really scared about the living conditions in India, particularly when the establishment is against you. This is when people like Anna Hazare and their efforts look like a joke. The real India is in the states. Everything that matters happen at the local levels.
At the more practical level, what will happen to Vishwaroopam?
Industry-experts say that the film will lose anything between Rs. 30-50 crores. However, given the incredible goodwill that this controversy has generated, the movie can still create a massive “initial” if it is released without much delay. Two weeks of full-house shows in 500 theatres will see him sail through.
Anymore delay will be costly because there are other films waiting for theatres. Even if all goes well, Kamal will have a real tough time in finding theatres because two biggies - Mani Ratnam’s Kadal, and Bijoy Nambiar’s David - are scheduled to release this weekend. If they postpone the release for Kamal for at least two weeks, he should still be able to recover most of his investment.
Perhaps Kamal’s guarded emotional threat of abandoning his state and the country for a secular space is aimed at the conscience of the film industry and the public.
Let’s see how both respond and if we lose him the way we lost MF Hussain.