It's easier to hurt sentiments in India now than ever before

It's easier to hurt sentiments in India now than ever before

The irreverence that was once possible in Indian films is no longer possible and would enrage today’s touchy Hindutva warriors.
27 Mar, 2021

The Mahabharata scene at the end Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY, 1983) is fondly remembered even today, almost 40 years after the film released. It is a long, 12-minute sequence, full of farce, slapstick and some truly witty lines, all done at a breakneck speed, heightened by the imaginative editing of Renu Saluja.

As the Pandavas and the Kauravas tussle for the hand of Draupadi, who Yudishthir loses in gambling, two men intrude and try to snatch her away. On the screen is an array of top-flight talent — Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Ravi Baswani, Neeta Gupta and a quite dead Satish Shah — draped in a sari and on roller skates, being dragged from one pair of hands to another. If this sounds bizarre, on the screen it is positively surreal — and funny, of course.

How would this film be greeted had it been released today, in a multiplex or as an online indie? Audience reaction at the time of the original release was somewhat mixed — it certainly wasn’t a huge hit. The same could have happened now — there is no saying how the box office reacts.

But this is just the kind of film that would have provoked the aggressive Hindutva gang, and cries would have instantly gone up to ban it. Meanwhile, some obscure person in an obscure place would file a complaint in the local police station which would instantly be converted into an FIR and the local magistrate would have ordered that the producer, director, actors, scriptwriter and everyone else be arrested and brought before him.

Increasingly, the irreverence that was once possible in Indian films is no longer possible and would enrage today’s touchy Hindutva warriors

No one — not their colleagues, not the media and certainly no politician — would have stepped in to stand up for the hapless film crew. The film would be pulled down from theatres. And to think that JBDY was initially funded by the National Film Development Corporation, a government body!

There is much in the film to ‘hurt’ sentiments. It openly shows corruption at the highest levels in the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), where greedy builders try and bribe their way through to get more floors sanctioned, illegally, in their building. It shows how poor construction led to the collapse of a bridge in the city, which had actually happened around then. If released today, the BMC officials would have raided the homes of everyone associated with the film, and a builders’ association would have sued.

But it is the Mahabharata scene that would have been singled out for its ‘anti-Hindu’ content and one particular bit would have enraged the Hindutvavadis. As the lines fly about, with Dhritrashtra occasionally interjecting with “Yeh sab kya ho raha hai?” [What is happening here?] and the Pandavas calming down Bhim with “Shaant ho jao, gadhadhari Bhim!” [Calm down, mace-wielding Bhim, a line from the Mahabharta], Om Puri, as the Punjabi builder Ahuja, and wearing his trademark dark glasses on stage, says to one of the Pandavas, “Draupadi tere akele ki nahin hai, hum sab shareholder hain [Draupadi is not yours alone, we all are shareholders].”

Sudhir Mishra, then a 22-year-old new graduate from FTII [Film and Television Institute of India], says many of the actors improvised on the set, coming up with lines — and in the midst of this quick repartee, Satish Shah managed to give a different expression for every shot. It was a chaotic process and, though everyone fully participated in it with gusto, the actors were unsure what the film was going to be or say. “The whole thing was clear only in [director] Kundan Shah’s mind. He knew what he wanted.”

Making fun of divinity and mythological characters is an old Indian tradition. Ramleelas in the villages can be ribald and risqué. Hindi cinema has never hesitated to make fun of pandits and maulanas. On screen, gods have been taunted and blind faith ridiculed. On the other hand, writers and poets have always emphasized that all religions teach humanity and that the middle-men who promise salvation are unnecessary. “Shaikh Brahman Mullah Pandey, sab hain ik maati ke bhande, Ved wohi Quran wohi hai, Ram wohi, Rehman wohi hai,” wrote Sahir in this underrated song — he would have been in jail by now for this temerity.

The arbiters of right and wrong

A still from the Mahabharat scene in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro | Photo Screengrab Shemaroo
A still from the Mahabharat scene in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro | Photo Screengrab Shemaroo

The case against the makers of the Amazon Prime web series Tandav tells us where we have reached from there. The complaint, by Shalabh Mani Tripathi, the media advisor of [Uttar Pradesh chief minister] Yogi Adityanath, no less, is full of allegations of hurt because of some of the scenes. One example: “People dressed up in a very bad manner to represent Hindu gods and goddesses and have been shown to speak in a very uncalled for language… that hurts religious sentiments.”

Thus, only reverence is allowed in any depiction of Hindu religion or Hindu gods and goddesses — just at a time when we need some irony and sanity, we are being told to toe the line being drawn by Yogi Adityanath and his ilk. They will decide what is blasphemous and what is not.

India does not have a blasphemy law, but that does not stop these arbiters of what is right and what is wrong from ruling our lives. That UP is far away from Mumbai doesn’t matter — Adityanath’s writ runs everywhere. The police obviously agreed with the complainant, and the Supreme Court, where the petition reached swiftly, added its own voice — “some OTT [over the top] platforms show pornographic content.” Where is the artist or the citizen to go?

It wasn’t openly mentioned in the complaint, but surely the fact that the director and two of the main actors in the film are Muslims would have played on the mind of Tripathi. They must be the real villains, now doing “OTT jihad”.

The future is clear — it will discourage filmmakers and producers from attempting any ‘bold’ subject — i.e. one that engages with current realities such as religious bigotry or lynching or caste atrocities, will find no takers. No OTT platform will agree to fund and show it, no studio will fund it. Audiences will get safe, sanitised, homogenised films that will be bland and say nothing worthwhile.

Or the platforms will be encouraged to support ‘deshbhakti themes’ that glorify the army or mythological sagas posing as history, even if that history is falsified. And of course, these will blatantly have nationalist messages and Hindu iconography.

The film industry is being tamed — not by curbing the filmmakers, but by cutting off their access to audiences. The case against Tandav is to show that it is Yogi Adityanath’s — and his masters’ — writ that will run creativity and artistic freedom.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was then; today it would stand no chance of being made or shown. — By arrangement with The Wire

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 21st, 2021


Fastrack Mar 27, 2021 10:48am
The first thing "touchy Hindus" do when they see any writeup they don't agree with is to check the writer's name. If it's a non-Hindu, it's and India hater- case closed. Not here, guys.
Rehmat Mar 27, 2021 10:51am
The question that begs to be answered is - what is the reason right wing is increasing? There has to be understanding of what actions of the past have led to the point where we see these reactions of present. This is a global phenomenon now.
Cbb Mar 27, 2021 10:54am
Learning good things from others
Indian Citizen Mar 27, 2021 10:56am
The era of poking fun on Hinduism has gone. If bollywood has an itch, do it on foreign ideologies at their risk.
Debkumar Barendrapunggab Mar 27, 2021 11:01am
Never insult any feelings in an extreme manner. And it must that we need more tollernt society
Shaun Mar 27, 2021 11:05am
When the Congress Party was in power, the Hindu religion was not recognised and was insulted. Now things are different with BJP in power. Which is good for India.
NSG Mar 27, 2021 11:20am
Hurting Hindu sentiments was a daily affair and considered as secular. Whilst doing the same with Muslim or Christian sentiments was a crime. Fortunately, the Hindu has been given his pride back by this government, real equality is a reality in India.
Surya Kant Agrawal Mar 27, 2021 11:26am
Looking inward is the solution
Himmat Mar 27, 2021 11:42am
People have own perception about rigidly following religion. In India, about full face covering niqab was unknown about 50 years ago.
joe Mar 27, 2021 12:07pm
Making fun of divinity and mythological characters is an old Indian tradition." For sure and I agree.But it becomes offensive only when other community member makes fun of it. Even today the very famous saying if I may be permitted to quote " Hindus still discuss wether certain acts of Lord Ram or say Krishna were ethically correct."Lord Ram sending his pregnant wife to ashram or Lord Krishna telling Arjun to kill Karan ,who had come down from his chariot and was without his weapon, removing wheels that had got stuck.Karan was killed . But can such discussion be even though of in other religion.?
Chrís Dăn Mar 27, 2021 12:30pm
@Himmat it was!!! My wifeś mother is from UP and all her family women used full buqua with Niquab in 1940s and earlier. From where you gather untrue stuff?
Mekal Faruki Mar 27, 2021 12:33pm
Hindu defensiveness, offended at everything, is a symptom of a drastically declining country.
M. Saeed Mar 27, 2021 12:41pm
When 1,350 million people who speak 169 different languages with over 1,400 dialects and 26 different races, how can they be ruled by a single person of irrelevant background?
Manoj Mar 27, 2021 12:46pm
Hindu Religious tolerance can't be taken for granted now after Congress Era.
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Mar 27, 2021 01:07pm
Unfortunately, since last many years under racist, liar, prejudiced, wicked and biased Modi and his fascist, crooked, corrupt, cunning, cruel and criminal R.S.S. and BJP cronies pursuing a Hitler's Nazi party style and type Hindutva journey, Republic of India has become by far, the biggest false, feign, sham, shame, frail and feint democracy in the whole world.
SOUNDER RAJAN Mar 27, 2021 01:08pm
At no given time, in the evolution of Hinduism, any concept was blindly accepted by all. The questioning spirit was not just tolerated and accepted, but even welcomed. Every great Sanatani saint questioned atleast some of the givens of his time. Valmiki himself was critical of the way Vali was slayed. Every conscientious Hindu questions Rama on abandoning pregnant Sita on hearsay or on the killing of Shambuka. The inference is that neither Rama nor Krishna can be above Dharma. Only actions in confirmity with Dharma need to be followed and others are open to scrutiny. Dr Ambedkar, the founding father of Indian constitution wrote many critical works on Hinduism, yet nobody put a price on his head, as it is happening today. The real beauty of Hinduism is in allowing every individual to interpret Truth in his own way. Ekam Sat Viprah bauda vadanti. We must develop a thick skin to take on genuine criticism rather than being offended at the slightest provocation.
Nazi Mar 27, 2021 02:37pm
@Shaun I agree. Bollywood has also become different under BJP and foreign religion like Islam has become the main target and is constantly being insulted by Bollywood and Indian media.
joe Mar 27, 2021 03:00pm
@M. Saeed When 1,350 million people who speak 169 different languages with over 1,400 dialects and 26 different races, how can they be ruled by a single person of irrelevant background? This is nothing compare to conquest and forcable conversion of people from 37 countries about 1400 years back. .The Muslim conquest of Egypt by the Arabs took place between 639 and 646 AD and was overseen by the Rashidun Caliphate.So in just seven years Egyptians civilization was destroyed there religion ,customs, traditions thrown into Nile . Read history to learn past.
Amna Mar 27, 2021 04:50pm
when we don’t hear anything wrong about our religion and such movies are condemned why so we expect Hindus to tolerate it? They should oppose every such move and ‘bold’ steps by directors can be taken for things other than religion too.
Aimal Mar 27, 2021 06:42pm
@M. Saeed : This is democracy. Love for democratic rights keep people together, which no religion will ever do. Religion is always divisive and has caused untold miseries on human beings.
Faraz-Canada Mar 27, 2021 06:49pm
Sorry but somethings should be out of limits like religion. You can't make fun of a religion in the name of freedom of speech and creativity.
savera Mar 27, 2021 08:02pm
@Chrís Dăn It was not common even 40 years back. Full niqab or even hijab was not preferred by many Muslim women across India back then. It was worn in a few states mainly in more conservative ghettos.
Firangi Mar 27, 2021 09:11pm
If you are strong in your belief and conviction, you will feel inadequate and weak, when a lot of of weak and inadequate people forge an alliance to show they are strong, bad things happen. The BJP cannot differentiate between entertainment and religion because it is weak and inadequate. Sadly it has weaponized Hinduism into a political cannon and is blasting everyone out. The average Indian has now no respect for himself, Hinduism and anyone else.
pc amin Mar 27, 2021 10:40pm
@NSG no one hurts other religious feeling. but who decides what is acceptable or not present government and its followers feel as if they are the saviors of hindu religion and only they can decide what is acceptable and what is not. this harms the freedom to express ones views and is very harmful and divisive for the society.
SecondPilot Mar 28, 2021 08:45am
Absolutely agree with the author. Liberal space in India has been squeezed. But I firmly believe that my India will come back to its true liberal roots. There is no other way - the country is too heterogeneous, there is too much diversity of thought, for it to be hijacked by one agenda. It has never happened for millennia and there is no chance that this situation will last.
Ps Mar 28, 2021 10:13am
Somethings need to change. Bollywood never had the courage to make fun of islam, Christianity or any other religion. Why is that ?? Why does Bollywood keep making fun of one religion... when the directors , producers don’t even practice it or understand it.
Afzal Mirza Mar 31, 2021 11:21am
@Himmat I was born in the mid-40's. Living in Maharashtra it was a common feature that ladies either had a dupatta, a sari or even a burqa on! Even Hindu women used to keep their heads covered when out in the bazaars or shops.
USR Apr 01, 2021 05:51am
@M. Saeed That is beauty of true democracy.
USR Apr 01, 2021 05:53am
@Ps Hindus have been very forgiving. No any more.