Madhorubagan and PK

The Politics of Prohibition

Pratik Deb

The latest turmoil regarding the novel of Tamil author Perumal Murugan and the Bollywood film PK, their said onslaught on religious/communal beliefs, their supposed 'selective picking' on Hinduism, their complete disregard of the 'religious sentiment' of the majority: everything created a rather unexpected whirlwind. In the life of India, Bollywood movies are like drunken brawls, so removed from consciousness and so mired with wasteful titillating frolic, that the conscientious India often remains oblivious to its existence. The far remove of mainstream film from the socio-political consciousness is a phenomenon in itself and demands to be addressed in a different discussion. On the other hand, novelists remain at the margin of societal cognizance, never cared for much by the commoners unless their work gets entangled with political upheavals.

‘Perumal Murugan, a professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College for Men at Namakal and a well known chronicler of Kongunadu, published his Tamil novel, Madhorubagan (one part woman) in 2010 and it was hailed as a masterpiece. Encouraged by raving reviews Penguin brought out an English translation in 2013, which won the Canada Literary Garden Award in Toronto last July.’

How does these two extremes of India's intellectual life get mired into the same predicament is a curious question which indicates towards the certain transformation the nation is going through. Even the most subversive intellectual would have halted in surprise to see that the ready-to-be enraged Indian state and its organs were angered, not by an obscure book written by some foreign intellectuals, neither was their ire directed against a common miscreant of the likes of Arundhati Roy; rather the centre of the whirlwind was occupied by a prominent Bollywood star with his mega-million budget film and a 'local' writer concerned with 'lower' castes and some religious rituals of Hinduism

In the subcontinent, the politics of censorship and prohibition is nothing new. From Koestler's "The Lotus and the Robot" to Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: an alternative history", trampling and mangling the idea of free expression is somewhat the part of Indian History and ancestry. In the past as well as in the future, people had and will again rise up against texts and volumes which they not only have not read, but cannot read. The claim of 'hurt of religious feelings' is as old as the twenties when the author of the book called 'Rangila Rasul' was assassinated, allegedly for hurting the religious sentiment by drawing a lurid picture of their beloved prophet. The nation, so to speak, was fomenting with this great tradition of intolerence, from its very formative days which engulfed, yet another victim, in the form of Perumal Murugan whose persecution would produce a few social media outrage hashtags and die out in no time. On the other hand, the film, PK still remained as a sore thumb in spite of its relative staleness.

What is so special about PK, one may ask. Does its stature as a big budget Bollywood film was supposed to garner more reverence than a book by Doniger or Nasrin? Was its virtue of being mainstream was supposed to provide it with some additional immunity (which it might have happened) in terms of scare tactics invoked by the mainstream political parties? And who knows what would anger and what would be embraced by these parties anyway! Kamal Hassan's 'Hey Ram' ended up being at the receiving end of overzealous Congress workers who torn apart posters of the film and assaulted the movie theatres as the film, allegedly, painted Gandhi in an unfavourable way. True 'Hey Ram' hardly depicted anything that goes against the official doctrine about Gandhi that is held and perpetrated by the state machinery, true the film that ended up being adored by Congress and its organ - "Gandhi, my Father" was more critical of Gandhi, pointing especially as his failure to be the loving father in his own personal realm while he keeps projecting the same image to the nation; yet, who can judge the temper of the political over-class! Their caprices are as unpredictable as the weather of middle March, uncertain of the next moment itself.

What PK showed is nothing too subversive or radical. Like many of its predecessors, it portrayed on silver screen, the futility of organised religion and preached, to an extent, for an amorphous "humanist religion". This done-to-death topic was presented with humour, with enough glamour and star power that would be more impactful than an art-house production, laden with incendiary and blasphemous speeches. It probes the question of the existence of God, settles for a middle-ground by simply decrying the idea of personal God and deals with people's faith with enough delicacy. What is, then, all the hue and cry about?

"If I were asked to define the Hindu creed", wrote Gandhi, "I should simply say: search after Truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe even in God and still he may call himself a Hindu." Interestingly enough, even though PK did not venture into a rabid atheistic position in its premise, its portrayal of some Hindu Babas made a strong case for ban, not because the film is depicting something novel, but because it has been released in a time when the country is going through a rather unprecedented period. And somehow PK has put its finger to that. Unlike the charlatans of other films like Ray's 'Kapurush, Mahapurush', PK's antagonist is raging, combative, prepares his own self and makes the case for his own identity by preaching against the 'other': the religion of minority. The explicit mention by Hindu baba's character (played by Saurabh Shukla) of the antagonistic relation between Hinduism and Islam is something, truly, unprecedented. It touched the chord through its verity, since today's emerging Hindu nationality, like any political right-wing movement, rests more on the definition of Islam's otherness than its own intrinsic value. PK, perhaps unknowingly or perhaps through the courage of a nameless script-writer, exposed that acerbic truth.

Vol. 47, No. 31, Feb 8 -14, 2015