Sri Lankan spin bowling legend Muttiah Muralitharan’s biopic, ‘800,’ alluding to his record number of wickets taken in test matches in his career, began on a sticky wicket. Back in 2020, when this movie project was greenlit, Tamil superstar Vijay Sethupathi was chosen to play the former cricketing icon and bring alive his tumultuous life story. However, a severe social media backlash, coupled with a series of protests, boycott calls, and threats to the actor’s family later, Sethupathi took the tough call to step aside and let go of the project. But Muralitharan, 51, holds no grudges and had nudged the actor to make that painful call where art was compromised for politics.
“Vijay Sethupathi is a great actor, and we would have had a super hit in our hands... But at that time, some people were threatening him politically and threatening his family. He had just signed six or seven movies, and the producers of those films were upset... I told him: ‘Your career is important rather than my movie … My movie will somehow be made,’” said Muralitharan in an interview with ‘Gulf News’.
The cricketer, who became a dominant force in bowling, was in Dubai this weekend for a special screening of his film, out in UAE cinemas now for the public.
According to a report in BBC, the outrage over the casting stemmed from Muralitharan’s past comments where he “celebrated the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009” and supported the then-Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka, allegedly responsible for killing thousands of Tamils during the final phase of the war against the LTTE, treating them as minorities in the country. Several factions also had a problem with a Tamil actor from India depicting a Sri Lankan.
But all the surrounding noise aside, the grace and sportsmanship that Muralitharan displayed at the time of the uproar, where he empathised with Sethupathi’s plight rather than villainise, seems to be his biggest strength. During the height of that outrage, Muralitharan even put out an official statement saying that he didn’t want Sethupathi’s career to suffer and had personally requested him to step down to avert trouble, thus absolving the actor from unnecessary scrutiny.
Sethupathi’s role was then offered to actor Madhur Mittal, a talent with remarkably lower star power than the original choice. But reviews have all hailed Mittal’s acting prowess and the authentic portrayal of Muralitharan’s eventful life.
“Vijay Sethupathi wanted to do it [the film ‘800’] at any cost… Finally when he was in newspapers talking about leaving the project, all he could say was ‘Nandri Vanakkam’ [Thank you, Namaste] and that’s it. He couldn’t say anything else. Even today he’s disappointed, but Madhur [Mittal] has done a really good job too,” said Muralitharan.
Directed by M S Sripathy, ‘800’ brings to life the remarkable story of cricket’s highest wicket-taker. His humble beginnings where his grandfather worked at a tea plantation and later altering the spinning bowling landscape in world cricket forever, there’s enough drama and action to rival a Bollywood potboiler.
“But never in my life did I think that they will take my life story as a movie… This movie is all about my childhood. My grandfather in the 1920s worked in a tea plantation in India … In cricket also, I had a lot of problems. With this movie, people will know who I am, where I am from, and everything about me. Only 20-25 per cent of the movie is about cricket, the rest is my inside life story.”
He also claimed that his biopic would not fall under the trap of being a glossy hagiography where his conflicts and controversies are played down.
“I told my director, Sripathy, that it has be a very true story and so the director spent two years in Sri Lanka. He spoke extensively to my parents and the people who knew me well. He stayed in our house, went to our ancestral home, and researched about all my games … I wanted this film to portray all my sides … If you see this movie, you will understand what I am all about and what Sri Lanka is all about,” said Muralitharan.
The movie also talks about how he was the only Tamil minority in a Sinhalese-dominated team. His milestones in life also mirror the civil war developments in Sri Lanka.
“I was just 21 years old when a Tamil minority like me got into the team, everyone else was Sinhalese with five per cent Muslims … But they supported me at a time when civil war at its peak. They could have rejected me because I was a Tamil, but they supported me wholly. So much so, Arjuna Ranatunga [former Sri Lankan captain] was like a father figure to me,”
So does the film also tackle the chucking controversy that has marred most of his adult life? In 1995 in Melbourne, umpire Darrell Hair no-balled Muralitharan for chucking. His continuous no-balling of Muralitharan snowballed into a major issue and forced the cricketing bodies to scrutinise chucking laws and Muralitharan’s bowling technique.
“Life is all about forgive and forget. I am not saying it for the sake of it. When umpire Darrell Hair called me in 1999, I was shocked and upset at the time … But after five years, I shook his hand when he was umpiring and asked him how he was doing during a match in 2000 in Edgbaston [United Kingdom]. He was the umpire. I made him comfortable … Controversies went on for many years in my career, but I kept going,” said Muralitharan.
While he’s willing to forget those who may have challenged him, he isn’t willing to forget the significance of the UAE in his life.
“UAE is special for me because I took 100 wickets at Sharjah Cricket grounds. Just Wasim Akram and I have done that … I played a lot of matches here and now, I can’t wait for my biopic to be screened here.”
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‘800’ is out in UAE cinemas now