Indian actor quits biopic about Tamil cricket legend after uproar

Vijay Sethupathi withdraws from the project after cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan warns him of backlash from Tamils over Sri Lankan civil war.

Tamil politicians in India accuse Muralitharan, who retired from Test cricket in 2010, of betraying fellow Tamils during Sri Lanka's civil war [File: Tim Chong/Reuters]
Tamil politicians in India accuse Muralitharan, who retired from Test cricket in 2010, of betraying fellow Tamils during Sri Lanka's civil war [File: Tim Chong/Reuters]

A popular actor has withdrawn from starring as Sri Lanka’s legendary spinner Muttiah Muralitharan in a biopic after the cricketer himself warned him off, saying he could face a backlash from India’s Tamils.

Vijay Sethupathi, 42, had been under pressure in his southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to drop the role in the film 800 – named after the world record number of Test wickets Muralitharan took in his celebrated career.

Tamil politicians in India accuse Muralitharan, who retired from Test cricket in 2010, of betraying fellow Tamils in his country during a civil war that ended in 2009.

“I don’t want one of the finest actors in Tamil Nadu to face any kind of trouble, hence I request him to drop out of the project,” Muralitharan, 48, wrote in a letter tweeted by the actor. “There should be no obstacles for Sethupathi in the future because of this movie.”

Sethupathi wrote alongside the image of the letter: “Thank you and goodbye.”

India’s regional Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) party, which opposes the Sinhalese-led government in Sri Lanka, had demanded Sethupathi reject the role, saying Muralitharan sided with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who, as president at the time, defeated the separatist Tamil Tiger uprising.

Fans also slammed the actor on social media, using the hashtag #shameonVijaySethupathi.

But several Tamil actors also came out in support of Muralitharan and Sethupati.

“[Muralitharan] is a very important topic and that film is a complex idea because Murali is one of those Indian Tamils … who were marginalised,” actor Prakash Belawadi told India Today TV.

Belawadi was referring to the existence of a split of sorts in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka: there are the Indigenous Eelam Tamils, and the “estate Tamils” who were taken there as plantation workers by the British colonisers 200 years ago. “Estate Tamils” face discrimination even from the native Tamils.

“Murali is a great example of somebody who has emerged from this class,” Belawadi said.

What was the uproar about?

The rancour towards Muralitharan dates back to 2013 when he said then-British Prime Minister David Cameron that he may have been “misled” about the situation of Tamils in the north after Cameron visited the area and was met by tens of mothers, wives and sisters who were still searching for their loved ones who had disappeared during the war.

Muralitharan, who is currently working as a bowling coach with Indian Premier League side Sunrisers Hyderabad for the continuing tournament in the United Arab Emirates, had said his remarks about Sri Lanka’s ethnic war were “misunderstood”.

Muralitharan added in the letter that he hoped a new lead would be announced soon.

“I accepted this biopic because I thought the movie will inspire and provide confidence to aspiring young cricketers,” he wrote.

A source close to Muralitharan said in Colombo: “The movie project will go on without Vijay. Producers are already discussing ways to proceed.”

The United Nations and international rights groups have accused Sri Lankan forces of killing at least 40,000 minority Tamils in the final campaign against the Tigers.

The government has denied it killed civilians.

Source : Al Jazeera and News agencies

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