Fremont, CA: On the night of Friday January 25, I was glad to have the opportunity to see a film screening of Kamal Hassan’s spy thriller ‘Vishwaroopam’ and while not a crazed cine fan like many others in the audience, it was a pleasant occasion to see Mr. Kamal Hassan himself grace the event. Personally, it was the first time I saw an actor whose Tamil movies I have watched and enjoyed since childhood.
Prior to proceeding any further, I would like to state outright that the demand for banning this film even before its released, from the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam and others, is simply outlandish and goes against common sense and constitutionally guaranteed free speech. This would be true even if allegations of the movies prejudice against muslims (or potentially any other religion) have validity, and having watched the film my opinion is that this broad allegation against the film simply does not hold water. The Tamil Nadu government has unfortunately set a negative precedent against protection of free speech by appeasing fringe muslim groups who demand a ban on the film. The current state of affairs where TN Chief Minister Jayalalitha claims protection for free speech in the same sentence that she demands the film maker to modify his film based on the objections of those opposing its release simply defeats logic. Hitler too would have supported free speech if speech he did not like was modified to delete the objectionable content. I hope that the film would be allowed to screen unconditionally with no preconditions whatsoever for modifying its content.
The film incorporates many rarely used concepts in Indian cinema including wide use of computer graphics, innovates a storyline that is both unique and multithreaded. A true suspense thriller, it also keeps the viewer guessing about the motives and identities almost till the very end. For these, the film is a pleasure to watch, if one were to not pay attention to the historical events portrayed.
A narrative of mutually beneficial alliance with US imperialism
But as a person of conscience, one cannot be blind to the political narrative that is ultimately projected by the film. Mr. Hassan plays the role of a muslim RAW (Indian intelligence) agent Wasim. Wasim infiltrates Al-Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan, posing as a jihadi, as part of assisting the US invasion force in the year 2002 and this supposedly is to the benefit of India as well. As to why, assistance to a occupation, illegal by international law, and their military operations is beneficial to Indians is not made really clear, except for some short recordings about crazy plans by Al Qaeda operatives to carry out terror attacks on India. This suggests rather wrongly that Al-Qaeda is a central command organization, when in fact the best available analyses indicate disparate sets of individuals and groups only loosely connected to each other with a leadership that is more symbolic than organizational .
This is a narrative that has broad implications for a globalized India, and the inclination to look at ourselves as “natural allies” of the US – a state that routinely invades and terrorizes and murders innocents and nations in the name of freedom and justice – forgetting our moral obligations as people who were colonized by similar powers in the not too distant past. Mutual benefit of a meaningful kind from a US alliance is an oxymoron, as our Pakistani neighbors find out the hard way, with innocents being killed by drone attacks on their soil on an almost daily basis and a military that is too dependent on US support to defend its civilian population.
Oh.. Imperial crimes are only well intentioned mistakes or unintended collateral…
I recollect two scenes in the film, one where a US soldier in a helicopter, fires accidentally at a civilian and the film makes sure to show signs of remorse in the expression on the snipers face. In another, the American aircraft in the course of a firefight, bombs a structure housing women and children – even as Islamists themselves exhume confidence that the Americans will not kill women and children – apparently unknown to the well-intentioned aggressors. These are contrasted to images of murders and slayings by the Islamist fighters, who have no sense of remorse or mercy even at their own women, let alone their victims. By doing this, the film plays into a colonial narrative that simply flies against the logic of imperialism and historical fact. No one in India thinks the British carried out their mass crimes of economic deindustrialization, manmade famines and massacres such as the Jalianwala Bagh out of error. The films simply pretends to not know the supreme crime called aggression condemned at Nuremberg and how it applies to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Suffice it to say, that the US knew prior to the invasion and the carpet bombing of Afghanistan, that it was leaving “millions of Afghans… at grave risk of starvation”.  We know since that the US has not only resulted in tens of thousands of Afghan casualties but also extended its campaign into neighboring Pakistan resulting in even more innocents being killed. 
Colonial aggression: fact, memory and film making
A scene in the end really sent an arrow threw my heart: Wasim is presented as heroically killing a muslim individual who is trying to fire a rocket at a attacking US helicopter, and successfully foils the attempt. By implication, Mr. Hassan is conflating armed resistance to a foreign aggressor with acts of terrorism and thereby criminalizing acts of resistance. Not many Indians would like to think heroically of the British who put to death Rani Lakshmi Bhai or Tipu Sultan or the thousands of unknown Indians who gave their lives trying to liberate their nation even in the face of a superior enemy. Neither does the UN, which specifically excluded resistance from its most forceful denunciation of terrorism. Why portray in a purely negative fashion the Afghan resistance to US occupation unless the point of the film is to crave favorable reviews in the Western press and Hollywood even at the cost of supporting imperial crimes.
There is one thing the film does get right. Wasim is a loyal Indian muslim always willing to do the bidding of the Indian State. But he is always preoccupied about ensuring the success of the US, be it in Afghanistan or later in ensuring the safety of New York – activities that should be the preoccupation of US agencies. Even while inaccurately presenting a picture of Indian intelligence capabilities as being superior to inept US investigators, this does strike a chord with reality: The Indian government and its middle classes assign an unusually high priority for doing the bidding of the worlds powerful even as they forget the priorities of governing their own people, their needs, history and constitution.
Fiction can never be expected to present all facts. But this film consistently errs on the side of imperialism and whitewashes its role in inflaming tensions in the region. Mr. Hassan and others in the Indian cine fold could also consider making movies based on our own history of film making that calls for a just social order. Even in fiction for example, a potential and similarly exciting multithreaded storyline could center on innocents who are torn apart by the US war machinery and their illegal torture and detention, and manage to escape its clutches to find their lives and humanity and positive ways to resist the American empire. In such an endeavor he would actually have allies in North America, in film makers such as Michael Moore (Farenheit 911) or James Cameron (Avatar). Hollywood may not invite Mr. Hassan then but he may then be remembered in the halls of justice and in the minds of freedom loving peoples everywhere. The choice is with him and the rest of India’s film makers. But history will not be very kind to those who forget it.
[The author is a professional based out of San Jose, CA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Outside of work, he has been involved with writing and participating on various human rights issues such as war, healthcare, cuba solidarity.]
1. See book by British investigator Jason Burke: “Al-Qaeda”.
2. Samina Ahmed, International Security 26, no. 3, 2001-02.
3. The following Human Rights Watch report looks at the years 2006-07 and early 2008.http://www.hrw.org/news/2008/09/07/afghanistan-civilian-deaths-airstrikes
The report probably underestimates civilian casualties by making assumptions about civilian versus Taliban, something impossible to do without a fair court of law to make a judgement. Even with these underestimates, the total civilian toll is still of the order of tens of thousands when extrapolated over the entire period from 2001-2012. And this also excludes those who died of starvation and illnesses and imprisonment resulting from the US invasion. Drone strikes in Pakistan have further inflamed tensions and fears of a breakup of the Pakistan military, and further rise in Islamic militancy.
4. UN Resolution 42/159, 7 December 1987. The US State department identified 1987 as the peak year of terrorism. For more treatment of such issues of resistance and terrorism and justifications for US war in Afghanistan, see Hegemony or Survival, by Noam Chomsky.
Karthik Ramanathan is a Senior Engineer at Samsung Electronics in San Jose , California . Outside of his work, he has written about and been involved with various political movements against war, third world solidarity and economic justice in the United States . He can be contacted at email@example.com