Muttiah Muralitharan and the doomed biopic

Gautam Chintamani
·4 min read

The recent outpouring of anger against a proposed biopic of cricket legend Muttiah Muralitharan is yet another example of how perception often modifies reality when it comes to Indian films and the biopic genre.

Called 800, the Murali biopic invited the wrath of many Tamilians as they believe the cricket is a traitor to the cause of the Tamilians in Sri Lanka. This is due to Mitali’s stance of supposedly supporting the actions of the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE during the final stages of the civil war that ravaged the island nation.

From the moment actor Vijay Sethupathi, who was to play the lead role in the film, tweeted about the launch of the film, a deluge of opposition ensued and finally, Murali asked the actor to step aside.

While there have been more than 15 Tamilian players to represent Sri Lanka internationally including Angelo Mathews and Russell Arnold, one of Sri Lanka's best finishers, besides the legendary Roy Dias, none have attained the cult status like the spin legend.

Going by the degree of Murali’s achievements, a biopic is a given but the complex interplay of politics in Tamil film industry might continually apply the brakes.

Unlike Bombay cinema, the world of Tamil cinema is deeply entrenched in politics and the chances of this film ever getting made at the scale as envisioned are almost next to none.

Murali’s family hails from Tamil Nadu and he was one of the very few Tamilian players to play consistent cricket at top level. Amongst the A-listers that reacted negatively to the announcement of 800 included director Cheran, who reportedly asked Vijay Sethupathi to avoid the project as it was not bigger than the suffering of Tamil people.

Press sources quoted veteran filmmaker Bharathirajaa saying that the Tamil race will never forgive betrayers and if Sethupathi avoided the film he would be remembered with gratitude by the Tamil people everywhere.

The biopic genre has always been at the receiving end of criticism from both sides - those opposing always have something to bicker about and the ones supporting, feel a sense of letdown.

The constraints of the popular cinema narrative also make it near impossible to stick to facts in the truest sense as seen in the case of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), where both the writer of the book on which it was based as well as the subject, Phoolan Devi had major issues with the storyteller.

The biopic also famously tinkers around with details to add dramatic impact, which was the case with Mary Kom (2014) and Dangal. Both films told the story of popular sportspersons - MC Mary Kom and the Phogat Sisters respectively - certain creative liberties overpowered the narrative’s authenticity.

In the former, Priyanka Chopra was cast as the boxing legend instead of an actor from Manipur, the state where Mary Kom hails from and the latter showed Mahavir Singh Phogat locked in a room when his daughter was competing even though, in reality, he was at the ringside. When it came to Mary Kim and Dangal, it was assumed that the audiences were smart enough to apply discretion but the same liberty is not extended in most cases.

What is truly surprising, and even shocking, is that the passionate opposition for a biopic on a sports legend when at the same time, no one bats an eyelid twice before making a film that eulogises a criminal.

Right from Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar (1975), a character that was said to have been inspired by Haji Mastan to Vinod Khanna in Dayavan (1988) that was a remake of Nayakan (1987) that was loosely based on Varadarajan Mudaliar to Ajay Devgn and Vivek Oberoi reportedly transforming into Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan, respectively, in Company (2002) to Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar supposedly becoming Dawood in Once Upon A Time in Mubmbaai (2010) and Once Upon A Time in Mubmbaii Dobara (2013), et cetera to Shah Rukh Khan playing a benevolent don in Raees (2017), there are numerous examples.

Khan’s character in Raees was said to have been based upon criminal Abdul Latif's life and while the filmmakers denied this, the late Latif’s son, Mustaq Ahmad, sued the filmmakers for ‘defaming’ his father.