When a ‘pop-godman’ played himself

Cinema in India has been about hero worship and the hero of The Messenger of God, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, is not new to being worshipped…

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2015 12:14 am IST

On December 29, when the makers of The Messenger of God ( MSG ), a film whose trailer had gone viral through social networks with 2.6 million hits in just over a month, applied for a censor Board certificate, they had little idea of how the film was going to trigger a chain of events eventually leading to a realigned Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

After viewing and re-viewing the film (the revising committee too found it objectionable), the CBFC, on January 13, refused certification for the film for violating guidelines 2 (xii), 2(xiii), 2 (xvii) and 6 of the Cinematograph Act. The Board said, “The overall impact of the film is likely to provoke, conflict and hurt the religious sentiments. The title of the film is misleading.”

Hakikat Entertainment, the producer of the film, managed to get the film cleared by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal in an unprecedented 24 hours with two “minor” suggestions, Director Jeetu Arora says. One was that the makers carry a disclaimer at the start and end of the film that it was completely fictional and had no resemblance to characters living or dead (in spite of its lead, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, playing a eulogised version of himself, Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan) and an audio cut of one of the Baba’s followers calling him God.

While it can be argued that the Cinematograph Act, 1952, is archaic, the film is anti-scientific by genre. So is every devotional film, many mythology-based TV shows and every superhero film that has been made, cleared by the censor Board and released in India. God, as a fictional character, is allowed to perform miracles but not a pop-godman playing him in the film because “it becomes an advertisement for himself,” as a censor Board official described the objection.

In this case, the censors were playing it safe given precedents of violent protests caused by his blasphemous positioning. Mr. Singh once wore a dastar like Guru Gobind Singh for an advertisement triggering protests and even attacks on his life. “People give me things to wear; I wear them to make them happy. I didn’t know it was a similar dastar . I have apologised many times,” 47-year-old Mr. Singh explained in Hindi when asked about it at a recent press conference in Mumbai.

And then there are the slew of criminal charges and pending cases (accusing him of castrating 400 cult members, sexual abuse of women and even murder) against the controversial godman who has denied all charges and blamed the liquor and drug mafia for attempting to wrongfully frame him.

Cinema in India has been about hero worship and the hero of MSG , Gurmeet Ram Rahim, is not new to hero-worship.

“I am just a Fakir,” says the singer-composer who has organised 107 rock concerts over the last three years, sporting a bling-infested black T-shirt that says USA. He designs these T-shirts himself and he has also designed every motorcycle and car that appears in the film. He has been shooting for the film since mid-2014 in between these concerts and Satsangs at his organisation Dera Sacha Sauda in Sirsa, Haryana.

Despite being cleared by the Appellate Tribunal, the makers of MSG have not decided on a release date because the Dera has an upcoming Satsang on January 25. “Around two-and-a-half crore people will head to Sirsa for it, so we won’t be releasing it on Republic Day,” the actor-fakir reveals.

In the film, Mr. Singh plays himself or “Pitaji,” as his followers call him. “We had 13 lakh people as extras in the film, with almost two lakh people for a single shot. I don’t think any Bollywood film can do that and for free,” says his co-director, Jeetu Arora.

Asked how he managed to get the film cleared by the Appellate Tribunal in 24 hours, Gurmeet Ram Rahim says the court did it in consideration of the film’s release on January 16 and the high stakes involved for the producers. “The court can do these things,” he says.

The controversy surrounding the Appellate Tribunal’s prompt clearance, followed by the resignation of CBFC members, led the Punjab government to ban the film officially. Intelligence reports from both Central and State agencies suggested that the film would lead to law and order problems.

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