A film can be well made and entertaining and yet get its understanding of social realities completely wrong; example—PK.
Let me state at the outset that PK is an eminently entertaining film, though it claims to raise serious issues. Cinematically, too, the film is a visual treat in many parts. The dialogues are crisp and punchy. The use of Bhojpuri dialect, with its quaint mixture of English words in their Bhojpuri-fied avatar, adds enormously to the fun and frolic in the film. All in all, there is a hardly a dull moment in the two-and-a-half hour saga of an alien creature landing on our planet and experiencing endless culture shocks in his encounters with the various specimens of humanity on earth.
But what gets him befuddled is the all-pervasive god obsession among human beings and how this sentiment is manipulated for personal aggrandisement by spiritual gurus. Exposing phony and crooked spiritual leaders is not a new or unusual theme in Bollywood films. From its days of inception, Bollywood has portrayed a whole range of holy men, from the innately compassionate and elevated ones to outright thugs and criminals masquerading as sadhus and swamis. Bollywood has also often ridiculed the tendency of people to put blind faith in people either claiming supernatural powers or speaking as though they are actual representatives of god on earth.
The relationship between humans and divine beings has been put through repeated scrutiny – both through a comic lens and hard-hitting satire as well as through the eyes of socio-religious reformers. But since there is no dearth ofgenuine spiritual gurus, ascetics and sanyasis in Bollywood films, no one really takes offence.
The most recent example of a very rigorous questioning of the very existence of god and those who claim to speak on his behalf was the Umesh Shukla directed film, Oh My God. A much earlier film in the same genre entitled Yehi Hai Zindagi (1977) was even more audacious in challenging the supremacy of god face to face rather than merely challenging his self-appointed representatives on earth. There are numerous other such examples of Bollywood presenting the relations between humans and divinities in ways that demand accountability of gods or challenges their wisdom in letting wrong-doers prosper.
Hindus are used to laughing at their gods and even picking quarrels with them. Therefore, films that indulge in rebellious dialogues with the divine have hardly ever caused upsets in the way PK has done. Instead of disdainfully dismissing the outrage around PK as a product of the resurgence of obscurantist Hindutva forces, we need to try and understand why this particular film has evoked such outrage.
To begin with, director Rajkumar Hirani has tried to be too clever by half by deviously proclaiming that he has the blessings of BJP leaders as well as that of one of the most popular spiritual gurus, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The film begins with the following opening credits. The first one says:
The second slide reads as follows:
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji (The Art of Living Foundation)
Dr Prannoy Roy (NDTV)
Andre Timmins, Sabbas Joseph & Virat Sarkari (Kingdom of Dreams)
One can understand NDTV or Kingdom of Dreams being thanked by Hirani because he used their facilities for shooting certain scenes of his film. But bringing in LK Advani and Amitabh Bachchan is clearly meant to use them as shields against criticism by Hindutva groups. Luckily for Hirani, LK Advani actually endorsed the film enthusiastically, but Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has good reason to be displeased with the use of his name and visual shots of his ashram in the film.
Hirani filmed the Shivratri Sangat at Sri Sri’s ashram under the false pretext that his projection of it would respect the spirit of the festival organised by the ashram. But then he superimposed the character of a very devious and thuggish spiritual guru on the real life sangat of Sri Sri’s ashram with the clear purpose of trashing the very institution ofdharma gurus. By this clever gimmick, Hirani not only betrayed Sri Sri’s trust but also played foul with thousands of Sri Sri devotees whom he filmed live. They are presented as gullible fools who dance to the tunes of an evil dharma guru.
It would have been quite another matter if Hirani had created his own filmy sangatwith hired actors playing mock devotees. But to caricature and demean real life people who come motivated by deep faith to their chosen dharma guru – without as much as a by-your-leave-- can only be called outright fraud.
Secondly, the phony credit line mentioning Sri Sri makes it out as if he has blessed the film. This puts Sri Sri in a very awkward position. Firstly, shots of his own ashram andsangat are being used to defame him by implication. Secondly, Hirani is making out as if Sri Sri actually endorses Hirani’s all-out attack on dharma gurus. This is a double whammy on Sri Sri, and totally unethical at that!
Many defenders of PK have raised the point that Hindu groups did not attack Oh My God even though it is no less devastating in exposing the frauds of those claiming to be spiritual gurus. They argue that attacks on PK are in large part because OMG had a Hindu hero while PK has Aamir Khan, a Muslim, as the hero.
There is no doubt that Aamir Khan has been the special target of ire of Hindu groups. But that is not because he is a Muslim but because he is the lead voice of the “secular brigade” which has demeaned and demonised Hindu groups and political parties like the BJP in the guise of fighting allegedly communal politics of BJP. Hindu groups are outraged at him because he was a lead player in the Teesta Setalvad-Tarun Tejpal-Shabana Azmi brigade that acted as the fighting sword of the Congress and Left parties against the BJP, in general, and Narendra Modi, in particular.
Aamir Khan’s attempts to cosy up to Modi and Modi’s willingness to befriend Aamir Khan has not softened Hindu groups because they feel their demonisation as fascists was totally unmerited. They are not quite ready to embrace Aamir Khan because he has not even expressed the slightest regret for his role in the Hate-BJP campaign.
It’s not easy to forget that Aamir Khan actually pleaded with voters to give a fractured verdict to prevent BJP from coming to power— not caring that India desperately needed a stable government after 10 years of disastrous coalitions cobbled together by the Congress party. People are angry because the “Secular Brigade” Aamir was part of did not fight an honourable political battle against the BJP; their politics was based largely on lies and hideous exaggerations.
Normally, people don’t hold actors responsible for the flaws of the story line or script. But Aamir is not just another actor. He is known to take deep interest in the minutest detail of the script, storyline and even technical aspects of any film he accepts to act in. Therefore, he can’t disown the political orientation of the film.
Comparison with Oh My God (OMG)
There is a world of difference between the content and intent as well as the approach ofOh My God, towards the issue of blind faith as compared to the worldview adopted inPK. Oh My God takes a very even-handed approach towards religious leaders of the three major faiths - Hindu, Christian and Islam. Even while the Hindu faith gurus get a special drubbing, it is fairly upfront in challenging the self-appointed guardians of other faiths.
But PK focuses obsessively on Hindu dharma gurus as well as Hindu deities. There is only one fleeting scene dealing with Christian priests promising redemption to poor families targeted for conversions. The scene involving a dargah very fleetingly shows the hero being chased out of the shrine because he naively carries wine bottles asprasad in a place of Islamic worship. But that only indicates the insensitivity of the iconoclastic hero, not a flaw in Islam. Likewise, he is shown causing a stir in a church because in his ignorance he tries to carry out Hindu puja rituals before an image of Jesus Christ. No words are exchanged, no pious sermons delivered by the hero challenging the Christian priests as to why Jesus is averse to accepting a coconut offering. In fact, the film studiously avoids dealing with the frauds within Christianity or Islam.
Other than these two harmless comic scenes, there is no attack on the core values or mythology of Christianity or Islam, whereas the core values - and not just the corruption of individual religious gurus of Hindu faith - are lampooned and caricatured mercilessly in diverse ways. While there is no denying that a certain number of hypocritical sants, swamis and gurus have brought a bad name to the Hindu faith, Hinduism is far from being the worst case example in this matter.
Core Values of Sanatan Dharma Attacked in PK
Some will argue that the film is not anti Hinduism per se but against the corrupt among Hindu dharma gurus. But Hinduism has perpetuated itself mainly through sampradaysand dharma gurus. They are not incidental to but an integral part of Hinduism. Therefore, an all-out attack on the very institution of dharma guru or sampraday is as good as an attack on Hinduism.
Most important of all, despite its ostensible intention of fighting harmful superstitions and unscrupulous gurus, the film is an outright, vicious attack against one of the core aspects of Sanatan Dharma—namely worship of the divine in its myriad, countless manifestations. Hindus are supposed to have 33 crore devis and devatas with new ones taking avatar whenever the devotees so desire. This freedom of devotees to call upon the divine to manifest to them in as many forms as the myriad devotees desire, as and when they desire, is something that none of the Abrahamic religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - have been able to stomach. In their world view, there is only ONEand ONLY ONE TRUE GOD. And each of them claims a monopoly over the exclusive way to reach this Almighty God. Each one of them rejects the god of the other Abrahamic religions as well as demonises the gods and goddesses of non-Abrahamic faiths as being not just “false” but also evil.
The Abrahamic god is also a “jealous” god who demands that his devotees wage relentless war against all “false gods” and their devotees who are derogatively termed as “kafirs and idol worshippers,” deserving the most hellish punishments. The believers of the one and only true god are expected and encouraged to wreak vengeance on worshippers of “false gods” as proof of their commitment to theOnly True God! This arrogance and claim to exclusivity has caused endless mayhem and havoc in the world, especially for people of Indic faith traditions as well as for Jews, who were ironically the originators of the idea of an almighty one and only true, ferociously jealous, god. The Jews faced an endless series of pogroms and ethnic cleansing all over the Christian and Islamic world. The only place they escaped persecution and violence has been India.
Hindus have been similar victims at the hands of Islamic invaders who carried out huge massacres and looted as well as vandalised and desecrated countless Hindu temples and deities. Allah’s zealous soldiers forced Hindus to give up their faith and convert to Islam largely through brutal means for over 1,000 years - all because the Allah of Muslims demanded ruthless elimination or subjugation of infidels. After them the British, Portuguese and French, who together colonised large parts of India, launched equally vicious attacks against the Hindu faiths as part of their “civilising missions” coupled with attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity. They may not have broken Hindu “idols” but they caused no less damage by enacting laws which allowed the state to control major shrines and temples and take away their landed properties and other assets.
This is not to deny that conversions to Islam and Christianity by the lower castes, especially untouchable groups, were at times a voluntary rejection of Hinduism on account of the demeaning treatment meted out to them. But most converts have been won over through a combination of force, violence, fraud and/or inducements.
Pluralism & Respect for “the Other” Innate to Hinduism
For most Hindus, the arrogant claims of Abrahamic prophets or religious leaders who present their god as such a mean-minded and tyrannical creature as to want the destruction of people of other faiths is an unacceptable way of dealing with the divine. As Tulsidas said in his inimitable way: “Jaaki rahi bhavna jaisi, Prabhu moorat tin dekhi taisi” (The temperament and emotional bent of the devotee determines the attributes he/she gives to his/her chosen god). The god of Abrahamic religions is tyrannical because through history most of those claiming to be sole spokespersons of that god have been tyrants. He shows mercy only to those who follow him exclusively and obey his commandments blindly. The commandments have come through prophets in the form of the one and only sacred book—the Bible for Christians, the Torah for Jews and the Koran for Muslims.
At the core of Classical Hinduism or Sanatan Dharmawith its philosophical moorings in Vedanta lie three basic propositions:
- God, or the divine power, is present in every living and non-living being. Thus there is no sharp divide between the human and divine, between human and other forms of life, between living and non-living. This finds popular expression in sayings such as “kan-kan mein hai Ram” (Ram, or the diving being, is present in every being, every atom in this universe). Hence, the worship of nature – in all its manifestations – rivers, mountains, trees, animals, birds and even pests and reptiles – is a characteristic feature of Sanatan Dharma.
- The purpose of life is to know and recognise this divinity not only within ourselves but also in each living and non-living being and become one within it. Once you accept the non-dualistic view of the world; there is no scope for “me” or “us” versus “others”. All religions, no matter how vast their theological differences and clash of dogmas or belief patterns, are supposed to lead one to union with the divine. Therefore, those who are truly spiritual, at one with the divine, cannot possibly have any quarrel with the followers of other theologies or religions or those following varied spiritual paths.
- Daily life is to be lived by codes of morality (dharmic codes) specific to different life situations, roles and relationships a person is involved in at different stages of life. Thus, there is pitra dharm (fatherly responsibilities and duties), matri dharm(those of a mother), padosi dharm (duty towards one’s neighbours) raj dharm(duties and responsibilities of a king), guru dharma (that of teachers), grihastha dharm (that of a householder), and so on. A person who performs his worldly duties in different situations and stations of life with integrity and steadfastness needs no formal prayers, no religious rituals to be close to god.
Just as Hindus have millions of devis and devatas, so also they have innumerable sacred texts, with each sampradaya free to choose whatever text it considers worthwhile. But none of these texts, including the two foundational texts of Hindu faith traditions - namely the Mahabharata and the Ramayana - claim to be the word of god or product of exclusive divine revelation. Each of them has been written by gifted mortals. None of our sacred epics, dharma shastras or even vedas issue commandments for their followers. Almost all of them state that the code of ethics to be followed by each person is time, culture and situation specific hence constantly evolving.The most endearing part of Hindu faith traditions is that devotees and even non-devotees alike are allowed full freedom to laugh at, criticise and even punish their gods. Since there is no sharp divide between humans and divines, our gods and goddesses routinely take avatars and get born on earth as ordinary human beings. In their roles as sons, brothers, fathers, and friends they are judged by the same moral standards that you would judge ordinary human beings. They neither claim perfection nor any special rights in those roles. For instance, Lord Ram may be iconised as Maryada Purushottambut even today he was not been forgiven his ill-treatment of Ma Sita as depicted inValmiki Ramayana. Consequently, hundreds of Ramayanas have been written to force him to make amends for his unacceptable behaviour of subjecting Sita Ma to a fire ordeal and later abandoning her in a forest. In many latter-day Ramayanas, Ram is either an improved version of Tulsi Ramayana or is castigated harshly for his uncouth behaviour towards Sita. (For a detailed analysis read my essay, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” in Manushi issue No 98, 1999).Likewise, Krishna died a tragic death because of the curse of Gandhari he willingly took upon himself for his role in the Mahabharata war. As Bal Gopal, he took endless scoldings and spankings from mother Yashoda for his naughty pranks as would any ordinary child. (For more details read my article “Of Humans & Divines” in Manushi issue No 136 May-June 2003.The Vedantic worldview was further strengthened and popularised by the Bhakti tradition that spread in wave after wave in different parts of India starting from the South in the 6th century AD. The sufi upsurge within Indic Islam in the medieval period popularised a version of this view among Muslims. The bhakti and sufi movements played a vital role in finding theological resolution to the historic clash between the polytheistic Indic faiths and the aggressively monotheistic Islamic worldview, building bridges of non-antagonistic communication and even friendship between the two. The essence of both these worldviews is that god dwells everywhere and in every being but especially among the humble and poor; that a good heart with love and compassion for all of god’s creatures brings a person much closer to god than any ritualistic practice, textual commandments or the dictates of any religious authority. To treat anyone as the “hostile other” is not to know god. A real heartfelt prayer reaches god, no matter whether performed in a church, mosque or mandir. Allah, Ishwar, Christ are different names for the same Divine Power.
It is no coincidence that Mahatma Gandhi openly proclaimed that his idea of mutually respectful coexistence of diverse communities of India was deeply rooted in Sanatan Dharma and drew sustenance from the Bhakti tradition. His vision of Ram Rajya was that of an egalitarian society capable of protecting and respecting the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their caste, religious or class or gender identity. One of his favourite bhajans played in his regular prayer meetings, attended jointly by people of different faiths, says it all:
Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit pavan Sita Ram, Ishwar Allah tero naam, sabko samati de bhagwan.
(Lord Rama, Chief of the house of Raghu, Uplifters of the weak and the downtrodden, (O divine couple) Sita and Rama; Your name may be Ishwar or Allah, Please bless everyone with good sense and wisdom).
Such a prayer would be considered blasphemous by fundamentalists within Islam, Christianity or Judaism. For them such syncretic beliefs are the route to hell and perdition.
All these values give unique intellectual, social and spiritual freedom to followers of Hindu faiths. Devotees are free to choose their preferred deities, or even invoke new ones. One remains a Hindu even if one is an atheist, or agnostic. We are free to hold this or that book sacred or reject them all. We are also free to read the sacred texts of other faiths and imbibe in our conduct what we like of them. No one challenges a person’s right to be a Hindu even if the person goes and prays in a church or mosque rather than a temple. Belief in one’s own chosen deity/deities does not mean rejection of the gods and goddesses of other faiths as false or evil.
For most of us this easy and gracious acceptance of the right of each person to his/her own forms of worship as well as ways of relating to the divine is one of the greatest strengths of Hinduism.
PK’s Critique Identical to Islamic & Christian Critiques of Hinduism
The most objectionable part of PK is that it attacks these core values of Hinduism in the same vocabulary and spirit that Christianity and Islam have used to attack Hindu faiths. The message of the film given through PK is that people should worship the True Almighty God and not the various gods invented by human beings because that amounts to “dialing the wrong number”. PK would have us believe that “man-made gods” with distinct forms - Ganesh, Shiva etc - are invented by unscrupulous spiritual thugs to fleece and cheat people. He tells us that Lakshmi, Durga or Saraswati, or male gods like Shiva, Ram, Krishna or Ganesha, are all images created to mislead humanity. Praying to them amounts to “dialing the wrong number”. One will not get an answer simply because there is none there to answer. These are mere clay idols or “false gods”. The god who created us all is the ONLY ONE worth praying to. This is not one bit different from the theological basis of attacks by Christians and Muslims on Hinduism. This is why the film is offensive even to those of us not given to blind faith in spiritual entrepreneurs.
The Love Story Angle
Finally, let’s review the love story aspect that has irritated Hindu groups no less. At a time when the reported phenomenon of “love jihad”— ie, the entrapping of young Hindu, Christian or Sikh girls into phony love affairs and marriages with a view to converting them to Islam - has come to aggravate a large section of Hindus, this film projects the fleeting romance and sexual liaison between a Hindu girl from India with a Pakistani Muslim boy as the acme of the most sincere devoted love a man can ever have for a woman.
To begin with, the objections of the heroine Jaggu’s father to her marrying a Pakistani are interpreted as a sign of Hindu communalism. The truth is that given the state of affairs in Pakistan, given the crude dominance of jihadi terrorist groups over Pakistani society and polity, even Indian Muslim parents are reluctant to marry their daughters to Pakistani grooms. The days when elite Indian Muslim families used to look across the border for suitable grooms and brides are well nigh over.
Today, the only ones keen to go to Pakistan are psychologically disturbed, Islamic zealots gravitating towards jihadi mayhem. They go to get arms training to spread terror. In such a situation, the concern of a Hindu father that his daughter might be endangering her very life by marrying a Pakistani is perfectly understandable. It is also well known that girls marrying even Indian Muslims have to convert to Islam and raise their children as Muslims. There is very little chance that a Hindu girl marrying a Pakistani Muslim can retain her faith, especially if the couple has to live in Pakistan. The systematic genocide and forced conversions of Hindus who were left in Pakistan following the 1947 partition as well as reports of large scale abductions of Hindu girls in Pakistan and Bangladesh would give nightmares to any parent at the prospect of his daughter having to live under the umbrella of terrorism and extremist Islam which has overtaken Pakistan. To project this anxiety as a subject of ridicule, as this film does, is to rub salt into deep, hurting wounds.
On the other hand, the euphoric response of the staff of the entire Pakistani embassy in Belgium to Jaggu’s reaching out to her long separated lover Imran makes it out as if getting Jaggu to marry Imran was a Pakistani state-sponsored project. The message: Hindus are all misguided and narrow-minded bigots whereas Pakistani Muslims are all tender-hearted liberals who embrace Hindu girls into their fold with love and warmth. One could have swallowed such an unrealistic scenario if the film was all fun and frolic. But under the humourous façade of this film is a serious message about the need to reject “false gods” while using stereotype versions of fraud gurus to proselytise people to worship the One and Only True God.
The same point of parental disapproval of an inter-faith, inter-country marriage could well have been driven home by picking on a Belgian or Spanish or even an African boyfriend for the film’s heroine. But projecting a marriage between a Pakistani Muslim man with a Hindu girl at a time when there is a virulent upsurge of jihadi elements within Pakistani and when the minuscule Hindu community in Pakistan is facing a literal genocide, when Hindu girls in Pakistan are being routinely abducted, subjected to sexual slavery and converted to Islam, the idea of a Hindu girl’s marriage to a Pakistani Muslim as the most idyllic example of matrimony can’t be digested that easily. If the purpose of the film is to say that all Muslims are not out to defraud Hindu women and that a Pakistani Muslim can also make a genuinely caring husband for a Hindu girl, there are better ways of getting across that message. But the gooey-gooey manner in which this film goes about projecting what on the surface appears like a casual, flippant romance makes one suspect a hidden agenda behind it all, especially since the Hindus are either presented as naïve, gullible idiots or as thugs and manipulators.
Hinduism has an infinite capacity for self-criticism, self-improvement and even withstanding attacks from outsiders. But the attacks hurt more when an insider attacks with the imperious arrogance of an outsider or when outsiders assume they have an exclusive copyright on perfection!
Post Script: Bizarre to Equate Paris Carnage with Protests over “PK”
Just as I finished writing this piece came the horrific news that three AI-Qaeda terrorists stormed the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, well known for lampooning politicians, public figures and religion, including Christianity and radical Islam. The attackers called out the names of these cartoonists they had come to wreak vengeance on. The masked gunmen shouted “Allahu Akbar” before gunning down and killing 12 people – two policemen and 10 journalists, including the editor of the weekly. Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who had lampooned Islamic terrorists and Prophet Mohammad.
The spirit and tenor of the TV programmes discussing the Paris carnage was serious and non-aggressive. For instance, on Rajdeep Sardesai’s programme on Headlines Today, all the panelists, including those like Aamir Raza Hussain, who argued forcefully in favour of state censorship and self-censorship when dealing with matters of faith, were given a respectful hearing. There were no hysterical harangues against terrorists who gunned down French journalists and the condemnation was in measured tones.
This was in sharp contrast to the contempt and disdain with which critics of PK have been treated by media’s secular left liberals. The protestors againstPK were snubbed and humiliated on most TV channels as though they represented a sub-human species that did not understand the value of artistic freedom.
Most important of all, even while discussing the Paris carnage, almost every TV channel continuously referred to the intolerance shown by Hindu groups towards PK and other such portrayals as proof that Hindus were no less intolerant than Islamic jihadis. This attempt to draw equivalence between Hindu zealots and Islamic terrorists is indeed bizarre. Even the lunatic fringe of Hinduism has never gone for bloodshed and mayhem to express their religious hurt in the murderous manner in which militant jihadis are routinely expressing their defence of Islam.
The double-standard and attitude of open contempt displayed by left secular liberals towards Hinduism and its followers is what pushes a section of Hindu zealots into believing that their sentiments and hurt will be taken seriously only if they too start getting violent against people who outrage them. Centuries of being ridiculed and demeaned for their modes of worship and belief systems has unfortunately led a section of Hindus to think that they need to mould their gods and goddesses in the template of the ‘quick-to-take-offence’ Abrahamic God. To my mind, this would be the greatest tragedy for Hinduism.
It would be a great pity if we have to start treating our devis and devatas with the same awe and fear that the followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism have to treat their Almighty God. In Hinduism, highly evolved human beings are even allowed to acquire greater power than gods. Hindu lore is full of stories of great tapasvis whose tapa gave them such exceptional powers that even gods had to do their bidding. Any woman who displays extraordinary valour or courage often gets to be called and even treated as Durga incarnate!
As pointed out by Sharda Ratan in his Open Letter to Bollywood, "God Fearing is an English Term”, rooted in Christian theology. The Hindus use the term “Prabhu premi”(god loving). The ultimate aim of life for a Hindu is discover the divine within, not be fearful of god up above.
I pray and hope that we find better ways of protecting our faith traditions from ugly, gratitutous attacks than emulate the negative aspects of Judaic faiths by making our deities as quick to take offence and demand vengeance, as does the Abrahamic God. The fact that the Bajrang Dal and allied outfits who vandalised theatres running PK could not find more than 15-20 persons to join their hoodlum protests shows that the Hindu samaj is not endorsing their lawless ways of expressing hurt.