The portrayal of religions in Anbe Sivam presents Hinduism and Hindu culture as negative phenomena, which can align themselves readily with crony capitalism.
Anbe Sivam (English: Love Is God) released in 2003 is a Tamil film directed by Sundar C. The story of the movie was written by Kamal Hassan. Hassan also performs the lead role in the film of a Marxist street-artist Nallasivam. The film presents contrasting values and belief systems. It purports to show the audience what is true spirituality and what is fake religiosity. It is set in an ideological milieu that constantly seeks to compare and contrast Hinduism, Christianity, crony capitalism and Marxism.
The message of the film on the surface seems to be very humanistic – that it is neither a belief nor a fear of God that is religion but serving and helping fellow humans and fighting to render them justice and feeling their pain as your own. The title of the film and the theme song also seem to carry a flavour of humanistic philosophy.
However, a deeper study of the film with its various portrayals of different religions reveals a different picture and provides a message that is altogether neither humanistic nor unbiased.
Marxism as true spirituality in Christian tradition
The film begins in the flood-ravaged Odisha where a disabled trade union activist, Nallasivam, and an ambitious young ad-film maker, Anbarasu (actor Madhavan), meet accidentally.
The film, like Hey Ram is woven with religious symbols chosen carefully to provide a specific perspective. As the camera rolls through the flood-ravaged streets of Odisha, itinerant Hindu mendicants are shown in ochre robes – often frozen, inactive and fatalistic. The anglicised marketing executive often exclaims ‘jeez’ and once, ‘Christ’. Later when the disabled, limping, Nallasivam reveals his past to Anbarasu, the former speaks of him as someone delivering a message and makes a comment ‘Jesus himself is a messenger’. It is an interesting comment and we will analyse the subliminal message involved in it later. Clearly, the message of the Marxist street player is set in the Abrahamic framework of message delivering. In the linear time, in continuation of Jesus, Marx comes.
As the film unfolds, Hindu symbols get more and more associated with exploitation and negative characters in the movie. Thus, when an exploitative industrialist who violates the labour laws is presented in the street play, the background music is a parody of both Vedic hymns and Azhwar Pasuram (traditional Tamil Vaishnavaite Bhakti literature).
Later the industrialist Kandasamy Padayachi is introduced as a staunch Saivaite uttering holy Saivaite expressions all the time. Yet, he is also shown a hypocrite who tells his guests that he would not even touch water on that special day but is seen consuming alcohol. His daughter Bala, a talented painter, falls in love with Nallasivam, and gets her father to commission a painting by the Marxist at the lounge of the office. The painting of Siva incorporates a portrait of Karl Marx, a sickle and hammer, and the current under-paid wage. To top it, all the face of Siva itself is that of Nallasivam.
As Nallasivam and Bala plan to elope and marry, Nallasivam meets with a terrible accident on his way to Kerala. He is rescued by Christian missionaries – Roman Catholic nuns. The chief, elderly nun Vanessa, is very humane and battles to save his life.
Here the film presents an emotionally surcharged contradiction between the two conceptions of religion. One is represented by villain industrialist Padayachi, replete with Hindu symbols. He taunts Nallasivam. The industrialist claims that it is his devotion to God Siva that had punished Nallasivam bringing him to this terrible and pathetic condition. He says gleefully that Siva would kill him. Immediately this is contrasted with selfless, humane love brought by another religious impulse – Christianity. The nun comes in and tells the visitors to leave and then takes care of the patient. The film shows her making the sign of cross on the forehead of Nallasivam, all bandaged and battling for life.
The background score is a song which jumbles the words Anbe Sivam as ‘God is Love’ and ‘Love is God’. The camera zooms in on Jesus on the cross and scenes of the comrade recovering well under the loving care of nuns and ultimately getting an incredibly new life, though eternally scarred.
The association of the Hindu symbols with negativity persistently runs through the film. Anbarasu and Nallasivam have a Tom and Jerry relation. At one point, Anbarasu gets rid of Nallasaivam by trickery and then allows him to be cheated by a charlatan in the train. The fraud babbles Sanskrit verses, praises Gandhi, and gets Anbarasu drunk. Then he robs him as well as other people in the train. When this fraudulent person is caught finally, it is fleetingly shown that he has a Hindu mendicant for accomplice.
Soon, we meet nun Vanessa, again. There is a terrible train accident somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. And there are no marks for guessing who appears there too, serving the injured and dying. Now, she recognises Nallasivam who introduces to her Anbarasu, who has the rare blood group, AB-. The nun convinces a reluctant Anbarasu to donate blood. Interestingly, once convinced that his act could save a life, Anbarasu spreads his hands to show his readiness – and Nallasivam comments that the pose reminds one of Jesus. In between all this, Nallasivam tells people at random that they are God – whether that statement is relevant or not – perhaps to give some mild diluted spiritual masala.
A person who sees the movie may initially consider that the well-calculated negative portrayal of Hinduism in it by Kamal Hassan was a result of his own negative attitude towards Hinduism, which he has stated openly in many forums. However, there is an additional factor at work there.
It is the Marxist hatred for Hinduism. In the Marxist view of history which is linear, Hinduism represents an inferior stage of human social consciousness compared to the more advanced monotheistic (and hence Abrahamic) religions. Thus for a Marxist, Christianity has to be theoretically more progressive and hence a more humanistic form of religion than Hinduism. India’s pioneering Marxist M N Roy stated this forcefully in the context of Islam. ‘An uncompromising’ ‘rigorous monotheism’ was in the Marxist worldview of Roy ‘the highest form of religion’.
Yet Hinduism lives. It should have died, and this paradox has to be explained.
So, the film shows Hinduism being kept alive primarily by socially backward, anti-progressive, exploiting parasitic forces of the society. Hinduism is sustained here by a totally unethical, murderous villain. At the end of the film, a hitman of the industrialist apologises to Nallasivam saying that God punished him for trying to kill the latter. Of course, comrade Nallasivam refutes the notion and provides a more humanistic worldview as the moral of the film.
Then, at another level, Hinduism is represented by opium-consuming, inactive, fatalistic mendicants sitting idle as floods ravage their surroundings. This image reinforced in fleeting visuals throughout the film and on one occasion it is even suggested that the mendicants have criminal connections – an idea which was popular during the colonial era.
This Hinduism, then, is contrasted with another form of religion. Here there is love and selfless charity. There is only universal love – represented by a Roman Catholic nun. She saves the hero near the Kerala border. She again reappears near Andhra, too. The Marxist Nallasivam is evidently very comfortable with her and shares her humanism. When she makes the consumerism-soaked Anbarasu realise his humanism, Anbarasu bursts into a Jesus-like posture.
Hinduism has such wonderful humanistic literature. This too has to be explained. Hence, the choice of the title Anbe Sivam – Love is the auspicious Godhead – taken from the Saivaite scripture Thiru Manthiram. The film gives the message that the traditional Saivism is useless to realise the true purport of humanism buried inside it. It can be discovered through humanistic Christianity and see its vision fulfilled only in progressive Marxism.
So what to do with the symbols of this religion that have become so popular with the masses of India? The painting of Siva incorporating Marxist themes in a way shows the Abrahamic – both Christian as well as Marxist approach – to Indian spirituality. For a Marxist, the Indian spiritual expression is only an empty vehicle to convey his ideology and is bereft of any intrinsic value in itself. Its only value is its popularity with the public which has to be exploited ruthlessly for propaganda purposes, the ultimate result of which may be destruction of that cultural expression itself.
Punishing Angry God of Hindus?
The industrialist as well as the hitman, both Hindus shown bearing Hindu symbols, are presented as being unable to comprehend a loving humane God. Incidentally, a punishing, angry God is a predominantly Abrahamic notion of the Deity. In Hinduism, both at the philosophical as well as at a popular level, the Godhead is a musician, dancer, feminine – both loving and fierce, a playful infant etc. However, what Anbe Sivam provides is the way a Western man – who is fed only the negative, missionary portrayal of Hinduism – sees Hindus.
Rabindranath Tagore criticised exactly this traditional Christian view of Hindu communities, which Anbe Sivam reinforces:
“The traditional Christians express their contempt for the degradation and cruelty in the characters of the traditional gods and modes of worship of some Indian communities. On account of habit they cannot however, see that their own conception of God is equally possessed by the evil genius of man. The community whose sacred books condemn to eternal hell a child that has died before its baptism, has attributed to God a degree of cruelty that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In fact, eternal hell, for any sin however heinous, is the most potent invention of human cruelty. … Even today the conception of hell pervades with horror the prisons of civilised man, where there is no principle of reformation but only the ferocity of punishment” (‘Supreme Man’, Lecture given at Andhra University, 1933).
It is this scenario which Anbe Sivam reinforces. The adherents of a spiritual civilisation, who made their Godhead more a playing infant than a punishing celestial Deity, are shown as being unable to rise above the concept of a punishing God. The proselytising agents of a religion that invented a jealous God and eternal hell are shown as bringers of selfless love. Such are the necessities of ‘The Theory’- after all it was Marxism which materialised on this earth the modern time Gulags and killer camps that came very close to the Christian hell, designed for the heretics and unbelievers. The affinity and affection are then understandable.
A reality test
How do the facts of history and of present reality match up to this powerful visual propaganda?
Fatalistic and Criminal Mendicants
Let us take the case of Hindu mendicants. Were they, as presented by the picture, inactive, indifferent, fatalistic, opium-consuming parasites of the society?
The idea of criminal mendicants and their fatalism was a carefully cultivated colonial myth of the British authorities. Historically, these mendicants have been associated with peasant uprisings against oppressive regimes throughout history. So much is this image of righteous mendicants fighting for the common people imprinted in the traditional mind of India that Gandhi himself roped into their services in the freedom struggle.
Cambridge historian William Pinch notes that the very fact that Gandhi seemed able to speak to India’s monks, convinced them that he could speak for India’s peasants. Hundreds of monks attended the 1920 Indian National Congress meeting in Nagpur, anxious to see and hear the man who was bringing mass politics to the national level and to involve themselves in his, and in many ways their own, political idiom.
The government report said that “an association of the most powerful sadhus called Nagas [soldier monks] had been formed at Nagpur” and informed that later these “sadhus visited most of the villages and towns and the masses had a high regard for them, and thought a great deal of their instructions and preaching. When these Nagas took up non-cooperation, the scheme would spread like wild fire among the masses of India and eventually Government would be unable to control 33 crores of people and would have to give Swaraj.”
The official report also noted that Gandhi personally thanked the sadhus for their support and urged them to “visit the vicinities of cantonments and military stations and explain to the native soldiers the advisability of giving up their employments.” This recalled for the British fears of 1857. Far from being insensitive to social problems, Hindu monks took up the problems of the common suffering peasants not because they were motivated or sanitised into the issues by a Soviet-subsidised Marxist indoctrination, but as Pinch points out in the case of Swami Sahajanada, the commitment to peasant welfare was ‘derived in large part from a conscious dedication to Vaishnava ideals of equality and social reform’. (William Pinch, Peasants and Monks in British India, University of California Press, 1996, p.5, p.10)
‘Missionaries alone serve’
Equally unrealistic is the appearance of Christian missionaries in the scenes of disasters in India. If there is one organisation that has been credited with appearing in every place of national disasters and accidents, it is the RSS. The khaki-shorts clad volunteers have been spotted rescuing victims at almost all places where disaster struck, from the Morvi Dam disaster in Gujarat to the Quilon train tragedy in Kerala, to the Bhopal gas leak.
On 8 July 1988, 14 bogies of the Trivandrum-bound Island Express plunged into a lake near Quilon in Kerala over a railway bridge. Matrubhoomi, the leading Malayalam daily (dated 12 July 1988) reported:
“While all others were hesitant and stood closing their nostrils, the Swayamsevaks of RSS volunteered to remove the decomposed bodies submerged in the backwaters… At the hospitals too, the Swayamsevaks were ready to offer blood to the needy victims. The Perumanas Kayal backwaters near the accident spot became the centre of Swayamsevak’s activities. On the day of accident itself the Swayamsevaks have rescued many people trapped in the carriages. Some of the Swayamsevaks were also injured in this rescue and relief operation.”
The same story can be seen repeated in almost all national disasters. Let us take the instance of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. The magazine India Today (Feb-12-2001) reported:
“The first volunteers in Ahmedabad and in Kutch were RSS and VHP workers who worked along with the army (which eventually deployed 22,500 troops), the RAF and members of the gallant fire brigade in rescuing the trapped. In the absence of the official machinery in Kutch, it was the RSS – VHP brigade that helped rescue people, nurse the wounded and even carry bodies for the last rites. On 29 January, the residents of Nanireldi, a Muslim-dominated village in Kutch virtually starving since the day of the quake were pleasantly surprised to see a batch of RSS and VHP workers land with food-grain, clothes and medicines. Said Abha Ibrahimbhai: “I could never imagine that the RSS and VHP workers would come to our rescue.”
Saba Naqvi of Outlook (Feb-12-2001) reported: Similar scenes were repeated in all the collapsed multi-storey across Ahmedabad and Bhuj, where the operation to find survivors and the dead went on for nearly a week. Says Panchal: “Whenever we hear of a calamity, RSS people reach out at their own cost.” Adds Vyas: “In Gujarat, the RSS is always seen as an organization committed to public service.” Ahmedabad’s collector K Srinivas agrees: “This is an old tradition in the RSS. To be the first at any disaster site: floods, cyclone, drought and now quake.” In Kutch too, the RSS was the first to reach the affected areas. At Anjar, a town in ruins, the RSS was present much before the army and took the lead in finding survivors and fishing out the dead. In rural Ratnal, again the RSS played saviour. Arvind Chaudhary, an RSS volunteer, says that 30 cadre members are here to take care of around 40 remote villages.
Almost the first persons to reach an area of disaster in India have been RSS volunteers. These are not isolated events; for decades this has been a reported fact and a phenomenon in India.
Yet, the film which specifically shows similar disasters in two different parts of India, gives the credit to a fictionalised Christian nun than to a Hindu service organisation. The reason is clear: apart from the jaundiced personal perception of Hassan, there is the theory that necessitates that Hinduism cannot involve itself in such humanitarian services, only Christianity can.
The issue is not that the film depicts the missionaries and not the Hindu groups – RSS or Ramakrishna Mission. It is the freedom of the film-maker. The point is only to show the psychology of the Marxist and/or the pseudo-secular presentation of reality which necessitates an active suspension of social reality by closing eyes to Hindu groups which work in all areas of major national calamities prominently and without discrimination.
One can in fact compare this asymmetry presented by Anbe Sivam in serving people by blocking out the Hindu services to the fabricated scenes of Hindu violence in Hey Ram for the sake of secular symmetry.
The portrayal of religions in Anbe Sivam presents Hinduism and Hindu culture as negative phenomena, which can align themselves with crony capitalism, (though crony capitalism itself is the result of state socialism created by a leadership which had aversion for anything Hindu and a romantic inclination towards Marxism).
In this depiction, Hindu culture and traditions are kept alive only by violence, ignorance, and inertia and of course, by vested interests. On the other hand, Abrahamic religions including Marxism, are saviours of the suffering humanity in India and the duty of the secularist is then to ridicule, hate and harm Hinduism in whatever way possible and promote the spread of Abrahamic religions.
This piece was first published on Centre Right India.