Vijay Sethupathi Image Credit: Supplied

South Indian superstar Vijay Sethupathi announced his decision on October 19 to step away from the cricketing biopic ‘800’, after his casting sparked massive online outrage and calls for his boycott.

In the ambitious multilingual biopic, the Tamil actor Sethupathi was set to bring to life the trials and triumphs of Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan, who holds the distinction of being the first bowler to take 800 test wickets.

Muttiah Muralitharan.

But a Tamilian star paying homage to a Sri Lankan sports legend was met with widespread disapproval, especially among pro-Tamil groups who branded Sethupathi as a ‘betrayer of Tamils’. Calls for the actor’s boycott were spurred by the belief that Muralitharan allegedly supported the killing of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians during an armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a charge that the cricketer has constantly denied.

The decision to expunge Sethupathi’s name from the project, whose motion poster was revealed in a big way on social media earlier this week, was taken after Muralitharan’s plea urging his actor friend not to court trouble or jeopardise his career over it.

“Sensing that the fine actor’s future films too could land in trouble, I am requesting Vijay Sethupathi to withdraw himself from this film,” Muralitharan said in a statement. In response, Sethupathi responded with a succinct tweet: “Nandri Vanakkam [thank you, farewell]”. His publicist also confirmed the development to Gulf News.

But even after announcing his exit from the project on October 19, the outrage hasn’t simmered down. Sethupathi and his family have been receiving threats of bodily harm, and his minor daughter was threatened with rape. The police have asked Twitter to hand over the account details of users who’ve made the threats.

In July 2019, an elated Sethupathi had confirmed to Gulf News that he was part of the biopic on the Sri Lankan legend.

“I am happy to be associated with the Muttiah Muralitharan biopic. He is an iconic sportsman of Tamil origin and someone who’s made his mark across the world. Portraying the role of Murali is going to be a challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it,” Sethupathi said at the time. They were due to begin filming in Sri Lanka, but the COVID-19 outbreak halted their plans.

Sethupathi’s ouster — triggered by disapproving social media users who trended the hashtag #ShameonVijaySethupathi following the release of the movie poster — has also left its producers Dar Motion Pictures in a tough spot. There’s now a gigantic creative hole staring at them. More than the financial loss, it’s the loss of time and effort that stands out for them.

Sensing that the fine actor’s future films too could land in trouble, I am requesting Vijay Sethupathi to withdraw himself from this film.

- Muttiah Muralitharan

“It’s a tough situation for us, but we stand committed to our project and we will find a way forward … Right now, we are taking one day at a time now and we will come up with someone suitable,” said S Sethumadhavan Napan, COO of Dar Motion Pictures.

Dar Motion Picture also claims they had anticipated some resistance, but he did not expect such widespread backlash.

“Our intention — like we explained in our statement — was to make a sports biopic. The idea was not to make a film of any political nature and it’s sad that nobody understood our intent,” added Napan.

He also pointed out that it was gracious of the Sri Lankan cricketer to urge his friend and actor Sethupathi to step away from the project.

“It is important to note that Murali had taken the initiative here … He didn’t want Vijay Sethupathi to fall into any kind of trouble,” said Napan.

Sethupathi’s decision to break ties with ‘800’ has been met with disappointment among his fans in the UAE.

Dubai-based Tamilian Vijay Kumar Arul, who works in a private firm in the UAE, is upset about Sethupathi being arm-twisted out of an acting project.

“It’s bad that some people are politicising this film and the issue. After all, this is cinema and I feel bad for him as an actor because he’s such a talented actor. As movie fans, we want to just see good cinema, so him stepping away is not fair to him as an actor and fair to us either. I thought the casting was spot on, because Vijay is such a good actor and a star. He has no trappings of a superstar, he’s so real and grounded and was perfect to play this part,” said Arul in an interview with Gulf News.

Sri Lankan Tamils in the UAE also echoed this sentiment that art shouldn’t be dictated by politics. They feel even worse that Sethupathi, who worked in Dubai as an accountant from 2000 to 2003 before finding fame as an actor, had to make these tough calls.

“This is such a sad thing to happen that an actor like Vijay Sethupathi had to break ties to a movie due to pressure from social media and his angry fans. I don’t think it’s a good sign to force actors out of movies because of politics … This is their job and they should be given the freedom to exercise their choice as actors. This movie was only going to show the celebrated Sri Lankan cricketer and his rise to the top,” said K Saraswathy, a UAE resident of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.

Another Abu-Dhabi based Tamilian, who wished to remain anonymous, felt that art or actors should never be held to ransom.

“Everybody is so easily outraged these days,” he said. “They have lost their sense to look at a film and discern based on its merits.”