by Deeksha Sivakumar
A recent controversy with Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam elicited a lot of rage from Indian Muslim organizations.
These groups felt that the movie portrayed Muslims in poor light, depicting them as “all terrorists.” Several cited one particular scene, where the Al-Qaeda members are shown reading the Qur’an, as cause for disapproval. They also refuted the use of the name “O/Umar” for the name of the protagonist’s uncle claiming, “Umar bin-al-Khattab is the name of the second Khalifa in Islam, a revered figure, and the terrorist’s name should be changed.” The current issue certainly raises several questions regarding religious authorship and the limits of film/art.
Vishwaroopam is not alone in this debate. The Indian Christian Democratic Party filed a complaint against Mani Ratnam’s movie Kadal claiming it offended Christian sentiments. Akin to these debates artists and painters, like M.F.Husain for example, have faced charges for depicting Hindu gods and goddess in “lewd” or nude” poses. Just a decade ago Shiv Sainiks were seen burning a movie theater for the screening of Deepa Mehta’s Fire, all because they believed homosexuality was alien to Hindu culture. The enemy is always depicted as evil demons, the others not us. Those who stereotype a religious group also threaten its self expression.
Religious authorship has been a contested terrain and this particular event brings to light the inherent threat posed by visual media upon real life culture. As Philip Tite posted earlier this week, religion itself is a commodity traded in the marketplace. In movies, art, and theater it is inherently unclear where the boundaries of sacred and entertainment lie. For centuries artists and theorists have debated the true purpose of art, while visual culture has flourished, simultaneously raising and negotiating the boundaries of parody with reality. Even South Park Studios and other such animated features often face charges for offending anything and everyone from celebrities to religions.
These occurrences, however, were not foreign to Classical Sanskrit scholars and were pivotal concerns in the 2nd Century. Last week in class I encountered the NatyaShastra, “The Science of Drama”(Music/Theater/Dance). Who gets to portray whom, and what are the limits for artistic expression, were two unresolved questions the text posed. In the very first chapter, the text says that it is created as the fifth Veda, for all men and women and accessible to all castes and regions. Moreover, the text proclaims that performance is akin to worship and is fundamentally sacred to the gods. In the first play performed in the text, the gods perform a plot familiar to all in its time and place, the Devas (gods) vanquishing the Asuras (demons) who are always depicted as their evil counterparts.
Challenging the democratic core of its inception, the Asuras were angry at how they were portrayed. Fueled by their demonic portrayal the Asuras incite other Danavas (“trouble makers”) coercing a response against this play. The Danavas and Asuras freeze the actors on stage, preventing “the speech, action, and memory of the dancers,” resisting the enactment of a performance that depicted one community in a poor light while glorifying the Devas. Indra (God of the gods) rushed forth with a staff and crushed the limbs of all the Asuras and Danavas, restoring peace to the stage once more. An unsettling end to a well deserved critique the text fails to resolve the issue of dissent. If infact the NatyaShastra was created for all, why must one group bear the brunt of a negative portrayal?
At the very end of the text, we see that the issue resurfaces in a new light. According to the text, after the creation of drama and its proliferation across Bharatavarsha (Indian sub-continent), drama is seen to devolve into a corrupt practice very far from its assumed sacred core. In a chapter called ‘The Descent of Drama’, Brahmin sages come to see a play that they are completely offended by ordering the performance to a halt. They ask, “is it proper to caricature us like this! Why are you insulting us?” The offended sages go a step further than the Danavas and Asuras and curse all the performers and all their lineages to be the lowest caste, Shudras.
Instead of a resolution, the text resorts to its sacred core and says, a properly performed drama is a compromise to the incurred curse. The text suggests, if performed correctly with the proper implements and rituals, a play could prove pleasurable to all and benefit from boons and merits from the gods.
The text seems to suggest that there are two fundamental elements to this conundrum. On the one hand, every successful drama portrays an other against which it reigns supreme–for Rama it was Ravana and for the Hobbits it was the Dark Lord Sauron. On the other hand, power operates in our world in interesting ways always positing one group subordinate to the other, such as the moral against the immoral or the fundamentalists against free. The intersecting trajectories of these two elements is where the core issue lies. For Vishwaroopam, the Al-Qaeda sleeper agent proved a worthy counterpart to the female Indian-American oncologist. It presented a positive and negative character built upon the ideological position of the fundamentalist against the free. It played into post 9/11 American discourse, probably a conscious act by the producers and directors.
So where does this leave the Muslim viewers of Vishwaroopam or the Shiv Sainiks who wish to portray homosexuality as a corruption of their true Hinduism? Also, how are we to distinguish malevolent stereotyping from well-deserved critique and good-hearted humor? While every community floats between the role of Asura and Deva, who, like the sages, get to have the ultimate say?
Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. Her subordinate interests include ritual performance, healing, materiality, and femininity. She is also excited to see what digital technologies can do for the Humanities and the study of ethnography. She has been an energetic TA and presented several lectures on Hindu deities, ritual practices and the Indian diaspora.