What a movie, cabbie, saint, viral post tell about faith in India
A new film tries to exploit street bigotry, but it will be hard for bigots to pull apart fraying but still strong bonds among communities, writes Samar Halarnkar.columns Updated: Jan 15, 2015 12:13 IST
A pleasant, amusing, if overly long, yarn about a naked alien landing in maddening, modern-day India has become Bollywood’s highest grosser ever, riding on a surge of controversy generated by the nutty Hindu fringe, which alleged the film, PK, insulted Hinduism.
Public debates around a film always help its popularity, and that buzz was evident in ample measure when the Kannada film Shivam released two weeks ago. It is, so to say, the anti-PK because it eventually delighted the same Hindutva types who ranted against PK.
I say eventually because there was considerable alarm when the film came to public notice. It was first called Basavanna, the name of a 12th century south-Indian Hindu reformer. But his followers, Shiva-worshippers called Veershaivas, protested, so the name changed to Brahmin. But then Brahmins protested, so it ended up as Shivam. All this jitteriness quickly faded when the rushes revealed that far from taunting Hinduism, Shivam celebrates its new, militant avatar.
“First time EVER...in the history of INDIAN CINEMA, someone has gathered SUCH A GUTS (sic) to show the facts and great principles of HINDUISM in such an awesome way!!” wrote a female fan on the Facebook page of Shivam’s hero, Real Star Upendra, (every Kannada star has a descriptor, such as Power Star, Rising Star) or Uppi as he’s known on the Bangalore street.
Briefly, this is Shivam’s story: Uppi is a temple priest’s son and a R&AW agent, who revels in bashing and killing terrorists, meaning Muslims, who are clearly identified, much to the delight of PK protestors, as invaders from the 7th century. Of course, there are item numbers, in the newly discovered and somewhat ironic locale of Turkey. Uppi finally saves his father’s temple from terrorists and some suspiciously foreign-looking cows from the butcher’s knife. As Shyam Prasad S, a movie critic, wrote: “The crowd is happy to see someone finally speak on screen what has become the talk on the street.”
There is little doubt that talk on the street has become more bigoted and prejudiced than ever against minorities, especially Muslims — and if you dare say that, you are a Muslim lover and Hindu hater. This intolerance is not particularly new. What is new is that people feel free to express their prejudice, which is now at our doorstep and in our inbox. My father, a retired police officer, watches with dismay and disquiet as some old acquaintances keep up a steady stream of anti-Muslim postings. Another friend says his father, a Christian, is depressed by what he hears and is careful of what he says.
It becomes much easier to be emboldened to hate when ruling party MPs themselves say hateful things, when there is endless repetition of this hate in the media and fringe beliefs enter mainstream culture.
It was only a matter of time before a film like Shivam came along.
This barrage of virulence does not go without a reaction because there are nutcases everywhere. So, a Muslim Bahujan Samaj Party MP thinks it alright to eulogise the killers of France’s cartoonists. Similarly, the question of separateness is not unique to Hindus. It is more common than ever among Muslims, greatly accelerated after the riots and bombings of the past two decades. The appeal of obscurantists and bigots also appears to be stronger among Muslims, many of whom have retreated into mental and physical ghettos.
Is it India’s fate now to be a country divided, infected with tensions among its communities and perpetually on edge? Will these divisions worsen?
It is hard to say, either way. But my scepticism is tempered by the quiet, distinct yearning I sense for peace at large.
The first experience came last month with Shambu, a taxi driver who, every year, takes my wife’s family to its annual gathering in the forested plateau in Matheran, south of Mumbai. Shambu, a devotee of Sai Baba, the popular saint of the Hindu shrine at Shirdi, reverentially bows — this is alarming because his foot is on the accelerator — to every Hanuman temple he sees. This year, I finally asked Shambu, 55, his full name. Shamsuddin, he replied, pointing to a kalima, a Quranic phrase, hanging from the mirror; Shamsuddin Jundre, Sunni descendant of weapon-makers to the Mughal and Maratha armies. He expressed not uncommon prejudice towards Shias, calling them “danger log”, dangerous people, and shrugged at his Hindu beliefs, simply saying that is how it has always been.
The second experience came only three days before this conversation. I accompanied my wife’s family, Sindhi Hindus, to their patron saint, Kamu Baba, in the heaving Mumbai suburb of Goregaon. There, in the quiet living room of what was once Kamu Baba’s house, I looked up at the photos on the walls: Sai Baba, Jesus Christ, the Kaaba, Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, friends and family, and John F Kennedy. Kamu Baba — there’s a photo of him, smiling and bearded with his saree-clad wife — has a varied mix of devotees, Hindu, Muslim and Parsi. After hearing of Kamu Baba for 15 years, I learned only last month that he was formerly a failed businessman, a genial man who preached common sense — and a Muslim.
Finally, I’d like to point you to a viral post written by Muhammed Hussain, a Hyderabadi and 23-year-old software engineer with Amazon. Hussain has a list of 12 things he wants to tell his “Hindu brethren”. He begins: “You guys rock! You’re very inclusive in your way of living and we love you for that.” He goes on to discuss issues of food, drink, love (jihad), patriotism and terrorism and ends with this: “Essentially, we love you guys, and I know that most of you reciprocate. Don’t let some bigot destroy this bond.”
I could not agree more.
Oh, about Shivam. I wanted to see it at a theatre near me, a week after its release. It had gone, banished to the boondocks.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
firstname.lastname@example.orgThe views expressed by the author are personal