Over 100,000 followers of Dera Sacha Sauda went home disappointed on Friday after bringing Gurgaon traffic to a crawl when they descended on a park for the premiere of their chief’s controversial movie, which was cancelled for reasons other than sporadic protests in three states.
Scheduled for a matinee show for which tickets priced at Rs 2,000 apiece were sold well in advance, the screening of Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s MSG: Messenger of God had to be shelved despite the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal reversing the censor board’s decision to bar theatres from showing the film.
Besides the traffic mess, the film generated a heated war of words after the appeals tribunal cleared the movie, prompting censor board chairperson Leela Samson to quit on Thursday night and accuse the NDA government of interfering with her decisions on films, including Aamir Khan’s PK.
“The tribunal, whose decisions usually take a month, cleared the movie in 24 hours,” said Samson, an acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer who headed the board since 2011.
Ira Bhasker, a part of the 23-member board, quit on Friday.
The government junked the charge. “The government is absolutely hands-away from all decisions of the censor board. They are an independent body and they need to behave like one,” said Rajyavardhan Rathore, junior minister for information and broadcasting.
He challenged the board members to show one piece of proof to prove the charge of government meddling in their work.
The film features the self-styled spiritual leader as a swashbuckling hero in bejewelled costume riding motorbikes and sending bad guys flying. Its trailer has racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube. The 47-year-old Singh wrote and co-directed the film, besides singing and composing its music.
“I came all the way from Hisar with my family to watch the movie. I have no regrets because we could have a glimpse of guruji,” said Rintu Mittal, a follower.
Far from being unsuitable, Singh said, MSG fights alcoholism and drug addiction, and extols the virtues of celibacy and a vegetarian diet.
But Sikh groups demanded a ban on the film which they say distorts their scriptures.
Security was tightened across Punjab to prevent a rerun of clashes between Dera supporters and Sikhs in 2007.
In Delhi, about a hundred Sikhs held a protest march near Parliament.
About 50 supporters of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and a student organisation were detained in Gurgaon after they tried to march into Leisure Valley Ground at Sector 29, a 25-acre space often leased for shows, where Dera followers from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi have gathered for the film’s premiere.
“I don’t know why people are protesting in parts of Punjab and Haryana when they haven’t seen the film yet,” Singh said, announcing the screening was cancelled because the papers haven’t reached him yet. He promised to make amends with a live concert.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), the ruling BJP in Haryana as well as the Congress in Punjab have maintained a strategic silence on the film’s controversy, given the Dera’s influence on voters.
The Dera chief, who commands a following of many crores, has been known to assist political parties across the spectrum. His recent call to his followers — which he terms as the decision of the sangat — to support the BJP in the Haryana polls has reportedly tilted the scales in favour of the party.
Known as the “guru in bling” for his penchant for garish costumes, he is facing trial over the murder of a journalist in 2002 along with charges of sexually exploiting female followers. He is under investigation for allegedly encouraging 400 followers to undergo castrations at his ashram.