Bollywood’s latest legal wrangle is more than a petty squabble

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You may not have heard, since British news seems largely uninterested in covering the story, but a Bollywood film has had major attention across India this week. “Padmavat”, the story of a Hindu rani defying a Muslim ruler, has been barred from release in four of India’s states. Since November, India’s High Court has been involved to overturn the local bans amidst a violent outcry.

The film stars favourite leads Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who have previously been paired up in similar epics Ram-Leela, a 2013 Romeo and Juliet-type tragedy, and Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Why the uproar? Although specific complaints have been about the sexualised treatment of Rajput legendary figure Padmavati (the “i” was removed from the film’s name in a superficial bid to appease some, following a recommendation by the Central Board of Film Certification, who approved the film’s release uncut). In a single scene, Muslim ‘king’ Alauddin Khilji dreams of a saucy tryst with the revered beauty Padmavati, the depiction of which has outraged Hindus across India.

To be clear, the film is not, strictly speaking, a romantic picture. So what is the real problem?

As usual, it’s about Hindus and Muslims, who just can’t seem to get along. It’s not surprising following centuries of invasions, massacres, Partition, heated rhetoric and ongoing bloody conflict. Frustrating is the way that the two sides can’t leave history where it belongs, in the past, and work towards a future of peace and cooperation. It’s easy for me to say. But it’s also easy to do. One simply puts down the sword.

I’ve simplified: it’s not just about Hindus and Muslims. It’s also about India and Pakistan, and about women and men. Women have a pretty shit deal in both countries. Padmavati is idolised as a powerful woman, despite her act of power being sati, suicide-by-fire. In this case her self-immolation was to protect herself from being ravaged by the enemy, but almost always sati was and is an act of social pressure and culturally-imbued madness on behalf of a widow, whose death must inevitably follow that of her husband if she is to remain pure and respectful. She does not, in any real sense, feel like she has a choice. I myself have seen the red paint handprints on walls of village buildings and forts that were the historic signatures of those about to die because of men.

I would like to say that the film controversy is, in some way, in sisterhood with the powerful MeToo movement/s here in the West, but it’s not. Boil it down, and it’s still about Hindus and Muslims.

So powerful is the outrage that the as-yet unreleased film has inspired the following:

  • Mass protests across large portions of the country, primarily Hindu-strong regions such as Rajasthan
  • Legal attempts to ban the film, or at least censor it
  • The invasion of the film set by one of India’s growing sinister caste groups, and personal attacks on the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
  • Vandalism of cinemas who hadn’t denounced the film
  • Threats of violence against the lead actress, Padukone
  • The burning of effigies of Bhansali, and
  • A £1m+ bounty on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali.

Bhansali has denied that the film includes such a sequence at all.

But such is the mass madness that comes with the peculiar mob mentality of some Indians. Fuelled by ignorance of the truth, validated by the belief that they are on the side of God or gods, and buoyed by centuries of bloodshed and bigotry (against both faith and gender), violence has washed across the country yet again.

Padmavati is not a historical figure, but a fictional heroine, here portrayed in a work of fiction.

Is it naive to expect sense from hordes who are lit on such fuel? Yes, obviously, but to paraphrase Lenon, I’m not the only dreamer. My India novel ‘Cycles of Udaipur‘ was a necessarily naive novel, written from the outside by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the ancient fued between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Only, I do have a stake, and it is a desire for less death and suffering in the world, on behalf of humanity, and as a member of the human race I was more than happy to speak out in my own modest if offensive way.

When I passed free copies of ‘Cycles’ to my Indian and Pakistani friends I was always told that the first chapter was good. But then followed silence. The novel is about the growing pains of modern India, a grand attestation I make, with some embarrassment, through a more modest analogy of teen rabblerousers in Rajasthan. In part it is also about the romance between near-atheist Hindu boy, Shivlal, and near-irreverent Muslim girl, Mariam. Told, I hope, sweetly, but paying due respect, I also hope, to the fierce history that precedes my shallow experience with the societies involved, I expected the star-crossed romance to go by without much offense caused. My desi friends, after all, were worldly-wise and, in their small ways, irreverent of their own traditions to get involved with this gora backpacker/kafir scribbler. But their silence spoke volumes.

I make explanations for my naivety: It is naivety that will allow dreams to pave the way for future change. I make explanations but not excuses, since I was deliberately naive, and because an ‘enforced naivety’ – the choosing to forget about the things that don’t matter, in order to make things better for ourselves and our children – is what India and Pakistan need. But who am I to say this? I am a human stakeholder, that’s who.

It’s hard for me to hide my sad, weary disappointment. There is a lot of love in the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. But passion is a double-edged sword, and it continues to threaten to slice on both swings. I hope that there can be some new peace and cooperation found once this latest scandal blows over.

—db


The BBC has given some small coverage to the controversy, here, here and here.

You can read about ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ here. 50% of profits go to Action Village India.

I strongly encourage discussion on this and related matters! Leave a comment here or email me at davidbrookesuk(at)gmail(dot)com.

 

God in Fiction: Is it time for literature to leave religion behind?

God is fictionMany novels feature characters whose religious beliefs shape their ideals. An example might be To Kill a Mockingbird, which tops many lists of “best novels ever”, such as Time Magazine’s. The strongly moral Atticus Finch raises his children in a decidedly Christian manner – and, perhaps significantly, is considered a modern exemplar of ethical behaviour. It’s perhaps not coincidental that I see The Chronicles of Narnia high on these lists also, arguably the best example of religious propaganda for children ever (note “arguably” – I do love the books myself and feel strong that C.S. Lewis had the best intentions).

It would be fair to say that religious characters, or at least non-ostensibly atheistic ones, were always likely to inhabit the bulk of our fiction. After all, it’s only historically recently that the world has begun to shift towards science as the source of their answers instead of faith. Distressingly, I read that in a fairly recent study published on Gallup that 40% of Americans believe in Creationism in the strictest sense. A more recent and significant study by San Diego State found that our current generation of teens are the least religiously observant ever, and not as a result of being “unsettled millennials” as previously suspected by the skeptical. It strongly suggests an actual cultural shift away from religion.

For decades, writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular have embraced science theory (go here for a good explanation as to why “theory” isn’t a word that can be used against science in the defense of faith) and speculative science as vehicles for engaging fiction. However, many writers simply can’t help but bring religion back into the mix. Is this because it’s so engrained in our society that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without it (just as many would say, foolishly, that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without a romantic element) – or even simply as a concession to the faithful? It’s almost as though writers feel unable to generate a proper feeling of awe and reverence in their narratives without making reference to god.

Going back a while, The Matrix film series was a good example of taking something which would have been just as spectacular without its heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Its philosophy is actually a clumsy amalgam of messanic, Zionistic, Platonic and Eastern beliefs, a composite that didn’t seem to strengthen the narrative in any case. Watching the end of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me decidedly uncomfortable, with its monotheistic longing for material obliteration and ham-fisted allusions to the leonine Aslan actually being Christ in the world of Narnia, rather than a symbolic literary figure.

The arguments against religion and even faith in general have been expounded by far greater writers than I (love them or hate them, the works of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are essential). Any one of them, I suspect, would strongly advocate the eradication of any meaningful inclusion of religion in fiction. This would be on the grounds that it reinforces mass belief in destructive and antisocial delusions, and that as a go-to for a sense of “spiritual” awe detracts from the pre-existing (and tangible) wonders of the material world. As symbolic references or colourful similes, writers get a lot of mileage out of the old Greek gods, for example. This would be fine. But in 2015, shouldn’t we be exploring more relevant aspects of our universe instead of the tired play of faith and spiritual redemption?

My Western novel, The Gun of Our Maker, makes little reference to religion outside of the title. The key theme is the expectations we place on others and ourselves. It is very interesting to me that the heroes of the Western genre, in literature and in cinema, are often godless. This is despite such characters existing in a faith-based society (regardless of what the American Constitution says) and several of whom were created by contemporary or at least anachronistically-conscientious authors. With the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, why is it that so many protagonists are ostensibly without faith (even the nameless, murderous “Preacher” in Pale Rider seems entirely scornful of Christian beliefs). Westerns often seem to inhabit a decidedly god-forsaken landscape.

Examining mainstream literature, I’m frequently baffled by the constant allusions to faith as noble and worthwhile. The troubled hero, at the inevitable point of hopelessness on his/her quest, goes to a church to pray, or kneels in the downpour to beg god for a sign. Sometimes they are rewarded with a light, or the sudden appearance of a mortal saviour, who inevitably pulls them back from the brink and sets them on the right path. Religious experiences of this kind are always presented as a ‘seeing the light’ moment (best exemplified, tongue-in-cheek, by an early moment in The Blues Brothers), accompanied by sureness and renewed strength. A skeptic would wonder why this should be so, when in reality organised religion has often stymied the pursuit of science, art and freedom – a comparative Dark Ages.

I accept that our perhaps-indelible inclinations towards the gnostic (or agnostic) will always influence our writing, but why does it so often take the form of existing religious structures, such as Catholicism or Buddhism? Is there not enough wonder in the world already? As my beloved Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As a writer, I don’t object to seeing references to faith in fiction. But why stick with it, when the modern world is providing us so much more material to work with? I congratulate films such as the recent Interstellar, which put us in awe of natural cosmic phenomena, or  writers like Charlie Kaufman, who posits that the complex beauty of orchids should be enough to write a two hour screenplay around.

I challenge writers to abandon god and religion as an element in their fiction. What else in our universe can inspire, clarify, reform, motivate, cultivate, or invigorate? In the endless search for a semblance of originality, this would be a heavenly place to start.

—db

[‘The Gun of Our Maker’ is available now from Amazon here, and Smashwords here.]