It’s the responsibility of Indic academics to fight the hatred this movie continues to spew even today.
To start with, an apology from Spielberg is the least one can expect.
When I was a child, I got a lot of Phantom comics to read. They were then available in all Indian languages. Phantom was a white castaway from a European ship attacked by ‘pirates’. He vowed to avenge the death of his father by fighting injustice. He lived in a skull cave in the deep forest near Denkali, a modern Westernised native state.
Phantom was called ‘the guardian of Eastern dark’, and twentieth-century Phantom’s American white lover Diana Palmer was enthralled and found him the most romantic.
I did not know that Denkali was actually Bengali. The ‘pirates’ were called ‘Singh pirates’ in the original comic strip. Most probably the ‘Singh pirates’ were the Maratha navy, which was at one time a serious challenger to the combined might and dominance of European fleets in the western coast of India.
The Eastern Dark against which he was protecting the natives were worshippers of an idol to which humans were sacrificed and held slaves by a priesthood that sold marijuana. In other words, the comics were about the white man’s burden against the evil Hindu religion and they were able to sell it to those very Hindus without us even realising that it was stereotyping, caricaturing and belittling us.
The stereotypes are very clear. Hindus are portrayed simultaneously as ignorant, innocent, exploited as also the exploiters. Hindu priests were the exploiters, who inhumanly used idols and drugs to keep people enslaved and sacrificed humans to the idols. And it continued – in movies, in academia and in media.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is a case study in taking the same framework and going one step further. It links the Indian freedom struggle and the vilified so-called ‘Thugee cult’ to the above stereotypes. Let us discuss some of the scenes from the movie – and what they illustrate and imply.
The sacrifice of an Indian man to Kali is a scene which needs to be studied by all students who want to understand the Hinduphobia that is deep in the psyche of the West. It depicts a group of people in trance. Almost all of them wear sacred threads, which in Western stereotypes represents ‘high-caste Brahmins’.
They all sway to the beat of drums which looks absolutely non-Indian. The high priest appears with a turban with two horns – reminding the old Harappan Yogi seal. Only this guy (played by Amrish Puri) is very sinister looking. He proceeds towards the bound man. Interestingly, the man to be sacrificed has no sacred thread – a not-so-subtle indication of Brahmin, the exploiter, and non-Brahmin, the exploited.
Mula Ram, the thuggie-priest, does a bizarre ritual borrowed from one which the Aztec priests were supposed to have done. He removes the heart of the victim, who is constantly chanting Aum Namah Shivaya, and offers it to Kali. The wound in the chest of the victim heals, suggesting a miracle or illusion, and then the sacrificial victim is lowered into a pit where hot lava bubbles.
The so-called thugs were used by the British to justify their colonial occupation and exploitation of India in the name of a civilising mission. Colonial narratives of thugs proliferated. Tales of brave British officers saving Hindus deluded by thugs filled the English press. According to the British, the thugs were worshippers of Kali (who else) and they waylaid and killed people by strangulation.
As many post-colonial studies have shown, most of the excesses of thugs were colonial fabrications which enabled officials to fuel their campaigns and usurp authority. Decapitated ‘thug’ heads were sent to Edinburgh. Based on pseudo-scientific phrenology studies, the British doctors talked about the thug skulls showing ‘representative examples of normal Hindoo type’, of the ‘apathetic, weak and lazy Hindoo’ with ‘natural inclination for the work of death’.
While Captain William Sleemann led his profitable campaign against the ‘thugs’, a nineteenth-century ‘war against terror’ in India, his close relative, Henry Harpur Spry of the Bengal Medical Mission, developed a fascination and fetish for collecting the decapitated heads of the ‘thugs’ and ‘studying’ them. For a traditional Indian mind, the waylaying phenomenon is a social indication of the failure of the state. As Illango Adigal points out in the narrative of his epic Chilappathikaram (one of the five great works of Tamil literature) almost 1,500 years ago, when the pasture lands and forests are destroyed and abused, the people of that land become people of palai (desert), who earn their livelihood through dacoit activities, and invoke the Goddess. It is interesting that Indian society has approached the problem, if at all it existed, in a more scientific, holistic and humanistic way than the so-called scientific West.
The film combines in the depiction of Hindus both the Aztec heart-sacrifice rituals and the use of voodoo dolls associated with African pagan culture. This too is derived from the colonial stereotype. George Combe, Scottish lawyer and a leader of phrenology, spoke about how it was known by the ‘English judges’ that ‘the sentiment of Truth’ is 'so low in Africans, the Hindoos, and the aborginal Americans' so much so that 'the natives of these countries were not received as witnesses in the colonial courts’.
The bald-headed head priest of the thuggies, Mula Ram, is in a way a grotesque caricature of Gandhi himself. Gandhi’s charismatic hold over the people and his ‘half-naked fakir’ appearance were seen by the colonial Christian mind as a kind of dark oriental trickery. Even in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, one can see General Smuts giving a subtle hint about Gandhi’s overt spiritual posturing as hiding a clever political mind. Later, Indian political scientist and writer Kancha Ilaiah would tell Christianity Today magazine in the United States that the positive image of Gandhi created by Attenborough was only ‘fiction’. If one compares the image of Mula Ram in the movie with the caricature of Gandhi made by both colonialists like Winston Churchill and also by Communists of those times, one can find striking resemblances.
In a scene where Dr Indiana Jones is tied and tortured, Mula Ram informs him: “British in India will be slaughtered and then we will overrun the Muslims. Then the Hebrew God will fall and then the Christian God will be cast down and forgotten. Soon Kali Ma will rule the world.”
These words are the most important giveaway in the film. It should be noted that both in its passive form of non-violence and in its more virulent form of limited armed resistance, the Indian freedom movement has taken its inspiration from Vaishnavite and Sakthic traditions respectively. In other words, the Indian freedom movement can be viewed as perhaps the largest non-Christian, non-Muslim mass movement to gain freedom for a people who still largely follow what is the last living pagan religion.
Christendom has always wanted to pass its own crime of institutional anti-Semitism to paganism. Though Jews are a miniscule minority who never got registered as ‘aliens’ in the minds of the Indian people, the priest mentions the fall of the ‘Hebrew God’. Thus anti-Semitism is mapped on to the Hindu religion. The Muslims are again favourably singled out as victims of a Hindu movement to drive away the British – a charge Jinnah and the British always levelled against the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Once again, one can see Churchill’s hatred of Gandhi and Indians in the film in this dialogue. It is now important to realise that Churchill was not an individual Hindu-hater. He was a representative of a dominant stream of hatred against Hindus which is as poisonous, as despicable and as dangerous to humanity as anti-Semitism and its horrible child, Nazism. And it is alive and well to this day.
Dr Indiana Jones’ sidekick is a Chinese boy. Though set in colonial times, when Mao Tse Tung would be leading a revolution decades later, the boy is curiously dressed like a child soldier in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The boy later provides a contrast. When an Indian boy ‘maharaj’, dressed in traditional Indian dress, performs acts of cruelty against fellow human beings, the Chinese boy dressed in culturally neutral attire, which sort of anticipated the coming of the Maoist uniform, fights the evil force of Kali and thugs. More importantly, when Dr Indiana Jones falls for the mind-enslaving tricks of Kali, the Chinese boy rescues him.
There are two undercurrents to the movie. One is that Maoist China has officially rejected the traditional Asian culture and accepted the Western cultural superiority through Marxism. Hence, in any conflict with India and Christendom, the Chinese who are also fairer than Indians incidentally, clearly form the allies of the West.
Second is that when the ‘Indiana Jones’ film was made, the Cold War was at its peak. While India had aligned with the USSR, the US had become friendly with Maoist China and Islamist Pakistan, then under the influence of Zia.
To the American movie-goer, who may be susceptible to Indic mysticism-based new-age movements, the scenes could provide perhaps visual immunisation.
It is hard to choose what pains a Hindu in the film most.
Steven Spielberg himself belongs to a community which is one of the most persecuted of the ancient nations by Christendom – the Hebrews. When the Hebrews came to my ancestors, the Hindus of the western coast of India, the Hindu rulers who worshipped the same Kali, not only gave them asylum but made Jews live for the next 2,000 years without persecution in a milieu that knew no anti-Semitism. That a man who knew very well where the racial prejudices and stereotypes would ultimately lead had created such a movie which completely misrepresents Hindus with hate-filled negative stereotypes is something that more than hurts the Hindu. Perhaps Hindus and Jews can make this film an opportunity to unite and raise their voice against such a depiction of Hindus showing the world that love and wisdom can triumph over hate-peddling commercial successes.
It was reportedly George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars, who came with the idea of ‘a religious cult devoted to child slavery, black magic and ritual human sacrifice.’ Involvement of Lucas definitely should disturb the Hindus, including this writer, who considers the Star Wars series as one of the best vehicles for taking Hindu philosophy to the West. Lucas himself agrees that the religious and mystical elements in the Star Wars were inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell. Clearly, there is no way Lucas would not have been aware of the philosophical dimensions of Hinduism. That he still chose to, and collaborated with Spielberg, in creating this hate-movie on Hinduism and Hindu society should again make us ponder. The way Lucas’ mind moved from the Star Wars films to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom may provide us with a classic case for the ‘U turn’ theory of Rajiv Malhotra and the inherent dangers therein.
Third, consider the actor who played Mula Ram, Amrish Puri, or Roshan Seth of ‘Jawahar Lal Nehru fame’ acting as Chattar Lal, a diwan of the native state and a crypto-thug supporter. Also consider the host of actors who played the Hindus in the film. They were all Indians. Surely Puri and Seth could not have been ignorant of the racist stereotyping against Indians in general and Hindus in particular. It is also interesting to note that Lawrence Kasdan, who had been the script writer for Raiders of the Lost Ark, refused to be associated with Temple of Doom. He called it 'very ugly and mean-spirited'. So Spielberg and Lucas reportedly hired Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to write the script because of their knowledge of Indian culture. This makes one wonder. How is it that what appeared as clearly offensive to humanity for a neutral observer was acceptable to both English-educated Indians and Western scholars with 'knowledge of Indian culture'? And are not the academicians of the West and anglicised Marxist academicians in Indian skin doing what the movie did – reinforcing the colonial fabrications against Hindus in academic jargon?
That the movie was banned in India by then government is immaterial. In the digitally connected world, such bans really make no sense. (Had the movie come now and if the present Indian government attempted the ban, Marxists and leftists would have actually made a spirited defence of the film. Both the Guardian and the New York Times would have published op-ed articles supporting the movie, and our own intellectuals would have academically supported the portrayal of Hindus in the film.)
So ultimately it falls on Indic academics to fight the hatred this movie continues to spew even today. What is needed is a public apology from Spielberg. And in all the future digital editions and in the official film web pages Hindus, Jews and other native spiritual traditions across the world should demand a declaration along with an apology that the film is racist and that it perpetuates colonial myths against India and earth-rooted spiritual traditions.