Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What I Felt Was Wrong With 'Bajrangi Bhaijan'

Bajrangi Bhaijan has actually gone to the other extreme in terms of trying to convince Indian Hindus of the need to abandon any extremism and embrace peace (overlooking the biases that it can subtly feed in Pakistani and even other non-Indian audiences, and while many Indians may not know, Bollywood movies are very popular in other South Asian countries, Southeast Asia, patrts of Africa etc., and this film was screened in several international film festivals too) of presenting every practising Hindu character in India as casteist and Islamophobic (to the extent of not wanting to enter any mosque or durgah, though many Hindus go to durgahs with much devotion and visit mosques, like the Jama Masjid in Delhi, as tourist attractions, and while the protagonist undergoes a change while remaining a practising Hindu, the heroine who changes his outlook hasn’t been showcased as religious) and usually only having portrayed a very traditionalist and mildly funny side of Hinduism in practice (like the protagonist bowing before every other monkey, seeing him as representing Lord Hanuman, which is not what usually even followers of Lord Hanuman do; they, at the most, feed monkeys outside Hanuman temples but don’t fold their hands in front of every monkey they encounter, and I know that the intention of the film-makers in this context was only to entertain, not offend), which did make me, as a Hindu, slightly uncomfortable, for there is and has been no dearth of practising Hindus very tolerant to Muslims. Mahatma Gandhi was a practising Hindu who was gunned down by a Hindu extremist (ironically, in spite of his iconic status globally, as that of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, there are many very misconceptions floated about them today in South Asia by sections of the Hindu right, Muslim right, economic right and even far-left, as I have discussed here and here), Pujari Laldas was a temple priest known for his very tolerant views when the hate-filled campaign for demolishing the Babri Masjid was intensifying, many Hindu religious leaders have spoken up against Hindu extremist violence as you can see here and here, a Hindu religious ceremony was performed in a temple in Bihar in memory of the Muslim victim of the ghastly Dadri episode and more recently, a Hindu temple in the South Indian province of Kerala decided to postpone certain festivities owing to the demise of a certain devout Muslim individual in the locality who had been friends with many members of the temple committee.

But in Pakistan, the movie showed no anti-Hindu bigotry, which is actually not the case. Not only is violence against innocent Pakistani Hindus a reality but even otherwise, bigoted statements against Hindus are made on television by ‘intellectuals’ like Zaid Hamid and even a sports journalist can make a disgusting generalization about Hindus on television (I recall a video of a female journalist asking a Pakistani cricketer whether he wasn’t aware of the backstabbing psyche of Hindus, in the wake of Pakistani cricketers not being included in the IPL, and this is not to say that I seek to exaggerate minority victimhood in Pakistan, which is, in fact, something I have opposed, as you can see in this article). A madrasa maulvi saying ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as shown in Bajrangi Bhaijan is highly unlikely in reality, and of course, no Muslim must necessarily be expected to say the same, just as no Hindu must necessarily be expected to say ‘Allah-o-Akbar’, and tolerance is basically about an attitude of ‘live and let live’, rather than having to necessarily embrace the beliefs and practices of others. In its depiction of Pakistan, the movie also showed no exploitation of girls (like the brothel they showed in India) whatsoever, with only policemen rightly doing their job in trying to arrest a man who came in without a visa, and the one senior officer who tortures the protagonist could have been a nationalist bigot but no religious angle was presented. However, on the whole, the film did a brilliant job of promoting sensitivity and humanism across religious and nationalist barriers.

And yes, before someone misuses the critical observation of mine to take digs at Salman Khan (as some Hindu rightists rather unfairly did with Aamir Khan vis-à-vis pk, as I’ve discussed here), I must emphasize that he wasn’t involved in the screenplay of the film. The film was scripted by KV Vijayendra Prasad, who has presented a much better picture of Hindu culture in his movie Bahubali, and the director of the film, who was also involved in the screenplay, Kabir Khan, has also made a film like Phantom that’s very critical of Muslim extremism in Pakistan (and at the same time, not in the least bigoted towards Pakistanis in general), and so, my critique is only of Bajrangi Bhaijan as a film without levelling any ad hominem allegations. Also, I acknowledge that there are many beliefs and practices among sections of both Hindus and Muslims, which need reformation, as progressive people of both the communities have been trying (often by suggesting that those beliefs and practices have come from a misinterpreted understanding of the fundamental texts), and as for being very judgmental about the other faith, it’s often a case of confirmation bias, as I’ve highlighted in this short story (please focus only on the dimension of being critical of other religions and religious groupings, and not the other political dimensions of the story).

And before someone accuses me of even bringing up this observation and acting spoilsport about a movie promoting peace, I must clarify that I firmly believe that superficial talk of cultural similarities and even some friendship between individuals cannot do much to bring Indians and Pakistanis together in the larger picture, and so, eradicating communal prejudices is vital, and we should indeed be willing to wholeheartedly accept devout, practising Hindus and Muslims as not necessarily being extremists (even if some of us, as apostates of either of the religions, believe that the liberal, modern/post-modern interpretations of our former religion are misplaced). The movie Filmistan has been much more realistic in its portrayal of Pakistan.

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