Muttiah Muralitharan On His Disputed Biopic

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Kandy: Former Sri Lankan cricketer, Muttiah Muralitharan says a planned film about his life will be released, despite a massive backlash in south India which caused the lead actor to quit. The BBC's Nalini Sivathasan speaks to him and explains the controversy around the film.

"I've been in so many controversies, not just cricketing. I have got through hurdles. This is just one of the many challenges I've faced," says the 48-year-old of the uproar around the film.

A member of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils, Muralitharan defied the odds to make it on to the national team during a long civil war between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese-majority security forces.

Then, he battled controversy over his bowling action - he was famously no-balled for "chucking" in Australia to become one of the most formidable bowlers the cricketing world has ever seen.

However, the biopic of his life - entitled 800, a reference to his record-breaking 800 Test match wickets - may be his biggest obstacle yet.

Shooting has yet to start, but when a film poster featuring popular south Indian actor Vijay Sethupathi in the lead role was released there was a massive outpouring of anger

The hashtag #ShameOnVijaySethupathi started trending across the state of Tamil Nadu, with many demanding that he turns down the role.

The film's producers have called it a "sports biography", intended to inspire young people, but critics fear a hagiography, an attempt to glorify someone who has become a controversial political issue.

Much of the outrage stems from Muralitharan's comments at a presidential election event last year, at which he celebrated the end of the war in 2009 and supported the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mr. Rajapaksa was the defense secretary when government forces crushed Tamil Tiger separatists in a brutal campaign that also left tens of thousands of civilians dead.

He said the "happiest day of my life" was in 2009 as the country could now "go on without fear".

An estimated 40,000 Sri Lankan Tamil civilians are believed to have died in the last stages of the war, and it has been an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu, where the same language and ethnic identity are shared.

"Even though Muralitharan is a Tamil, he does not behave as a Tamil, and we don't want him to enter Tamil Nadu in any form - whether in person or on film," said V Prabha, a youth activist based in Chennai (formerly Madras).

"Muralitharan did many wrongs during the Sri Lankan civil war, we don't want him to be a hero in the Tamil community."

But Muralitharan says his words have been repeatedly "twisted" and taken out of context.

"I meant that after 2009, we had peace in this country. For me when the war finished, it was the happiest day of my life because peace came - not because Tamil civilians were killed," he said, speaking from Dubai, where he is a bowling coach for the Sunrisers Hyderabad team at the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament being held there.

"I did not take any sides over the war - Rajapaksa side or the other side. I was in the middle. People in India don't know what's happening in Sri Lanka."

Muralitharan has close links with India, especially Tamil Nadu. His wife is from the state and he represented Chennai when he played for Chennai Super Kings from 2008 to 2010, becoming one of the team's most popular players.

Kavitha Muralidharan, a freelance journalist in Chennai, says the furore over Muralitharan's biopic has been so intense because of its lead actor, 42-year-old Vijay Sethupathi.

"Sethupathi is seen as a progressive actor, he speaks out on a lot of social issues, so for many people, it was troubling to see him choosing to play the role of Muttiah Muralitharan," she said.

"People in Tamil Nadu take cinema very seriously. A movie is not just a movie there - Tamil cinema and politics are inter-related."

Tamil nationalism is often infused into Kollywood, as the Tamil cinema industry is known. A number of the state's chief ministers were actors before they took to politics.

The pressure on Sethupathi to quit came from both film stars and politicians.

But it was Muralitharan's surprise intervention - he asked the actor to withdraw that decided the issue.

The film's producers, Dar Motion Pictures (which made the Bollywood films The Lunchbox and Ugly) and Movie Train Motion Pictures had hoped to begin shooting 800 in early 2021. Without a lead actor, that now seems unlikely.

But Muralitharan is confident that his story will be told on screen.


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