Winter 2008, Volume 24.2
Professing Spirituality: Bollywood Fantasies and the Return of Religion
Samir Dayal (PhD, U of Wisconsin—Madison) is Associate Professor of English at Bentley College, Massachusetts, the author of the forthcoming Resisting Modernity: Counternarratives of Nation and Masculinity, and the co-editor of a forthcoming collection entitled Global Babel: Interdisciplinarity, Transnationalism and the Discourses of Globalization. Currently he is writing a book about contemporary Indian cinema. He is also the editor, with an introduction, of Julia Kristeva’s Crisis of the European Subject; François Rachline’s Don Juan’s Wager; Lucien Gubbay’s Jews under Islam; Patricia Gherovici’s The Puerto Rican Syndrome (winner of The Gradiva Award in Historical, Cultural & Literary Analysis and The Boyer Prize for Contributions to Psychoanalytic Anthropology); Robert Rushing’s Resisting Arrest: Desire and Enjoyment in Detective Fiction; Sanjay Subrahmanyam et al’s Textures of Time; and Barbara Christian’s Belief in Dialogue, among other books. He has also contributed numerous chapters and essays to edited collections and scholarly journals. He has also published some short fiction.
I remember, as a teenager, that among the most electrifying debates I had encountered in my reading was a debate on the topic of religion, between Father Frederick C. Copleston and Bertrand Russell, "A Debate on the Existence of God." The passionate but coolly rational tone of the debate was inspiring, and to me it seemed marvelous that the rationalist author of the Principia Mathematica, a Nobel laureate, was often (though not always) bested by the believer. My friends and I spent many an evening discussing this and other debates on religion, our focus ranging from Kierkegaard to Teilhard de Chardin, from Darwin to Krishnamurti. We sat late at night in coffee shops or little roadside dhabas outside the city of Bangalore, drinking coffee or eating butter chicken, talking excitedly about these thinkers’ ideas. Admittedly we did not always possess expert knowledge, and some of the arguments we joined so passionately then appear in retrospect pretentious and embarrassingly jejune. Still, it remains true on reflection that our interest in the "big questions" we so breezily addressed was piqued and sustained by the fact that religion could be treated as a matter open to debate. Belief as such was a private matter—it belonged to the private sphere. And one did not have to profess religion to take it seriously, to regard it not as mere abstraction but as a road either taken or not taken, but always with many tributary paths, many ways of paying tribute, many ways of responding to life’s "trials and tribulations." Now that world, that image of religion as something important albeit intensely private—and at the same time a broad field open for free and public discussion—seems so… old fashioned.
The Rise of Religion in the Public Sphere
Not that religion never appeared in public discourse. It did. But it did not seem to be everywhere. It did not seem so all-consuming. It did not block so much light while giving off so much heat. The profession of religion did not always trump, or dare I say corrupt, the profession of politics as it does today in so many national contexts and election contests. In the much-maligned 1960s, John Kennedy sought to defuse his Catholicism as an issue in the national elections, while George Bush made much in his campaign of his so-called "compassionately conservative" and "faith-based" bid for the Presidency. Turkey, once so proud of its secularist leader Kemal Atatürk, today has an avowedly Islamist head of state; Israel and Palestine remain at loggerheads, and the key issue remains the divinely ordained right to the Holy Land. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a recent and much embattled guest of the White House and Columbia University, makes no bones about the religious provenance of his mandate as a nation’s leader or about the doctrinal edge to his hardline position on Israel and its Western allies. And in the South Asian subcontinent, no challenge looms larger than the challenge of resolving communal tensions and interethnic strife, all of which ultimately have their source in what appear to be intractable religious differences.
Today, it is commonplace to say, religion has thoroughly infiltrated the public sphere. And religion itself has become professionalized-and-politicized. My own interest in it has waned in inverse proportion: the more religion has pervaded public, and especially cultural, institutions, the more impoverished the debates seem, the more banal and crudely oppositional the framing of key issues that are not in themselves banal (Evolutionism or Creationism? Stem cells, yes or no? Abortion or right to life?). As for public discussion, the best policy would appear to be to avoid the topic wherever possible; what dare anyone say about religion in any public forum today, and who am I to talk about religion? I did bring it up, however, at a recent dinner-table conversation with the renowned observer of Indian culture, Sudhir Kakar, and he agreed that the contemporary public sphere in India is thoroughly suffused by a politicized or ideological religious discourse.
Over the last two decades, perhaps the salient feature of Indian politics has been the dominance of Hindu nationalism as a public fantasy that also channels personal fantasy. In India, private fantasies are similarly transformed into public fantasies and then appropriated for ideological purposes. The media have been a key player in this appropriation. As Arvind Rajagopal has argued, the media "re-shape the context in which politics is conceived, enacted, and understood. Hindu nationalism represented an attempt to fashion a Hindu public within the nexus of market reforms and the expansion of communications, rather than religious reaction as such" (1).
I am not suggesting that India is somehow unique in this regard—quite the contrary. As Slavoj Žižek wrote recently in an op-ed for The New York Times (Oct. 11, 2007), the Chinese State Administration of Religious Affairs proclaimed in Order #5 a law regulating "the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism" (A27). This may be, as Žižek notes, an egregious example of Chinese Communist totalitarian impulses, but it is hardly unprecedented even in European history: "The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the first step towards the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War, declared the local prince’s religion to be the official faith of a region or country (‘cuius regio, eius religio’)." Intended to curb conflict between Catholics and Lutherans in Germany, the Peace also had the effect of requiring large groups of a polity to convert when a new ruler with a different religion came to power. Žižek sees this as indexing a paradox of profession (profession of belief): "your religious belief, a matter of your innermost spiritual experience, is regulated by the whims of your secular leader" (A27).
The paradox of profession also works in the opposite direction, however: your everyday practical life, your most immediate mundane experience of social life, is also regulated by the ideological fantasies and fears of your spiritual leader. And this is something that in his many publications Žižek regularly chooses to de-emphasize because it looks too much like a predictably secular left-intellectual deprecation of religion, and he wants to appear too snappy and unconventional to be reiterating that old line of argument. He wants to appear like a "plague-on-both-their-houses" gadfly, too quick-witted to be pigeonholed on either the right or the left side of the political spectrum. Žižek argues for example that
[i]t is all to easy to laugh at the idea of an atheist power regulating something that, in its eyes, doesn’t exist. However, do we believe in it? When in 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, many Westerners were outraged — but how many of them actually believed in the divinity of the Buddha? Rather, we were angered because the Taliban did not show appropriate respect for the "cultural heritage" of the country. Unlike us sophisticates, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great respect for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions.
As Žižek goes on to say, "the significant issue for the West here is not with Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to ‘culture.’ All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the ‘lifestyle’ of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews." The problem, says Žižek, is that culture has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously"(A27). It’s not that he wants to defend religion, especially (although I think secretly he does defend it). Rather, he is trying to puncture Western liberal pieties and Western liberal disingenuousness and hypocrisy, especially or more generally Western underexamination of self, to embarrass unexamined professions of disbelief, to unmask secular "toleration" and pluralism. He wants to out "the secret of what we have done for so long: respectfully tolerating what we don’t take quite seriously, and trying to contain its political consequences through the law" (A27). This is all intended to take the wind out of the sails of the multiculti liberals, whose defense of cultural heritages is defrocked here as unquestioned gibberish, mere political or more precisely cultural correctness without conviction—which always ends up being a species of intolerance of what is negated or denied by that conviction.
Žižek has a point. But in the case of some Indian visual public culture, it is more a matter of religion being taken too seriously—or deployed for ideological purposes—by the filmmakers and purveyors of that culture. Hinduism, for example, is taken too seriously—and sold to the credulous— as the only glue that might bind together a fragmented Indian society. In a film like Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001), for instance, the exclusion of minorities, whether social or religious, is sought to be repaired by the magnanimous inclusiveness of the dominant religion, Hinduism, portrayed in the body of the captain of an inclusive cricket team, whose members include players of different classes, ethnicities, and physical ability or disability. It’s a politically and culturally correct movie, and it responds to a felt need in cultural terms. And it does betray a certain disingenuousness about the actual workings of the (religiously inflected) dominant in Indian society. Still, Žižek ’s argument notwithstanding, it could be argued that religion needs to be taken less seriously, not more. The respect for cultural differences, and for secularism, might not make the country more unified, but it could make the public culture more just, precisely by making it more plural. In his recent book, A Call for Heresy, Anouar Majid calls himself a Muslim heretic, someone who believes in pluralism. Majid observes that the American revolution represented one of the key events of modern civilization because it was a republican experiment in enabling the coexistence, or compossibility, of religion and pluralism, something for which Žižek allows precious little oxygen.
On another point too, Žižek ’s position seems to invite criticism. He seems eager to puncture the self-congratulation of Western liberals who attack China’s reincarnation laws, or more generally attack State endorsement of a religion. But in this he can sometimes be too clever by half, for he ends up lending ammunition to reactionary forces, who are only too happy to see their opponents divided from within their own ranks. Žižek might take a page from Majid’s book and defend plurality of this kind, rather than embark on the kind of empty deflation of liberal positions on religion of which he is so enamored.
Scholars such as Ashis Nandy have reminded us that it is a mistake to imagine that Western modernity is modular and that all nation-states must aspire to that model and therefore fall short of it. In fact, he suggests, there are several modernities, such as Islamic modernity, and that not even the West itself has managed to expunge religion from modernity, as the Enlightenment thinkers had believed would happen. Indeed, as I have been suggesting above, religion is as strong a force as it ever was in those cultures where Enlightenment Reason is supposed to have rooted itself.
The Two Faces of Religion
Religion can be a force for good in the public realm, giving people a sense of hope, offering them meaning in a world that on many levels seems to deny it or to reduce social meaning to triviality, to the society of the spectacle, as Guy Debord might say. And as for theology, it has often provided a medium or occasion for some of the most important philosophical reflection on precisely the meaning of human history as well as of individual, everyday human lives. Even secularists can find this aspect of religious thinking worthwhile—and respect religion out of a commitment to plurality. Pace Žižek, it is not necessary "to believe in the divinity of the Buddha"—something the Buddha himself denied expressly—for Westerners or anybody else for that matter to be outraged at the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhist statues. And incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with outrage that is expressed in terms of deploring the destruction of objects of purely cultural, aesthetic, or archaeological value, or because the needless destruction of cultural tradition is a kind of human cruelty. There’s absolutely no need to require all outrage to be anchored to "belief." What is more, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas can be regretted on the very grounds of pluralism: the Taliban are of course free to believe what they believe, but they are not justified in wantonly destroying tokens of other forms of belief.
This brings us to the negative aspect of the intrusion of religious ideology into the public realm. And there are two senses in which religion seems to have permeated the public sphere to its detriment, distorting human relations or impoverishing social and cultural life. In part this irradiation of the public sphere by religious ideology is a result of the perception of a threat from transnational "flows" (as Arjun Appadurai put it in his much-cited book Modernity at Large) of people, goods, services, information—and images.
The first sense in which religion has become pervasive is as subversive extremism and the second is as reactionary ideology, and not only within India. Indeed, Appadurai speaks of a transnational religioscape. Examples of the first sense from recent world politics that come most readily to mind include Northern Ireland, Palestine and Kashmir—until, that is, 9/11 famously changed the world forever and new forms of subversive extremism emerged into public view with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Religion has since that world-historical event become a differently charged topic almost in every corner of the world, whether in Afghanistan or Algeria, Sri Lanka or Sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia or India.
The second sense in which religion has distorted human relations or negatively affected cultural life is as a result of conservative or reactionary ideology, which tends to be exclusivist or to seek division between cultures rather than mutually respectful and supportive coexistence. No capital of the globe is immune to attack from extremists who explicitly claim some allegiance to a "religious" ideology—neither Baghdad nor Bali, neither New York nor Madrid, neither London nor Bombay (Mumbai). Even the most powerful nations in the world are seeing that religious ideology may be something that is not just fodder for policy wonks or intellectuals to debate but possibly the most challenging battleground (‘winning hearts and minds" is the usual public face of the contest of ideology these days). The U.S. has lost its sense of invulnerability from attack by even small groups motivated explicitly or indirectly connected with some form of extremist religious ideology, as have Britain, Spain, Germany and many other nations in the West and in the East. Above all it is crucial not to forget that, while there are extremist ideologies radiating from various centers in "the East" (not only Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also Iran’s Ahmedinejad questioning the Holocaust and threatening Israel), there are also ideologies of—and firmly within the bosom of—the West. Some of these are exactly counterposed to the ideologies of the East. There seems to be no place safe from what, to coin a phrase, one might call negative theologies. But a caveat is in order: as we speak of this return of religion, it is imperative to resist the simple stereotyping of terror as confined to one religious ideology, and worse, to ascribe violent fundamentalism to all the votaries of any faith, to reach too quickly for a name ("extremism," "terrorism," "fundamentalism" and so on) to pin on the complex phenomenon of the resurgence of religious ideologies. As Derrida cautions:
Why is this phenomenon, so hastily called the ‘return of religions,’ so difficult to think? Why is it so surprising? Why does it particularly astonish those who believed naively that an alternative opposed Religion, on the one side, and on the other, Reason, Enlightenment, Science, Criticism (Marxist Criticism, Nietzschean Genealogy, Freudian Psychoanalysis and their heritage), as though the one could not but put an end to the other? On the contrary, it is an entirely different schema that would have to be taken as one’s point of departure in order to try to think the ‘return of the religious.’ Can the latter be reduced to what the doxa confusedly calls ‘fundamentalism,’ ‘fanaticism,’ or, in French, ‘integrism’? Here perhaps we have one of our preliminary questions, able to measure up to the historical urgency. And among the Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, Islam], among the ‘fundamentalisms’ or the ‘integrisms’ that are developing universally, for they are at work today in all religions, what, precisely, of Islam? But let us not make use of this name too quickly. Everything that is hastily grouped under the reference to ‘Islam’ seems today to retain some sort of geopolitical or global prerogative, as a result of the nature of its physical violences, of certain of its declared violations of the democratic model and of international law (the ‘Rushdie case’ and many others—and the ‘right to literature’), as a result of both the archaic and modern form of its crimes ‘in the name of religion,’ as a result of its demographic dimensions, of its phallocentric and theologico-political figures. Why? Discernment is required: Islam is not Islamism and we should never forget it, but the latter operates in the name of the former, and thus emerges the grave question of the name. (45; italics in the original)
Neither the West nor the Non-West has a monopoly on the yoking of cultural domains into the religiously inflected ideological battle. Bill Moyers’ "Journal" recently (October 7, 2007, on PBS) did a segment on Pastor John Hagee’s "Christians United for Israel" group (CUFI), among the largest and most politically influential Christian grassroots organizations in the country, and in the same month (on October 14, 2007), CBS’s "60 Minutes" profiled Joel Osteen, dubbing him the "most popular preacher in America." Osteen’s immense popularity may have something to do with the fact that his is a quintessentially "feel-good" religion, promising his flock that they will be rewarded not only in heaven but in this world too, which appears on first impression to be suggesting that they can indeed serve both God and Mammon. Both of these preachers, in different ways and to different degrees, seek to bring religion into a more prominent position in Americans’ daily lives, in the first case seeking to directly influence foreign policy and in the second case to change everyday lives of Americans in a way that has political implications. Although very different from each other, these are two examples of how two of the most heavily subscribed institutions of organized religion in the U.S. are being marshaled into the service of a religious pedagogy intended to shape culture in a way that aligns it with an exclusive ideological doctrine, in this case Christianity. They are also united by what can tentatively be described as a hunger for a naïve spirituality, a hunger that has become somewhat more intense in a post-9/11 age where talk of apocalypse and rapture is not infrequently heard. This is a complex phenomenon and not restricted to the Christian faithful.
What I want to explore here is not so much the social effect (one can hardly avoid seeing the effects on everyday life) but the cultural production of such distorting ideologies. And I am not here interested in the more notorious promulgators of poisonous fulminations, the hate-mongering ideologues of religion (besides, neither every mullah nor every priest is such an ideologue). Rather, I am interested in the way that the institutions that make up the cultural landscape of a society are being transformed afresh—only more intensely—into what Louis Althusser might have called ideological apparatuses.
An Apologetics for A Naïve Spirituality in a Secular Age, or Something More Sinister?
In his recent book entitled A Secular Age, Charles Taylor maintains that "we" (by which he means the West) live in a secular age. This is not a new argument of course. What is important is what he means by "secularity." There are three senses of secularity for Taylor: (1) there is no connection between God or a notion of transcendent reality with political organization—religion is a private matter, and the public sphere is emptied of God or religion; (2) the second sense is the turning away of people from belief, a waning of belief at large; and (3) the pluralization of attitudes to belief in God.
Taylor admits that the United States is a "rather striking" case: "One of the earliest societies to separate Church and State, it is also the Western society with the highest statistics for religious belief and practice" (1-2). But is this as paradoxical as Taylor seems to suggest? At least as an opening to the argument, I believe this framing of an opposition between high rates of declared religious belief and "practice" underestimates the countervailing impulse in the U.S. toward greater integration of religious belief or religious ideology with politics. When the popular news program "60 Minutes" detailed the enormous success of Pastor Joel Osteen— the preacher who encourages his vast congregation to expect a reward for Christian believers not only in heaven but here on earth, in material terms—it seemed to me that this convenient and comforting lesson, while not explicitly political, also connected private belief to public behavior. And when Bill Moyers, in the same week, presented a story about the Rev. Bill Hagee, the head of Christians for Israel, it seemed again obvious that the private religious belief was being yoked to public or political behavior—Hagee appears to make the articulation of religion and politics the linchpin of his preaching. The principle of separation of church and state really is a principle that forbids the state from establishing, actively promoting or interfering in the observance of any particular religion. It has nothing to say about whether and how private individuals or religious groups seek to participate in the public sphere. So, pace Taylor, it is perfectly within legal right for a pastor such as Hagee or Osteen to seek to articulate private belief and public activism. The question is more whether it is desirable or deplorable.
However, my primary goal here is not to dissent from Taylor’s assessment of the state of religion in the U.S. Rather, I am interested in his argument that "many milieu[x] in the United States are secularized, and… the United States as a whole is"—in the sense that this country has moved from "a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others." He contrasts this pluralized state with "contrast cases today," including "the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieu in which the vast majority of Indians live" (3). On this particular account I find myself in complete agreement, and want here to look at the way in which religion is informing the public sphere in India to the extent that it has infiltrated even popular cultural products, and most notably Bollywood cinema. Religion has long been an aspect of Indian culture featured prominently in Indian cinema in general (not just Bollywood). But the precise sense in which I am interested in its resurgence in recent cinema is the way in which, in popular films, it has been increasingly pressed into the service of a broader—primarily national rather than transnational, although this too is arguable— religious and ideological battle. If we were to look even casually at recent Hindi cinema we would be struck with a sense that Indian culture, in an era of the national economy’s liberalization and increasing integration into a global economy, is very far from what Taylor would recognize as secularity. In this instance, as in the United States, I would argue, access to modernity (as the Enlightenment thinkers understood and theorized it) has not been accompanied or facilitated by thoroughgoing secularization.
Religion in Hindi Cinema
The non-West has its counterpart congregations to the popular churches of the West. Votaries of some of these seek in the first instance not to cause havoc abroad (as the subversive extremists might) but to influence or "protect tradition" at home. Tradition, as many scholars have observed, is less a refusal of modernity than a complex response to it (Makdisi 111; Mani; Grewal and Kaplan 669-70). And my immediate concern is with one instance of this sort of inturned impulse: the project of some popular Hindi cinema to protect indigenous or "authentic" culture from its perceived (or imagined) enemies by safeguarding a particular religious identity or imaginary. And there is no more complete repository for this religious imaginary than popular cinema. The religious inflection of identity is synecdochic—it is a partial identity ("religious identity") that purports to stand for all of national culture in what Ashis Rajadhyaksha has termed neo-traditionalism. But even such religiously-inflected neo-traditionalism is certainly not entirely new in Hindi cinema. D.G. (Dadasaheb) Phalke, the prime mover of Indian cinema, had been inspired by a "Biblical" film to make India’s first entirely autochthonous film featuring an interlinking of religion and cinema—in 1913!
In the films I want to consider, Hindu (religious) identity is often purported to stand for Indian (national) identity. I say "purported" precisely to resist a default endorsement of the essentialist narrative according to which India is essentially, and has from time immemorial been, a Hindu nation-state or even essentially a religiously-grounded culture, any more than other nation-states are essentially religious. This premise is the basis on which a certain species of ideological "work" is performed by conservative forces who manipulate biopolitical power. For it is anything but innocent to argue that Indian national identity is Hindu religious identity. For the premise is de jure exclusive of other religious persuasions, whereas in historical fact, for instance, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Christians, Buddihists, Jews and others have de facto lived together within the nation’s borders. And after all, has this premise not been the source of a lot of internecine animosity and violence, as though only religion were at issue? Baxter, Malik et al write that "[r]eligious fundamentalism verging on fanaticism is on the rise because the modernization process has eroded traditional values and religious identities" (149). If "re-ligio" meant originally the binding force of religion, then in the contemporary public sphere in India religion seems more divisive than cohesive. One thinks of the infamous Ayodhya mosque episode in December 1992, which led to so much bloodshed after the Babri Masjid was destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists in the name of a religious discourse of Hindu nationalism or "Hindutva."
In India, religion—particularly in the guise of Hindutva—has since the period of liberalization (roughly 1987-1993) begun to loom large in response to the perceived incursion of foreign influences or agents, in response to intensifying and accelerating globalization as well as to disruptive enemies within the national body. Religion began to be articulated with economic liberalization in a logic of biopolitical opportunism (Rajagopal 3). There was a growing sense that the country needed greater privatization more than it needed state control if it wanted to compete in a globalized environment. At the same time there was a sense that "Hinduness" needed to be reasserted against the perceived, imagined or manufactured threats to its identity, especially from neighbors such as Pakistan, which was allegedly sending insurgents into India to help stir up conflicts such as in Ayodhya or Jammu & Kashmir and to spread ideological infection within the country (among Indian Muslims, for instance).
This latter argument feeds on the notion that nations with unruly borders tend to want to demonize each other. In India, this demonization occurs most powerfully in what may be the most powerful ideological apparatus, the ultimate dream machine producing and stitching together public and private fantasies: popular Hindi cinema. Film may be, as John Lyden has argued, structurally analogous to religion; stars are to fans as the gods are to the faithful. Rachel Dwyer has recently published a study of religion in cinema entitled Filming the Gods, in which she argues that there is no better medium in which to study the religious imaginary in the Indian context. I myself have written elsewhere of many films such as Mission Kashmir, Fizaa, Border, and Bombay, which deal, in appreciably different ways, with the Muslim "other." The cultural other is sometimes demonized in these films, largely from the 1990s, as the Islamist terrorist full of resentment and hate, and contrasted with the benevolent, forgiving and tolerant Hindu opposite number. There is no mistaking the purposeful and motivated representation of the Hindu coded into this benign filmic language.
Yet there is another, more recent, species of popular Hindi cinema, which is perhaps less vituperative but still remarkably driven by an impulse to consolidate Hindu religious identity. In many of these films, the promulgation of a conservative ideology is achieved through presentations even more superficially benign, to the point of being giddy or silly on the surface while still addressing some of the anxieties of films from the previous decade: globalization, transnational flows, threats to the unified nation-state as a Hindu nation. For me some iconic examples of this kind of film are the Munna Bhai films, which offer a cinema of attractions and spectacle as well as the most elementary kinds of humor and sentimentalism—yet do so to present often extraordinarily subtle, if religiously infiltrated, codings of social value. Their formula for success is to blend entertainment of the shallowest stripe with rather sophisticated public pedagogy.
Why do I draw out these parallels between the earlier kind of film in which the ideology was up front, and these more recent films in which the ideology is more subtly presented—parallels that one could regard as no more than coincidental? First of all it is important to read in the development of Hindi cinema a shift in conjunctures: the cultural and the political moment has shifted especially after liberalization and the growth of the Indian economy by 6-7% annually; the challenges are different today, although some challenges remain. Second, in the case of these specific films, I suggest that however adventitious or uncanny or ironic the parallels may be in this particular case, they reveal something about the iconic status of Sanjay Dutt within the filmic space and within the space of the public sphere.
I suggest that the Munna Bhai films (Munna Bhai M.B.B.S and Lage Raho Munna Bhai, both of which I discuss in greater depth below) function as a popular art form that commute between the religious and the secular in complex and deceptively sophisticated ways. They can be compared-and-contrasted with the variety of films called "devotionals," as studied for example by Rachel Dwyer. Dwyer has spoken about the phenomenon of hierophany (the eruption of the religious in the everyday) as an example of Indian cinema’s disavowal of realism. But it is not a totalized disavowal of realism that we see; sometimes on the contrary it is a matter of a hyperreal reality that we are given: a world that is shimmering with the recognizable lineaments of the audience’s actuality and aspirations, only raised to a higher pitch. Here and elsewhere I argue that Indian cinema creates spaces for fantasy within the affirmation-and-intensification of everyday life, as though to weave the realms of the religious and the secular. Indian cinema is able to give Indians their own recognizable world back as a reassuring reflection, only it is an "enhanced" world, where the familiar and the traditional are robust and pristine. At the same time it offers a kind of critique of (modular) modernity. Or we could say, this cinema frequently offers an alternative modernity, often underwritten by a particular ideology, that simultaneously constitutes an apologetics for religious tradition. It is this coincidence of ideology and religion that seems to have become intensified, although in different ways, in the last two decades.
If it is one law of the media that "sex sells," then today it seems equally true that religion does too. And often, as with images of beautiful people, the representations of religious or deified icons is benign—and can even be a positive force, and a reassuring and reaffirming public representation of what it means to belong to a community. A watershed example of the power of piety (or bhakti) was literally on evidence with the broadcast of a made-for-TV version of the great Indian epic Ramayan (attributed to the sage Valmiki) from January 25, 1987, through September 1990, on India’s national television program, Doordarshan—a name that evokes a "distant vision" and in this case even a transcendent vision. The serial, directed by Ramanand Sagar, spanned seventy-eight weekly episodes and had people in cities as well as villages, rich, middle-class as well as the poor, virtually glued to television screens across the country, in a kind of updated instance of Benedict Anderson’s famous argument that print media functioned as a common ground or text to consolidate the national identity of the nation, to give the people the sense of shared culture, space and time. The telecast of the Mahabharata, India’s other great epic, had a similar response.
Without of course implying any simple causal connection between the media representations or these telecasts and any instance of communal violence, Purnima Mankekar, like others, has suggested there was a negative side to the interest, as represented in the numbers of viewers who were drawn to the telecasts, in no small part through a religious rhetoric yoking Rama and rashtra—as if to reinstate a more anxious version of what Gandhi had called Ramrajya— the rule of Rama—forty years earlier, at the time of India’s Partition (See Mankekar, esp. ch. 4). This rhetoric was not "just rhetoric." It seemed to capitalize on the Hindu-Muslim tensions that had risen again during the 1980s and were crystallized in the Ram Janmabhumi movement (see Rajagopal 17). Two years after the last episode, on December 6, 1992, the resurgent religious (hegemonic north Indian, Hindu) grand narrative, which had been stirred and confirmed by the telecasts, would also find an objective correlative in the violent destruction of the Babri Masjid. This was a mosque that Hindu nationalists insist, in spite of counterindications from archaeological evidence, was insultingly built by 16th-century Moghul emperor Babar on Rama’s very birthplace, hallowed ground for Hindus. More than two thousand died, with three times that number being wounded, in the violence surrounding the mosque’s destruction. Set in the context of persistent and growing Hindu-Muslim tensions in the subcontinent, it is hard to see Doordarshan’s telecast of a serial laced with religious ideology as innocent piety. This was not an isolated event in which the politico/economic and the religious agendas were linked through the manipulation of public culture under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime. The goal was to defend Hindu tradition—Hindutva.
As Rajagopal puts it, "If Hindutva was the religious and cultural aspect of [the program of Hindu nationalism], liberalization became its economic aspect and was declared integral to the BJP’s vision." The BJP along with the Congress Party "endorsed state-led economic development as recently as the 1984 elections, but performed a complete about-face by the 1990 elections. ‘Nehruvianism’ simultaneously became the name for the entire post-independence era and an indictment of the secular developmental ethos of the Congress Party. It is not surprising then that critics of this religiosity articulated with an economic agenda have diagnosed a ‘crisis of secularism’ in India half a century after Independence" (18).
The conflicts between Muslims and Hindus have been fanned by the appeals to religious and communal identity by ideologues, extremists and power-players on either side. To most ordinary people in India there seem to be few prospects for immediate resolution. And so there is a great hunger for such a resolution, a hunger made the more acute by the recognition that such conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India are reflective of and compounded by more global struggles in which the name of extremist Islam comes up frequently. Anecdotally, I can report speaking to many people in India and in the diaspora who can scarcely resist the temptation to denounce Islam itself as the enemy not only in the Middle East but also in East Asia and in Europe. Yet there are also many, perhaps most, Muslims as well as Christians, many Hindus in India and in the diaspora, who would welcome reconciliation and greater harmony between and among people of diverse faiths, who perhaps even wish for a return to a prelapsarian moment when one could freely debate religious ideas. As I said at the outset, this wish seems a dream or fantasy today.
So it should not be too surprising that many Muslims as well as many Hindus are turning to a figure who represents for them a true spiritualism transcending exclusivist, communalist religiosity: Gandhi. My interest was piqued when, at the time I began writing this essay, I read a news report that as Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf once again imposed martial law on the country and seriously clamped down on institutions crucial to the public sphere such as the media, who emerged as the "biggest cyberspace hero for Pakistani bloggers" if not a man, "the mention of whom is blacked out from Pakistani school curricula and whose name was used only in closed-door meetings of the Pakistani ultra-Left — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi." Indeed, the writer of this story in Rediff on November 16, 2007, Aasha Khosla, suggests that this bespeaks a radical shift, a hunger for greater democracy and a new climate of openness.
And at the same time, in Gandhi’s own homeland, he is being invoked anew by many who are turning back to him as an alternative to the current ways of thinking about the environment, human rights, nationalism and morality. Indeed, as I argued myself in an essay on Gandhi, his lessons and his personal example have long been an unjustly neglected alternative to the dominant ways of conceptualizing modernity in postcolonial India—although it is also important to acknowledge that Gandhi was nothing if not a controversial figure, who ended up being assassinated by a Hindu extremist, from his own political party. After a spell during which he was regarded as passé, even quixotic, Gandhi is regarded as an icon again today of a desired return to a spirituality that transcends the conflict of religious ideologies and communal identities, the source of so much contemporary violence. This is as much a sign of his greatness as of the desperation of our times.
An Icon of Indian Cinema Intervenes in the Political Realm
Icons of "religious" as well as spiritual authority are frequently invoked or apostrophized in Indian cinema: they are crystallizations of public and private fantasies. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Muslim social films (comprising an "Islamicate" film genre) presented religious themes without actually representing divine figures: Islam forbids the representation of the divine, especially in human form. The (Hindu) mythological genre is very different, and all the way up until the current period it has reveled in representing images of divine figures as icons that provide some variety of "darshan" to faithful spectators (and in the second film I discuss here, the protagonist literally has a darshan of a spiritual icon). One could trace the development of Hindi-language cinema as well as some other regional cinemas in terms of their serial production of quasi-divine icons, including icons who played some role in actual public sphere institutions, particularly in that they sought political power. One thinks for example of the Telugu actor N.T. Rama Rao (popularly known as NTR), who was the focus of a "one-man mythological industry" because he acted in 42 mythologicals and "became imbued with a god-like status" (Dwyer 51) before founding the Telugu Desam Party in 1982 and later becoming Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister. There were also secular political parties such as the explicitly anti-religious Dravidra Munnettra Party (DMK) that nevertheless enjoyed a kind of deification—and it also contributed two actors who went on to become Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu on the wings of their film-enhanced fame.
The movie icon I want to focus on here is Sanjay Dutt. Dutt comes from a family for whom the religious, the political, and the cinematic worlds were intimately articulated, even if, in the case of his father, the religious element was remarkable primarily for its absence or negation. Sunil Dutt (Sanjay’s father) was "secular to the point of being idealistic, patriotic to the point of being nationalistic and gentle to the point of being fantastic," as one journalistic commentator put it. As a "filmi hero" Sanjay Dutt has been associated recently with the "Munna Bhai" films: impossibly silly films, if seen from one perspective, painfully manipulative in their studied artlessness, full of pratfalls and excruciatingly simple sincerity. But there is no denying that they are successful films. So what is the reason for such films as Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (Rajkumar Hirani, 2003) and its sequel, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Rajkumar Hirani, 2006) now, and why are they so popular? What kind of cultural work do they do on behalf of a particular religious identity or persuasion? I am interested in the Munna Bhai films because while their surface presents a glossy and shimmering patina (the upbeat mood, the simple character types, the tone of the crisis at the heart of each film, the elementary gratifications of low-grade desire, the banal sentimentalism, and the perfectly traditionalist or conservative themes), there is a rough grain beneath: an uncompromising pedagogical imperative to affirm Indian culture’s excellence and virtue. And this affirmation is often expressed in religious imagery. In these films a threatened national identity reasserts itself, and if one looks just beneath the "skin of the film" (to adapt Laura Marks’s evocative phrase), one sees a fascinating case of a parallel between the filmic (spectacular) and actual (non-diegetic, real-world) agendas at play around the figure of the protagonist (Munna Bhai) and the actor who plays him (Sanjay Dutt). At one level, then, the films are anxious and conservative representations of mainstream traditionalism. But this is not the whole story.
Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. is the story of Murli Prasad Sharma (Munna Bhai), a Bombay don (bhai or Tapori) deeply implicated in the crime underworld of the city. His gang is involved in extortionate money-lending and includes the usual cast of characters—the bhai is faithfully served by his lieutenant "Circuit" (Arshad Warsi), and there are various other sidekicks and gangmembers who assist him in his extortionate practices. But this "crime" subplot is really an initial and misleading hook—a part of the spectacle intended to entice the viewer and to demonstrate stylistic or generic variety on the part of the filmmaker. It turns out that all the bluster affected by Munna Bhai is really superficial—a teasingly fraudulent profession of character. Beneath that surface of course is the usual pure innocence of the traditional leading man: the Indian filmi hero speaks his mind, says what he means and means what he says, and always stands by his manly honor, is proud of his national heritage and his inherited cultural (Hindu) traditions. His values are simple, and his manner, speech, comportment and dress are intimately familiar to the man in the street and especially to the man in the village; he is simple to the point of being just shy of a bumpkin. But these are precisely the qualities that make him admirable and attractive to Indians of all genders, classes, ethnicities and social background, not to mention of all ages. His universal appeal owes something to the fact that he embodies the lowest common denominator of Indian culture, yet is also somehow Indian manhood at its purest and most complete. Munna seems comfortable in his skin even when performing the silliest song, or performing acts that would embarrass less self-confident people. The common person can identify with him because he does not belong to any elite—except that he is a successful don, which is read as anti-elite. His parents are upstanding figures in their home village, and as a good village boy, Munna above all is a creature who pays obeisance to the time-honored filial pieties essential to any filmi hero of Bollywood cinema. He seeks his parents’ approval.
We could say then that Munna Bhai’s key theme is "profession": his parents always wanted him to be a doctor, and because he has instead become a don, the film turns round the fact that he has built up an elaborate illusion for his parents by wrongly professing the right profession. He claims he is the head of a successful medical practice at the Sri Hari Prasad Sharma Charitable Hospital (named, naturally, after his father). His parents visit him as the main narrative of the film commences, but that narrative only begins after the film itself makes a false profession, namely offering viewers a false start that seems to promise a gangland film. The visiting parents are initially impressed by Munna’s success and, seeing that he is established professionally, attempt to arrange his personal life by arranging his marriage to another doctor (this time a real one), Dr. Suman ("Chinki"). Her father, Dr. Asthana, is suspicious when he is told by Sri Hari Prasad Sharma that he has a marriageable and successful doctor whose hospital is in the vicinity, with which Dr. Asthana is very familiar. He has never heard of the eligible doctor or his hospital. Dr. Asthana outs Munna Bhai, shaming him before his father for being a professional poseur. False profession—lying—is the ultimate insult, and the father cannot forgive his son for it. Humiliated, he returns to his village. Munna vows to redeem himself with his parents as well as to avenge himself against Dr. Asthana—by actually becoming a doctor. He cheats his way into admission to the very neo-colonial sounding Imperial Institute of Medical Sciences, headed, naturally, by none other than Dr. Asthana, as the dean. Munna is not "a brain" but he is a good-natured doofus (and this makes him more lovable to the average spectator because he is not better than they are). The only way he can succeed in competition with all the other students is by cheating. He is made fun of at the medical college, because he clearly doesn’t have the intellectual chops, nor even pretty-boy good looks.
But he succeeds ultimately at what really matters. Munna Bhai does manage to get the best marks in all the right examinations through his crooked if resourceful ways (no moral stigma seems to stick to him). He establishes his excellence, his true virtue, because his heart is simple and pure. He gives everyone a "magic hug"; like the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he makes the life of all the hospital’s workers and patients better even if they are in extremis. But it is only a profession that is at stake, not the true humanity of the man. Because he proves himself to be a professor of a true humanity, something by the way the professionals allegedly fail to profess or inhabit too often, the audience is willing to forgive him for everything. He wins everybody over to his side because he has a big, goofy heart.
The clincher for me is that Munna Bhai is in several key moments called "a God" by one of the secondary characters in the film, and he is, as the simpleton protagonist, represented as an iconic harbinger of a new order—a radically new way of healing the sick or uplifting those who need it—within the medical school in which he is fraudulently enrolled in order that he can become a doctor. In short, Munna Bhai the simpleton (like an Indian Forrest Gump) is the embodiment of a true, innocent and even naïve—but therefore untrammeled—spirtituality that transcends divisive and violent religious ideology and ultimately offers a true re-ligio, the potential for re-binding communal groups who are at the moment riven within the national polity and at each other’s throats over a host of issues, all inflected with religious ideology. Although he explicitly aligns himself with a profession iconic of the material world, he also professes a true spirituality, which others, especially his lady-love, recognize on the spectator’s behalf and reveal to Munna himself. (You may not be a real Professor, the leading lady tells him in the sequel to the first Munna Bhai film, but I can see that you are the best Professor, a true Professor).
This theme of professing a true spirituality emerges out of a populist critique of inauthentic professions of religion or non-secular practices, and India, like many other countries, is awash in them (astrologers, holy men, heartless doctors, fundamentalists including those fundamentalists who commit violence as a way of professing their religious convictions, etc.).
This latter theme takes on a special salience in the sequel, Lage Raho Munna Bhai directed by Rajkumar Hirani and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Sanjay Dutt stars again as Munna Bhai, the Bombay underworld don, who begins to "see" the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. Many of the actors from the earlier film reappear in parallel roles (mapping some of the parallels is one of the pleasures the film offers as a bone thrown to spectators and fans). Because he is afforded a certain kind of grace—a "darshan" or vision of the Mahatma—Munna Bhai begins to transform his original profession, to profess what he calls "Gandhigiri" (professing Gandhism plus his professional goondagiri, which adds up to Satyagraha, non-violence, and truth). He helps ordinary people solve their problems. His sidekick, Circuit, is portrayed again by Arshad Warsi. This second film is in a way a re-membering of Mahatma Gandhi as an icon—including in a literal, supernatural sense, because a vision of the dhoti-clad Mahatma appears as a supernatural vision to the Munna Bhai, the gangland don, who initially calls Gandhi "Boss" no doubt to hilarious effect among most audiences in India. The joke is milked to its full potential. This remembering is more than a remembrance of something already in the past: it is a dramatic tribute to and a programmatic recuperation of "Bapu’s" ideals as potentially redemptive.
This drama of redemption is set up explicitly when Circuit tells Munna not to worry too much—that when Gandhi sees the sorry state of the country, he will leap back into the history books. By this point everybody in the audience knows that by hook or by crook, and predominantly by the latter, Munna Bhai will be inspired to work this redemption on Gandhi’s behalf, happily proving Circuit wrong. He will do for India what all of its politicians and all of globalization’s touted benefits cannot do—provide an answer to India’s communal "tensions" (to use one of Circuit’s favorite words). After all, one couplet of the hymn that Munna Bhai sings (during which he is joined by Gandhi’s specter) explicitly invokes the names of Hindu gods alongside the name of Allah ("Ishvara Allah tero nam/ Sabko samati de bhagvan") as if to indicate the syncretic and unifying, rather than factional and divisive, subtext of the hymn. Munna Bhai effectively becomes a prosthesis for the Gandhian message of nonviolence "updated" for our time as a fresh and literally iconoclastic lesson: Gandhi ventriloquizes through Munna Bhai that all icons and statues of him should all be taken down, and instead everyone ought to carry an image of him in their hearts—a radical message in a country so given to the worship of spectacular images, whether in temples, in parks or on the silver screen. Of course there is some necessary loss in translation into Munna’s contemporary "Bambaiyya" tongue: a pointedly hybrid, syncretic demotic that comes most easily to this Bombay don who is posing as an academic don (a Professor of History!). Still, every loss in translation here is expected to be recuperated as a gain in a potential transformation.
The psychiatrist, Dr. F. Jussawalla, whom Munna Bhai sees because he begins to feel he might be crazy for professing Gandhigiri, offers a "rationalistic" and psychological diagnosis. He says that what Munna experienced as a visit from the Great Spirit (Mahatma) was just an "imaginary" voice, a hallucination caused by mental fatigue. It would not be surprising if the audience took this to mean that Dr. Jussawalla was full of his own juice, and the truth was that Gandhi had granted Munna Bhai a darshan, just as the gods do in the cinema mythologicals. When Munna Bhai wants to re-call Bapu into presence, he folds his hands in prayer and sings "Raghupati Raghava raja Ram/ Patit pavan Sita Ram"—a hymn universally familiar to Hindus, and a favorite of Gandhi’s. And lo! The Great Soul presences himself. It would appear at first that the audience is invited to witness the mockery of the profession of psychiatry as another quackery, just as it will mock the profession of astrology later on in the film. But the film twists this critique of profession against Munna Bhai himself, and in this moment it reveals itself as a much subtler film than it professes to be, given its patina of silly comedy. In a juicy public demonstration, Dr. Jussawalla shows that, indeed, his profession offers some insight into the peculiar professions of Munna Bhai. Dr. Jussawalla like the earlier film’s Dr. Asthana "outs" Munna Bhai as a fraud professor in a public press conference. For the first time Munna Bhai fails to get an answer to some questions from the Great Soul, even though he summons the vision of Gandhi to his side. In embarrassing Munna Bhai by stumping him with questions so intimate that only a real Gandhi might know, and Munna could not know except through learning the answers through reading, Jussawalla reveals that in fact the visions Munna Bhai has are ultimately "hallucinations" produced by his own brain. Jussawalla demonstrates that what "Gandhi’s" spirit is telling him is, in fact, a projection from his own mind and reading—that it is not Gandhi who is ventriloquizing through Munna Bhai, but the reverse. Gandhi is, properly speaking, Munna Bhai’s fantasy.
But this also means, the film acutely suggests, that after all the wisdom is autochthonous in an important sense: while Munna Bhai’s fantasy is that he is hearing and seeing Gandhi and is mechanically repeating his ideas against his own professional, conscious commonsense, in fact he is projecting and channeling his own wisdom through his fantasy of Gandhi, built as it is—even in the case of professors of history—on the bedrock of reading and scholarship. So we have here the classic contest between the secular and the non-secular, with the latter emerging as the winner, despite its being revealed to be driven by a fantasy: true spirituality to redeem our contemporary world. While the profession of spirituality may have at its core a fantasy, the film seems to be saying, it is nonetheless not inauthentic and may participate in a process of social regeneration and personal redemption.
Is it any wonder that Lage Raho Munna Bhai became and remains the third most commercially successful Indian movie, having earned 699 million Rupees ($17.6 million US) to date. It was praised by the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh because, in his words, the film "captures Bapu’s [Gandhi’s] message about the power of truth and humanism." The film received a number of awards and accolades at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and at the United Nations, the first Hindi film to be shown at that august institution. Dutt was idolized in India as the pure, simple answer to a nation’s prayers, when prayer itself has become almost a professionalized-and-politicized gesture. And this is the central burden of the film: to pose "Gandhigiri" as a renewed response to communal tensions, precisely because the public-sphere professions of political and other persuasions have succeeded only in fanning the flames of communal violence. As I write this (Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2007) the newspaper and radio inform me that several bombs have today exploded in Uttar Pradesh, targeting lawyers—the bombings appear to be reprisals against anti-Muslim protests in this quintessentially Hindu state. The need for something like a non-violent solution to such strife is something everyone would welcome.
But the film also criticizes some Indian traditions, in particular the tradition of consulting astrology and horoscopes before undertaking any major venture, whether professional or personal. Inspired by the spirit of the fantasized Gandhi into something more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, Munna Bhai challenges some of the popular political shibboleths, such as the notion of "progress" as represented by the slogan of "India Shining" that is on so many hoardings in Bombay as well as the professionalization, politicization—and commodification—of religious observances, rituals, and practices such as prayer and astrology. Munna gives voice to a populist critique that if India is really shining, then it is not shining on everybody: he points out that there is not enough water for the ordinary citizen; that the electricity grid in the country is inadequate; that the transport infrastructure in the country is woefully lacking; that the railways are badly run; that the health care system is disorganized and underfunded; that bureaucracy throttles true progress; that politicians are corrupt and do not serve the electorate—and that the popular favorite, astrology, is taken too seriously by the public. He announces during a "lecture" he is invited to give that, were Gandhi here today, he would have thought that India had gained its freedom but lost its people. But the film also addresses some issues that properly belong to the private sphere, and the lessons here are as a rule traditionalist: it encourages the spectator to remember that love is not just for the young; it makes an example of a Westernized, yuppified professional for not valuing and respecting his elderly father; and it teaches that in one’s personal life one should tread the path of truth (the core of Satyagraha). Some of these lessons are delivered in an "Oprah-on-the-radio" call-in talk show. In a fit of realism, the film suggests that these private lessons are almost as hard for simple people to learn as the difficult lessons of political harmony. And all of this is delivered in a feel-good, family-movie package. So we ought to recognize that Munna Bhai, despite his spectacularly goofy self-presentation, should not be dismissed as professing a simple narrative on the opposition between the religious and the secular, or offering a simple religious reprise of the figure of Gandhi for a godless age.
The funny thing is, Sanjay Dutt the man is no Gandhi. He is not an intellectual or deep thinker. He has a famously short temper and seems given to precisely the opposite of the quintessential Gandhian virtue: non-violence. In 1993 he was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for participation in the "serial bomb blasts" case in Bombay. He was charged with possessing an AK-56 assault rifle during that year’s riots (in which Muslims and Hindus were pitched in fighting against each other in the Bombay streets). He was suspected of "terrorism"—and in particular of a plot to blow up the stock exchange, but many saw him as incapable of conceiving such a complicated plot. Dutt was sentenced to a six year term in jail. However, the court eventually acquitted him under TADA. Many fans celebrated his release. The sympathy meted out to him upon his arrest and on his release on bail, writes Vir Sanghvi, was due to the perception in the public that he had already suffered much: "He had lost his mother in tragic circumstances, had overcome a severe drug addiction problem, had seen his marriage break up and had suffered during the Bombay riots. His father had offered to resign from the Lok Sabha because of the government’s inability to control the riots. And his family had been threatened by assorted Hindu communalist organisations." But there was also the fact that there was a lot of goodwill towards his father, the equally iconic Sunil Dutt, who married the actress Nargis who played "Mother India" in the iconic film of that name. This brings us back to my main point here about Dutt’s status within the nexus of the public sphere and the culture industry: Dutt became the icon hallowed by the sense that in some way he carried in his person an almost magical power to transcend through his feckless naivete and innocence the kind of charged situation of communal tension that had conspired against him.
While I have argued that the Munna Bhai films constitute examples of popular art form that commute—though not in a simple way—between the religious and the secular, or are a third kind of public fantasy, I have also tried to re-present them in terms of their linkage-with-and-difference-from the BJP’s explicitly ideological citation of a religious (Hindu) tradition. The BJP’s "citation" of tradition is profession and politics, commodification and communalism. While the BJP rather unapologetically exploited opportunities offered by the culture industry, such as the telecast of the Ramayan to reconstruct a golden age past for a Hindu nation-state—an exclusivist and pedagogical program that abetted the oppression of minorities such as the Muslims—the Munna Bhai films destabilize the profession of religion, and the professionally religious practitioners and commodifiers, such as astrologers and horoscope makers. Instead of a simple and reactionary defense of Hindu traditions, and while their sympathies are viscerally populist and by no means elite intellectual sympathies, the Munna Bhai films also interrogate some of these traditions, extending the interrogation to challenge institutionalized religion by posing a true, non-sectarian spiritualism as an alternative to help heal some of the wounds of secular society. The BJP made the very program of exclusive Hindutva an anaphoric pedagogy of re-creating the past in order to promise a more essentially Hindu future for the nation. The Munna Bhai films do attempt to offer alternative constructions of India’s traditions. But in this case what is recuperated is a truly spiritual re-construction or re-translation through the demotic tongue of Munna Bhai of a Gandhian tradition that was once at the core of India’s struggle to redefine itself in opposition to a colonialist construction of India. Still, the Munna Bhai films present themselves as unideological—their political naivete intended to be one of their chief attractions. Only the viewing public will decide whether these attractions can translate into any actual social transformations in the precisely (and tautologically) "secular" world of the public sphere.
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