Does the Punjabi movie Nanak Shah Fakir contravene the convention that the Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, should not be portrayed by a human?  And is that proscription actually sanctioned in the faith’s scriptures or by its traditions?

Sikh groups have called for a ban on the film, which is scheduled to be released on Friday, claiming that it clearly violates the precepts of their faith. “Our religion forbids this,” said Avtar Singh Makkar, the chief of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, the elected body that is in charge of managing gurudwaras in Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. On Friday, the SGPC wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley asking for a ban on the film. A petition by Ludhiana resident Satpal Singh making the same demand is expected to be heard by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana on Monday.

“The point is not whether we agree with the portrayal or not,” said Pritpal Singh, a 25-year old member of the Sikh Youth Front. “Ultimately, Sikhs will not tolerate our Gurus being copied by ordinary humans.”

That is precisely what the makers of Nanak Shah Fakir, directed by Harinder Sikka, claim to have avoided. The note that accompanies the film’s trailer on YouTube makes it a point to emphasise, “It is pertinent to mention here that keeping in line with the tradition, Guru Nanak has been portrayed through COMPUTER GRAPHICS only and that too from the back, amidst a ray of light.”

Animation unacceptable

But SGPC chief Makkar refused to buy that explanation. “Filmmakers think they can justify depicting Guru Nanak and other Gurus through animation,” he said. “Now Sikka is saying that he has used new technology and depicted Guru Nanak only raising his arms and blessing followers, but this is not a proper thing to do.”

He added, “Second, I want to ask him, what about depicting Guru Nanak's mother Tripta and sister in human form, is that permitted? Our religion forbids this.”

Nanak Shah Fakir isn’t the first film to use computer imagery to circumvent the prohibition on actors playing Sikh Gurus. Last year, Harry Baweja directed a 3D-animation film called Chaar Sahibzaade, about the bravery of the four sons of Guru Gobind Singh. The film proved to be a surprise hit. In its opening week alone, it reportedly earned more than Rs 3.5 crore in in India and Rs 2.3 crore internationally. The scale of its success is probably what prompted Sikka to make Nanak Shah Fakir, though he claims he will not benefit from the profits: he plans to donate them to langars, or community kitchens.

 Like Baweja, Sikka also sought the blessings of Sikh elders for his film, and, according to the note on the YouTube trailer, “the film enjoys full support of Sri Akal Takht Sahib” ‒ the highest Sikh authority. Sikka claimed that the SGPC had suddenly changed its position on his film. The director said that he had shown the film to representatives of both the SGPC and the Akal Takht in December, before any public screenings had been held. He said that he had obtained their written consent, and had even incorporated changes they had suggested.

“Is it a fact or not that Makkar and his committee members saw the film and made me change the dialogue?” Sikka asked. “For instance, he asked me to add ‘Nanak’ to a few dialogues, which I did, at a considerable expense. Till date, they have not written to me pointing out what is it they now find objectionable.”

A flip-flop

Makkar said that he and other members of the SGPC's “screening committee” who watched the film were not satisfied with the manner in which the Guru and his family had been portrayed.

If Sikka’s contention is true, this would not be the first time that the SGPC's screening committee's has done a flip-flop. In 2013, the religious committee first extended its support for Sadda Haq, a film on the Punjab insurgency, but then backtracked and demanded a ban after Punjab's ruling-party Shiromani Akali Dal raised objections.

But more crucially, Nanak Shah Fakir's director contends that Sikhism does not actually proscribe actors portraying Gurus. He points to several precedents, including one of a play being performed at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

“In 1970, a programme was enacted in Harminder Sahib titled Gagan Mein Thal, in which all members of the Guru Sahib's family were enacted by actors,” Sikka said. “The SGPC brought out a book on the occasion with details of actors.” In addition, in 1988, a sound-and-light show was conducted by the SGPC called Miti Dhund Jag Chandan Hua in which all the members of Guru Saheb's family were depicted by actors, Sikka said.

“If Darbar Sahib [the Golden Temple] can showcase Guru Nanak's family through actors not once by many times, and so can films such as Nanak Nam Jahaz Hai [1969] and Chaar Sahibzaade, then why oppose my film?” he asked. “A few hardliners cannot decide the fate of the entire Sikh community.”

A new convention

Delhi-based sociologist Patricia Uberoi, who has studied Sikh calendars over the decades, says that while it is clear that gurudwaras must not display statues of the Gurus, it is her understanding that the choice of whether to display images of these figures in homes is a personal matter. She suggests that the ambiguity about conventions in depicting the Gurus may be explained by the history and religion's geographical spread.

“In West Punjab, which is now in Pakistan, the Sikh population were a minority and some Sikhs went to the mosques,” she said. “Their understanding of this issue may be closer to the Islamic religious understanding. Maybe Sikhs brought up in that atmosphere have internalised that, and portraits made some people uncomfortable. But one thought it is not as strong as it used to be, especially so long after the Partition. I have never heard of family members of Gurus not being permitted to be depicted.”

For his part, director Sikka said he was going to exercise his freedom of expression, in defiance of the SGPC.

“Guru Nanak's teachings are universal – ik onkar: there is one god,” Sikka said. “He is worshipped by Sindhis, Multanis, Hindus, Muslims. No one religion can own property rights over him.”