Cinema can be eerily prophetic because it is the repository of our most fervent hopes and dreams. But a movie produced four decades ago is the stuff of one of our most feared nightmares today.

In the 1977 Kannada movie Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, a horde of angry villagers pelt stones at a woman’s home because they find out that she asked for a cow to be slaughtered. The mob retreats only when she shoots in the air, and finally disperses after her husband reassures the villagers that he is willing to pay the price for his wife’s actions.

This scene resonates uncomfortably in the contemporary political climate, where the violent overreach of self-appointed cow protectors is resulting in deaths and is being systematically enabled by flawed legislation.

BV Karanth and Girish Karnad’s Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (Son, you have become an orphan) explores the conflict between the religious importance of cows among Hindus, and their economic utility in a primarily agrarian rural India. The National Award winning film, based on a Kannada novel by SL Bairappa, was also made in Hindi as Godhuli.

Kalinga (Manu), the son of a recently deceased landlord, returns to his village after studying agriculture in the United States of America. Accompanied by his American wife Lydia, he attempts to push the village along on the path to progress. But he gets off on the wrong foot, upsetting his close friend and village priest Venkatramana (Naseeruddin Shah) when he uses water from the temple well to irrigate his farm.

Karnad later expressed regret for making a movie that could be construed as anti-cow slaughter, but the film itself never deifies or demonises any of its characters. It cuts to the heart of the development debate by enumerating the irreverence of an outsider who rampages on sacred ground in the quest for progress as well as the obstinacy of people unwilling to embrace change because they believe they are happy enough as they are.

Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977).
Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977).

Cows have vastly different connotations for all the characters in the movie. Although they are important to Kalinga, he sees them as tools for commercial profit. But for his mother, they are a source of pride and joy. When Kalinga’s mother meets Lydia for the first time, she demonstrates her approval for her daughter-in-law by giving Lydia the cows owned by the family. When she later hears a rumor about Lydia eating beef, she is deeply distraught.

Lydia, on the other hand, is vexed by the tremendous importance given to cows. When she asks Venkatramana why cows are singled out for such deep reverence, and not pigs or dogs, he is enraged. She apologises, but Venkatramana is unable to answer her question directly.

A contemporary urban resident might ask the same question out of genuine curiosity, identifying more with the foreigner than any other character in the film. Lydia is not perfect by any standard, but her softly probing questions set an important example for anyone who wishes to fully understand the importance of cows in the lives of rural Indians.

Lydia’s interest placates Venkatramana, but he is livid when he discovers that Kalinga plans to sell his calves to a dairy. He curses the unborn child of a pregnant Lydia, who impulsively orders a cow to be slaughtered in rebellion. This causes Kalinga’s mother to donate all the cows to Venkatramana for safekeeping.

Lydia delivers, but is unable to nurse her child. She is forced turn to Venkatramana, whose cows can provide milk for her hungry son. When the priest refuses, Lydia again asks him an important question: is the divinity and sanctity of a cow more important than the life of a baby whose mother might be a beef eater? The ethical dilemma is never quite resolved, but the question causes Venkatramana to introspect about his choices.

Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane also depicts the indomitable sway of religious figures in Indian societies. Although the villagers habitually turn to the moralistic and mostly soft-spoken Venkatramana for guidance, they overrule him when he refuses milk to a hungry child. Venkatramana’s capacity for basic self-reflection is an important lesson to the gau-rakshaks of today.

The repentant priest finally orders Kalinga to bring back the cows he sold to the dairy, but Kalinga cannot identify his cattle amid the hordes that are being led down a newly constructed road. The cows – and by extension, traditional Indian values – are steered down the path to development, but are reduced to indistinguishable entities, lost in a homogenous mass.

The same truth holds true when cows are pulled up on the path of political ascendancy – they are little more than pawns in the quest for power. When this happens, much like the characters in Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, no one really wins.

Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane .