And he is back. But why?

Two movies by Sacha Sauda cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a single year could be hazardous for health, but they are good for business. Early morning shows at multiplexes are usually sparsely attended, but the Dera Sacha Sauda ensured ringing cash registers on at least this one Friday. At the 9.15 am screening of the sequel to MSG: Messenger of God in midtown Mumbai, Singh’s followers ensured that there were few seats to spare. But unlike Rajnikanth's devotees, they did not throw flowers at the screen when their hero appeared. Nor did they cheer when the credits revealed that Singh was MSG 2: The Messenger’s writer, editor, music composer, lyricist, production designer, choreographer, director and producer.

Instead, the audience received MSG 2 in reverential silence, as though at a prayer meeting or a video-streaming of a sermon. A stern-looking woman patrolled the aisles to keep an eye on errant devotees who might dare to check the messages on their phones. On the screen, Singh made yet another effort to bolster his claims to saintliness. Though a disclaimer declares that MSG 2 is based partly on facts and does not promote a belief in miracles, Singh does pull off a few unscientific feats. A laser beam from his forehead helps a pregnant woman pop out her baby. A single look towards the heavens results in a force shield dropping over his devotees to protect them from a potential attack by this movie’s villains – adivasis.

The first part of the film provided the godman with a platform to showcase his charitable activities and his superhuman physical prowess. In the sequel, Singh seems to be looking to expand his appeal beyond the underprivileged classes and lower castes who flock to his order. In MSG 2, Singh tames advasis and introduces them to the right path (the one built by the Dera Sacha Sauda, of course). India's indigenous people are depicted as early European colonisers saw them: they are dressed in tiger-skin loincloths, have bad teeth, and are dark-skinned and badly behaved. Some of them look like rejected extras from Baahubali.

In his continuing quest to prove that he can efficiently run a parallel welfare state, Singh cleans up the tribals (many of them acquire fair complexions once they lose their body paint), sets up schools and creates employment opportunities. One adivasi leader tearfully declares that Gurmeet Singh is now their “adimanav” – the origin of their species.

The medium and the message

Singh’s publicity campaign for his second screen outing hasn’t been anywhere as widespread as the one for his first. MSG’s trailer, for instance, was a brief internet sensation for its sheer outrageousness and brazenness. Journalists lined up for on-on-one chats with the luridly dressed religious leader, even travelling to his headquarters in Sirsa in Haryana to seek an audience. The jaded Mumbai media turned up in large numbers at a press conference held in a plush suburban hotel to witness the latest freak show rolling into town. Critics too ensured that MSG was added to their weekly quota of assignments, just in case the movie turned out to be so terrible that it was actually fun.

The second time around, finding that his novelty appeal has vanished, Singh has resorted to buying media space and putting out paid interviews. He also appears to have responded to severe criticism of the first film's running length: at 197 minutes, MSG was tedium itself. The second film is vastly shorter, but even at 133 minutes, there is absolutely nothing in it for people who are not Dera Sacha Sauda devotees.

Even a halfway decent devotional film has elements that can appeal to non-believers. The general air of piety, faith and hope that powers devotional films is missing from both the MSG movies for the simple reason that they worship not abstract values, but the concrete form of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

These films appear to have been made expressly to disseminate the guru’s message to potential followers beyond Sirsa. There is no difference between the films and the hagiographic literature, videos and music discs that such cults as Dera Sacha Sauda routinely put out. So what does Singh gain by invading the multiplex? Perhaps he's doing so simply because he can.

Controversial figure

Singh courts controversy, as is evident from his frequent runs-in with official Sikh bodies and the law (he has been accused of rape, murder and the castration of male volunteers). The release of his first movie led to a reconstitution of the Central Board of Film Certification. When a group of examiners in Mumbai refused to give a screening certificate in January to MSG on the grounds that it was barely a movie, glorified Singh as an incarnation of God, and promoted miraculous cures for illnesses, Singh used his considerable clout to ensure that the film was passed. The CBFC’s board resigned, paving the way for a new dispensation headed by the puritanical, scissor-happy Pahlaj Nihalani. The new-look CBFC, despite its vast appetite for muting swear words and casual descriptions of body parts in even adult-rated films, has not been bothered by Singh’s attitude towards the country’s advasis (who are called “animals” and savages” in MSG 2).

The godman’s far-reaching political influence seems to have emboldened him to move beyond routine religious gatherings and paid-for shows on religious channels and instead harness the seductive powers of cinema to expand his flock. It is perhaps not unusual for Singh’s followers to imagine him flying through the air, splitting a bullet into two, and flipping over an elephant as though it were a stuffed toy.

What is unusual is that Singh wants these computer-generated miracles to be brought to the mainstream. The controversial cult head doesn’t only want to prove that he is a saint. He is on a mission to gain greater influence. Singh has demonstrated that he has the funds and the ability to start a movie franchise. As long as there are newspaper columns that can be bought and cinema seats to be filled, there will be no stopping him.