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

Published 27 Mar, 2021 10:37am

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

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