When gods could take a joke on screen

With every case of “hurt sentiments”, works of popular art that can resonate across decades become a little less likely to emerge.

Veeru really was an outlaw. Not only did he run afoul of the law and almost make good a prison break, he had the temerity to impersonate a figure no less than Lord Shiva, and all for the profane purpose of wooing the woman who was to become his paramour. Here’s what he did, across theatres in the country, in one of the most celebrated stories in Indian cinema: Besotted by Basanti, Veeru impersonated Bhole Nath. He spoke through a makeshift loudspeaker to a pious tangewali, interrupting her prayers to instruct her in the voice of god to wed him. All this took place in a temple, with the denim-clad man hiding behind the statue, while the sanskari young woman is duped.

Sholay released in theatres on August 15, 1975, less than two months after Emergency was declared. It continues to be watched and re-watched on television and OTT platforms. There was little, if any, objection to the joke at Shiva’s expense. Yet, were it to be released in Uttar Pradesh today, there appears to be legal precedent to hold its makers guilty of hurting religious sentiments.

On February 25, a single-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court rejected a plea for anticipatory bail by Aparna Purohit, the India content chief for Amazon Prime Video. Purohit has been booked in 10 FIRs across the country for hurting religious sentiments as a part of the team that cleared Tandav, the political drama starring Saif Ali Khan and Dimple Kapadia that appears to have raised the ire of many.

For the court, the show’s title itself is objectionable: “The use of the word ‘Tandav’ as the name of the movie can be offensive to the majority of the people of this country since this word is associated with a particular act assigned to Lord Shiva who is considered to be creator, conservator and destroyer of the mankind all together.” Then on March 3, Amazon Prime Video, a subsidiary of one of the richest, most powerful companies in the world offered an unconditional apology — likely in the hope of escaping further judicial and politically-backed ire. And while the apology may help producers in their legal battle, a little bit more of the freedom that makes the small joys of popular art possible has been lost.

It is possible, of course, to consider the Sholay scene a poor defence of the right to free speech of the makers of Tandav. After all, Dharmendra’s scene was a comic one, and was taken in the good humour in which it was intended. It was not a challenge to god; it did not denigrate Shiva’s divine judgement and morality.

Cut to Vijay, also in theatres in 1975. His soliloquy, too, takes place in a Shiva temple, against a background score rousing enough to invoke the true tandav. Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Deewar was the quintessence of the Angry Young Man, one who expressed frustration at an unjust system. Vijay found success in a life of crime but never validation. For the latter, he needed the approval of his “Ma” (Nirupa Roy). It is when this mother is dying that Vijay goes to a temple and both mocks and pleads with god. He begins with a sarcasm that the guardians of fanatical piety would not be able to stomach today: “Khush toh tum bahut hoge aaj…” He attacks Shiva, asking him why he makes a woman who has worshipped him selflessly suffer so much. He is in a battle of egos with he who sits atop Kailash, one he loses only out of filial love — which, when you really think about the moral universe of the subcontinent, is no loss at all. And, if the hypersensitive needed a further excuse to be retroactively offended, the only talisman that held hope for Vijay was his badge from when he was a dock worker, bearing the number 786 — “Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim”.

To be fair to the Allahabad HC, it is not just offended on behalf of Shiva. The order takes particular umbrage at a scene from Tandav in which a college play uses many gods of the Hindu pantheon, satirically, to highlight the corruptions, hypocrisies and injustices of politics in India: “The scenes in dispute are likely to cause disturbance and threats to public order. The reference to Hindu gods and goddesses in the scenes in dispute in berating light cannot be justified.”

Unfortunately — or perhaps thankfully — the court doesn’t seem to be aware of arguably the funniest 12-odd minutes of Indian cinema. In the “Mahabharat scene” in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1984), Om Puri, while impersonating an actor playing Duryodhan, says in a thick dilli Punjabi accent to one of the Pandavas, “Tu kaise Draupadi ko le jayega… hum sab shareholder hai!” Draupadi, through a series of hijinks, is the corpse of a corrupt government official called D’Mello. Heroes, gods and even Emperor Akbar make an appearance. In Old India, it seems, figures both divine and historical could take a joke.

Sholay, Deewar and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro were accessible films. Two were mainstream blockbusters, the third, a cult classic. What made them popular was not that people were divorced from their gods, or “deracinated” secularists. Rather, our gods lived with us, an inextricable part of our culture and reflection of our humanity, which was expressed in art.

Tandav is not a great work of visual fiction and certainly not in the league of the films mentioned here. But with every case of “hurt sentiments” and “unconditional apology”, works of popular art that can resonate across decades become a little less likely to emerge as creative freedom is replaced by fear.

P.S.: In the off chance that someone wants to sue the makers of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the film was produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India. Believe it or not, there was a time when the government actually paid for irreverence.

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