Messages of unity
Cinema could be an effective tool to spread religious tolerance in today's communally charged India.
I don't know about you but I feel sick to my stomach witnessing the increasing divide between Hindus and Muslims today. This gut-wrenching, uneasy feeling consumes me every day as news steadily trickles in through the day of incidents of hate taking place across the country. Did these incidents happen earlier as well? Have they increased of late? Introspection is definitely required at all levels but as of now, all I know is that, hate is governing us while slyly threatening to destabilise the Indian social fabric.
So rancorous is the environment that even moderates and rationalists seem to be taking sides. Debate and discussion on everything is welcome and is a mark of an evolved race. It's a rare privilege to be able to air your opinions fearlessly and without favour. But at present it's not banter and repartee or academic thought that surrounds us; now there are lines being drawn between the two communities, and often these lines are not invisible.
Growing up in Calcutta (it was still Calcutta then) though I don't remember these demarcations. Despite studying in one of the oldest Christian schools in the country, we were an inclusive bunch belonging to different religions. Biryani was as welcome as 'kebabs', 'jhaal frezi' and 'kosha maangsho' to our eager tummies. Festivals were just another holiday giving us an excuse to buy new clothes from New Market or rejoice with 'meethi sewai' during Eid or rum-soaked plum cake during Christmas. Once inside school premises, my Muslim classmates would shed their 'salwars', 'dupattas' and 'burqas' and stand in line for morning assembly where they would join Hindus and Christians in singing praises to a pagan God. Their purdah never came in the way of my short skirts and vice versa.
But as Bob Dylan sang, "the times they are a-changin". Everything around us is forcing us to look at each other as 'us' versus 'them'. Our politicians spit venom and divide us further. Social media and Whatsapp groups revel in sharing communally flammable content that is leading to riots and skirmishes. Mainstream media too is irresponsibly adding further fuel to fire. The majority is being made to feel robbed of years of development and social control lost to Muslim appeasement. And arguments for and against are fast moving away from the realms of rationality to the justification of lynching and mob justice. Instead of messages of communal harmony, we are fenced in by hatred.
In this clime of hatred, I chanced upon an old Hindi film playing on the telly --- 'Amar Akbar Anthony', that memorable 1970s masala flick based on three brothers who were separated by chance in their childhood only to be brought up as a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian respectively. The film espousing religious tolerance gained cult status and was later made into 'Shankar Salim Simon' (Tamil), 'Ram Robert Rahim (Telegu)' and 'John Jaffer Janardhanan' (Malayalam). In 1977, after the Emergency was lifted, Manmohan Desai was finally able to release this film after a two-year delay. I strongly believe that there's a strong case to showcase similar communal camaraderie today.
Art reflects life and true to the adage, today's Hindi films have other issues to throw light upon rather than spread tales of brotherhood. I speak only of Hindi films here in order to take advantage of the widespread appeal that the genre proffers. Bollywood films such as 'Veer-Zaara', 'Gadar', 'Ek Tha Tiger' and most recently 'Ishaqzaade' and 'Raanjhanaa', have portrayed interfaith love within the country and across the border. Even these films have petered out in the last couple of years. The only glimmer of hope being last year's 'A Billion Colour Story' produced by Satish Kaushik that has avowed international audiences with its heartwarming plot.
In the words of English poet William Wordsworth, the artist is essentially "a man speaking to men". He holds the mirror to society showing its foibles and gently nudging it towards the right path. If only our filmmakers and actors, instead of holding a well-guarded silence, showed us the true meaning and relevance of brotherhood and unity through their craft, then this most powerful medium of cinema could become an effective tool once again to propound religious tolerance; something that we seem to have forgotten. Our movies can break the stereotypes of the hardline Hindu and the Muslim terrorist.
This may seem like a simplistic solution to a more deep-seated and complex problem. But every drop makes an ocean and, without hope and idealism what do we have? The secular fabric of a multicultural and diverse nation must be protected by all of us. We can ill-afford to leave it to the wily politician and his machinations.
(The author is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)