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The God delusion

By Harsh Mander (May 12, 2008, Hindustan Times) 


There is today a world-wide resurgence of the politics of identity, separateness and divide. This has been spurred by declarations of an ongoing global ‘war on terror’, consummating in bloody military enterprises that have casually decimated vast helpless civilian populations. Religious texts as well as democratic principles have been reinterpreted to justify violent reprisals and to deny democratic rights. Democratic governments have felt it fit to label, place under surveillance and, in many cases, detain, torture and even exterminate people held in suspicion primarily because of their religious faith. But the greatest battle of all has been in the hearts and minds of people, in the everyday discourse of homes, classrooms and work-places, where the people of one faith have been demonised globally for their allegedly violent histories, and their alleged pervasive contemporary sympathies for terrorism.

It is inevitable that this battle would spill over also into the songs we sing, the poetry we recite, and - in particular in this part of the world - in the films we make. This cinema is notoriously unrealistic in its literal depiction of people’s lives. But because of the special emotional resonance of films with people in South Asia, they are often authentic as reflections of popular consciousness. It is, therefore, instructive to observe the evolution of the depiction of Muslim people in Indian cinema. In the relatively idealistic early decades after Independence, Muslim people were an essential element of the ‘formula’ of popular Hindi cinema, homogenised as gentle, friendly, benign neighbours, or people of exceptional culture, grace and poetry. In more recent times, their metamorphosis was precipitous, into shadowy, sinister figures: mafia, criminal, traitor, regressive, people who always initiate riots, are fundamentalist, violent. But many recent films have challenged these troubling, false stereotypes, and several have received enthusiastic audience endorsement.

Important among these is a popular Pakistani film, Khuda Kay Liye. Although flawed as cinema, it is a moral document of unusual humanism. The film attempts a brave, searching exploration of the struggles that people of faith in Islam are embroiled in, as they strive to sift right and wrong in a world which holds them responsible for the reprehensible crimes of a few who claim to defend their faith.... The cleric’s mocking of NGOs in the court scene of Khuda Kay Liye could have been Modi caricaturing ‘five-star’ NGOs or K.P.S. Gill’s indictment of human rights groups. The harrowing portrayal of cruel torture of a Muslim man under police detention after 9/11 in Chicago resonates chillingly with many testimonies of torture and illegal detention of Muslim youth in Gujarat after 2002, or in Hyderabad after the bomb blasts last year. It is not the truth of Islam, of the ‘other’ out there that the film recreates; it is the picture of all of us, if we have the courage and compassion to see and hear it....

There have been some as honestly introspective films about Hindu fundamentalism in India. The best recent example is Parzania, which tracks the heart-breaking search of parents for their child who disappeared in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. It is as agonisingly scrupulous in its portrayal of Hindutva politics, and ends far more reassuringly, with the resolve of the survivors to fight against all odds for justice in the courts of law. Equally important is Shaurya, which courageously admits to communalism in the armed forces, and to human rights abuses against children in Kashmir. The Muslim officer who defends the civilians against the atrocities by his brother officer in uniform is viewed with suspicion because of his faith. The ‘loyalty’ test that Muslim citizens often find themselves subjected to was also illustrated in one of the most popular films of last year, Chak De! India, in which a Muslim hockey coach is believed to have deliberately thrown a match against Pakistan. In both films, audiences backed the Muslim who was unfairly labelled. All these films revive hope, that ultimately in the battle of hearts and minds - that rages in the name both of global crusade against terror, and the political mobilisation within India around religious identity - justice, truth and compassion still have a chance.  

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