Human beings create gods in their own image. If humans had faces like horses, their gods would also be horse-faced. In the midst of the controversy about the mythological film Adipurush, based on the Ramayana, I was reminded of this statement of the writer Agyeya. Taking his logic forward, it could be said that it is not only about their faces: the gods follow us in their speech too. We could say that we get the gods we deserve.
As Indian social media users who logged in on the weekend know, there has been an angry discussion about the dialogue in Adipurush and also the way in which some of the characters are portrayed. Perhaps “discussion” is the wrong word, though. Nowadays, we do not discuss matters – we quarrel. In a discussion, there is scope for dialogue. In a quarrel, you keep asserting your position without engaging with the other viewpoint until your opponent gets tired and stops arguing. It is a great help if you have many people shouting out in support of your position. Your strength is not defined by your logic but your lung power.
Among the elements of Adipurush that angered viewers was the manner in which Hanuman speaks. Some claimed it is uncouth. To others, it is the language of taporis, or street boys. They were hurt to hear such words emerge from the mouth of the revered Hanuman – they, who never hesitate to use such words themselves. Goons and ruffians speak this language. Even our leaders do. But Hanuman?
Adipurush is a contemporary version of lore about Ram. To be precise, it is the Hindutva version of Ramkatha. Curiously, Hindutva supporters themselves are annoyed by the film. Though some Bharatiya Janata Party members demanded a ban on the film, others asked for temporary restrictions – to give the filmmaker time to modify the portions deemed offensive. This makes it that they are fundamentally not opposed to the film. After all, it has been made in their idiom.
Apart from Hindutva supporters, other Hindus are also angry with the film. Be it the leaders of the Congress party or the leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party, everyone has condemned this film. The chief minister of Chhattisgarh has even threatened to ban it in the state. In the Hindu-populated country of Nepal, a ban has been sought for other reasons: the film shows Sita as a native of India whereas Nepal believes she is her daughter.
The logic of a ban will naturally be opposed by those who believe in the freedom of expression as a matter of principle. If it does get taken to court, it will be interesting to see the position taken by an institution that allowed the screening of The Kerala Files in the name of artistic freedom even though the film was clearly hate speech couched in cinematic language.
The writer of the film, Manoj Muntashir, has expressed surprise at the criticism of the film. He says that his maternal grandmother used to narrate Ramkatha or Mahabharata to him in the same way. Other Hindus find this claim ludicrous. They ask whether the Ram, Lakshman or Hanuman of their Nanis and Dadis ever spoke the sort of language that has been used by Adipurush.
According to the writer, great Hindu religious leaders and kathavachaks – a person who recounts tales – also use similar language. He has offered to produce videos as evidence. In fact, a video is already circulating of a saffron-clad kathavachak using exactly the same language as the Hanuman of the film. His devotees are enjoying the discourse. Many other religious leaders also use such language in their discourses.
The opposition of the Congress or other parties or ordinary religious Hindus is understandable. Opponents of Hindutva have long been critical of attempts to turn Ram into a violent hero. Their opposition to the Hindutva appropriation of Ram Katha and their opposition to the language and portrayal of characters in Adipurush are consistent. However, the criticism of the film by Hindutva supporters to the film is nothing but hypocrisy.
It isn’t clear why those who use sacred occasions like Ram Navami to direct violence against Muslims, in whose processions songs are played abusing Muslims, are objecting to the language of this film. After all, the Hanuman of Adipurush has been created for those who chant obscene slogans and play vulgar songs at their religious or holy occasions. It uses the idiom they understand well.
Are they shocked to see their own reflections in the movie? Or are they angry that the film has exposed their sense of what they consider sacred?
In addition to Hindus, followers of other religions will also see this film. It is clear that it will leave an impression on them about their Hindu neighbours. Are Hindutva supporters angry because this film shows the real face of Hindutva?
Amidst the fierce opposition to the film, the confidence of the dialogue writer must be applauded. He admits that the language is coarse – but should all this make it unacceptable? He says that it is the language of a Hindu who has woken up from the slumber of centuries. He says that while growing up, he was afraid of calling himself a Hindu, lest he be put in jail. It was only after 2014 that he has been able to declare his Hinduness without fear. It is only now that he can wear his identity on his sleeve. It is the voice of this awakened Hindu that you hear from the mouth of the angry Hanuman of Adipurush.
Hindu society must think about its own role in the creation of this Hindutva edition of Ramkatha. The electoral and behaviour of a large section of the community has led its leaders and cultural representatives to believe that its sensibilities have been so debased that it will have to accept Adipurush as its Ramayana. Adipurush has presented Hindu society with a test it does not want to take.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.