In 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing was screened to widespread film festival and critical acclaim. The documentary explores the state-sponsored extermination of an estimated 2.5 million people suspected of being communists across Indonesia in the mid-60s. The documentary was framed as a sensationalist confessional by three perpetrators of the crimes.

This year, Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Singh produced the biggest plug he could for himself through the movie MSG-The Messenger. The vanity project made front-page news after the entire censor board resigned and walked out when their decision to not release the film was overruled by an appellate authority rather speedily.

The two films are vastly different, but there are also connections. They have both been made to reinforce certain ideas – the former, about government-sanctioned acts of violence, and the latter about the credibility of the government-controlled apparatus to deny its existence.

Distinct in purpose

The protagonists in each of the films have been accused of heinous crimes. The merry murderers of Indonesia confess on camera to raping girls and describe with ease and even pride their terrible methods of murder and torture. These men were known as "preman", a colloquial synonym for gangsters, and were supported by unofficial fringe organisations attached to political parties.

Gurmeet Ram Rahim has apparently been cleared of charges of sexually exploiting women and murder, while hearings are on in a case involving allegations of the forced castration of followers. Singh obviously doesn't address these issues in MSG, but he does claim to be a victim of violence and slander by corrupt media, gangsters and politicians. Like The Act of Killing's protagonists, Singh hopes to use the medium of cinema to portray the “truth” behind their actions and be seen as a protector of the country who has only its best interests at heart.

The two films have parallels, but what separates them is the purpose of the narrative and the reasons behind their existence. The Act of Killing asks its murderers to relive their crimes in order to show them what the victims went through. It succeeds in doing so on many levels, apart from exposing the nature of the perpetrators to viewers. No one can remain in doubt about the nature of evil presented in the film, which also helped in influencing perceptions of this traumatic period of history in Indonesia.

MSG-The Messenger is considered terrible entertainment, a fleeting fancy that doesn't mean nothing to anybody beyond its makers. Yet, MSG at least allows us to understand the way in which Gurmeet Singh and possibly his cult members see themselves. At every point in the movie, the guru’s actions speak louder than his detractor’s questions, and the propaganda machine successfully brands all non-believers as misled individuals who are only waiting for the right sign to follow "Pitaji" into the breach. In his stubborn insistence on being taken seriously, and his obliviousness to the problems with his image projection, the godman quite resembles Indonesia's preman.