How to be a fringe element: The Vishwaroopam controversy

I thought people who went against the tide of prevalent thought are fringe elements. Now, from what we see around us, those who can manage to find a herd and sponsors for their ideology are called fringe elements (FE).

There have been times I have been critiqued for not saying politically-correct things; some have even implied that I “like” doing it, without fathoming the immensity of what might be (and indeed have been) the consequences.  But, it’s been a lone hunter (LH) sort of thing.  LH is vastly different from FE, and it surprises me. The outsiders should be the real FE, inhabiting that lonely mofussil space. That’s not how it happens.

The loonies, fundos, rightwingers, bigots have taken over the territory. Now, if you happen to stroll at the edge as LH there is every possibility that you might be mistaken for an FE.

Everyone is screaming out about the fringe elements once again in the mainstream media. TV panels point fingers at them. It is with some befuddlement that I watch how they are by default being transformed into some sort of maverick, almost out of Camus. The latest reason is the film Vishwaroopam that has been banned in Tamil Nadu. It talks about terrorism, specifically Islamic terrorism. Its producer, director, actor Kamal Haasan, who “hawked” his house and “pawned” all his properties for this ambitious Rs. 100 crore project, is being held to ransom by the FE.

They are a bunch of Muslims whose religious sentiments are “hurt”. (Interestingly, Kamal Haasan has himself spoken about being “hurt” by what is happening, and now I am confused about this whole LH-FE business of being hurt.)  The film is doing fine in other South states.  It is Tamil Nadu that decided to ban it. I have not watched the film; the FE have probably not; most of those supporting the FE as well as the filmmaker have not.

This brings us to FoS. Freedom of Speech. Nothing in this episode is about freedom. I believe that a film that deals with a certain kind of terrorism might use its ‘inspiration’; it cannot exist in a vacuum. However, this is not about Islam. No one can make a definitive film on any religion, simply because there are just so many ways of interpreting it, and there will be provision for poetic licence. The FE use it, too.   
Here’s a quick manual on how to be one; as the reference is to the current controversy it will be restricted to Muslims:

  • Look at pictures of beard/skullcaps/veils.
  • Call friends on devices that they say the religion forbids. Gather in a herd.
  • Find helpful sponsors to make and put up posters, effigies, shout slogans.
  • Hide all glossy magazines in possession and bring out the Holy Book; play CDs with naats on the way to FE arena.
  • Express anger, but talk of hurt (in psychology they call is S&M).
  • There is 99 per cent of a possibility that some political group will understand your ‘sentiments’.
  • Leave options open.
  • The fire will be kept alive even when you are not around.
  • Go home to watch yourself on TV. Realise you need to get the look right. Dishevel beard, wear a better cap.
  • Set out to battle again. Anger. Hurt.

The Quit India Boo-ment

The biggest mistake people make is to legitimise the FE. If the case is in court, how does the media discuss it? Can the filmmaker give a press conference? Even before the verdict, Kamal Haasan said:

"Now, I shall wait for the afternoon judgement. But add to this, I think I will have to seek a secular state for me to stay in. And that choice would be a place where it would be a secular state. If I can't find it within India, I will hopefully find another country, which is secular that might take me in. M F Husain had to do it, and now Hassan will do it.”

MF, for all his flaws – and I absolutely disagreed with him for taking up the Qatar citizenship – did not have a work banned. His museum was burned down; he was threatened. These were not fringe elements, but members of a political party.

As regards leaving the state or the country for a secular haven, that is how the fringe elements credo thinks. They use emotional blackmail. They too question secularism. It is really turning out to be a wheels-within-wheels scenario.

In terms of the majority of the population, and I mean crossing any specific boundaries, Kamal Haasan is also a fringe element. He is not a common man. He interprets reality. However, he has the intellect, and the statement he made might sound like treason, if we choose to rationalise it.

Incidentally, this is not the first time anyone has spoken about leaving due to pressure. When the Shiv Sena sent its men wearing knickers to protest outside actor Dilip Kumar’s house, he said he would leave the city. Singer Lata Mangeshkar threatened to do so if a flyover was built near her house, because the pollution would affect her voice.

We will not talk about those who are forced to quit because they can’t find livelihood or due to persecution for reasons ranging from their beliefs to their gender to their sexual choices to their freedom to just be what they want to be.

In a statement he had issued, Haasan had written:

“I have been ruthlessly used as a vehicle by small groups who seek political profile. Icon bashing is a great way to be noticed when you are not one yourself. It is happening again and again. Any neutral and patriotic Muslim will surely feel pride on seeing my film. It was designed for that purpose.”

He is right about people joining a bandwagon. However, why does he need to emphasise “neutral and patriotic Muslim”? The terminology is all wrong. You can be a patriotic Indian, and it means your religion is not part of it. There can be no neutrality when judging any aspect, least of all a work of art. Has he made the film as a neutral and patriotic Hindu? No. And one would be disappointed if he did. He should create what he wants to, assuming that a sense of responsibility towards anything is inbuilt in the creative gene.

After his “I’ll leave”, he has agreed to make changes in the film and “move on”. It raises some fundamental questions which some of us would not have considered, given that I support him against the FE.

  • Is he compromising because of these elements?
  • Is there political pressure?
  • Has he, in fact, seen his own film in a new light and found certain incendiary portions?
  • Is he concerned about the money he will lose? (He said he does not care.)
  • Has he let down those who stood by him only to please a handful of his “Muslim brothers”?

I am hurt because he has caved in and because of his preemptive implication that if some people who are not the lumpen were to later object to parts of the film their neutrality and patriotism could be questioned.

It bothers me that the fringe elements as well as the filmmaker are playing with the sensibilities and intelligence of many of us.

In saying so, I realise that in spirit some of us are more on the fringe than both, the streetfighters and the filmmaker, for not being backed or backing out.

End Note:

Imagine if a hardliner were to ask the director to make changes and it would include his name. Kamal means lotus and is the BJP symbol and Haasan, which is spelt as Hassan sometimes, is a Muslim name.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. Vishwaroopam is not in Major releasing centers due to DTH controversyand only in B and C class theaters having 15 to 20 average ticket pricing in all three states . Kamal Hassan was forced to opt DTH because Major distributors left out his project due to political pressure from Jayalaitha plus all his previous directorial were flop

    Why Amma (JayaLalita) Hates KH ?

    1)KH himself a strong supporter of DMK chief Karuna Nidhi
    2) KH's last movie was Anti Bhramanical Deshavatharam. Amma herself a Brahmin and surrounded by Iyengar community
    3) Amma's channel Jaya TV is doing a bulk purchase Tamil Satellites rights KH bunked that and sold rights to STAR Vijay

    Another Tamil artist Vadi Velu is sitting home without having any films because he campaigned for DMK.

    I don't think vishwaroopam is great movie because Cinema/Director is missing. More over it looks like a documentary on Afghanistan normally aired on NatGeo. He tried to recreate some of the lunacies of Taliban and Al Qaida - Beheading of Daniel pearl etc.

    Locations of Vishwaroopam - USA and Afghanistan
    Indian Muslim Characters: Protagonist Kamal Hassan and his Assistant Raw Agent.

    Objection of raised by Muslim organizations :
    1) Reciting Qur'an before beheading - Taliban/AQ did the same before Danial pearl assassination
    2)Terrorist recording Video message in front of a Black flag inscribed shahadat Kalima - Refs Knights Under the Prophet's Banner Al Zawahirs book and Al Qaida Flag
    3)Terrorist praying before executing a Dirty Bomb.

    Controversial Muslims organization is an off shoot of Al Ummah who did Coiabatoor blast http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998_Coimbatore_bombings .
    The man who champions the cause Prof Jawahirrullah MLA (Manithaneya Makkal Katchi) is Amma's coalition partner

    About Neutral Patriotic Muslims - There is no protest in Kerala except from another group SDPI for Initial hours. Kerala has 26% muslims and a Muslim league with 20 MLAs in ruling coalition.

    Note: I don't think Kamal Hassan and MF Hussein are Fringe Elements of Society if Artists are threatened they may leave their birth place. lets starting to blame the anti-free speech campaigners
    Why should we shoot all the available goal post to claim the neutrality ???

    Comment by @AresXtra

  2. too many terms (1) LH (2) FE (3)FoS , I could not understand these terms , but do we really need these terms and box ppl into these terms? what is S&M ?

    why did you disagree with MF taking Qatari citizenship? kamala hasan rants on "neutral and patriotic" is unfortunate, as if if I don't like his movie I would become unpatriotic and possible non-muslim - maybe he better off making movies like "eik duje ke liye" and the challenge is to find rati agnihotri!

  3. AresXtra:

    Thanks for the input. I really do not know what Jayalalitha's problem with Kamal Haasan is. However, film stars in the South have traditionally had political affiliations to a greater degree than those from Bollywood.

    Now that he has agreed to the cuts, it only confirms the views expressed here - that when it comes to commercial interests, all the noise about freedom go for a toss.

    PS: I used the term 'fringe elements' in a deeper sense of being outside the mould. My reference to Camus should have made that clear.

    - - -


    The acronyms have been explained before they were used...just as we don't write out the full form of RSS or ISI etc.

    For the rest, my opinions are available here with the click of a search button.

  4. FV,

    Allow me to be frank. Your piece is needless (not to say, deliberate) obfuscation. The fact is that it is open season out there. We are permitting the largest and the most violent mob to define the boundaries of freedom of expression. That explains why mobs are getting bigger and more violent.

    I am also hurt and offended by certain sections of certain (holy!) books. But I cannot possibly get a mob with bloodshot eyes and murder on their minds to join a street protest. Is my hurt less important?

    If not, why allow this bullshit? I am willing to ignore a doodle of naked Saraswati in the larger interest of the country. Is anyone willing to support a cartoon of bomb-headed Mohammed?

    1. F&F:

      Have you watched the film? What do you have to say about Kamal Haasan's copout? That is what this piece is about. So, the obfuscation is within the controversy.

      Of course, you could be offended by holy - or 'holy' - books and a lot else, and I've factored tthatin with my views several times about all kinds of hurt. Wonder if you'd have murder on your mind. Good to know you read minds. Given that there was no attempted murder, you are wrong. Please keep your day job.

      As an individual you might accept a painting just as I might not personally find a cartoon worth protesting. But do not make it appear as though your views aired here are the norm. Forgotten how art works and museums are attacked by other mobs. Did they have bloodshot eyes?

      PS: It's always a barter for you, right? It is called divisiveness.


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