When reel life merges with real life...

The Millennium World Peace Summit held this week in New York has sought to reiterate the basic aim of religion: To evolve continuously a better way of life. Among other things it also implied rejection of violence as an acceptable instrument of resolving issues -- both moral and material. This is precisely what was put in sharp focus by Indian cinema in 1999, particularly some of the outstanding National Award-winning films.

Indian cinema has always reflected what has been uppermost in the people's mind. The Vohra Commission which established the politicians-bureaucrats-criminals axis came long after Indian cinema had pursued the subject vigorously for almost a decade. Raj Kapoor's generation would remember Socialism, and efforts to persuade people to accept a new age wherein old moulds would have to give way to new ones. Therefore, it was not a matter of mere coincidence that Cinema-1999 turned its spotlights on what at the most has been only a sub-theme in our films. It was a conscious decision by film-makers to examine more closely the sudden spurt in religion-generated violence.

Tension among communities pursuing different religious beliefs had always existed. It often erupted into violence for localised reasons. The flashpoint could be provided, for instance, by an accidental inter-community marriage between a runaway couple, a land dispute, or even a regular yearly event like a religious procession. However, recently even Hindu-Muslim riots ceased to have chain-effects. Then why this sudden interest of Indian cinema in a sensitive subject which has very deep social ramifications? The answer lay in the fact that during the past few years the target of low-level religious violence all over the country was the Christian community which constituted one of the smallest minorities and had been at best of terms with other communities in the country since 1947. What invoked interest was that it did not seem a localised affair but the result of a design. It was orchestrated by a section of extremists and fundamentalists to achieve their religious ends. They accused Christian missionaries of inveigling unsuspecting Hindus into Christian faith through less than acceptable means. The secular politicians were quick to see the connection between the rise of Ms. Sonia Gandhi in politics and the rise of violence against Christians.

But most film-makers were not interested in the genesis of this violence. They expressed concern over the price we have had to pay in terms of human life and, most of all the damage done to the country's democratic fabric. The most sensitive visual document produced on the subject was ``Uttara'', directed by Buddhadev Dasgupta. Ostensibly it was based on the burning of an Australian priest in Orissa.

Uttara, a simple yet sensitive girl, comes to live with her husband, a gateman at a railway crossing in Bengal. The setting is a piece of India's pastoral paradise. In long shots it transmits an overpowering sense of loneliness and an exquisite extravaganza of light and colours, all miraculously held together by undulating landscape. Under its deceptive peace lie human tensions but nothing that the rhythm of life could not contain -- that is, until a metallic creature, impelling malevolent vibrations, comes rattling on the road, drowning the sound of crickets, call of birds and distant intriguing sounds of tribal singers. The jeep disgorges its contents -- a knifer, an arsonist and a plain sadistic killer who is also a rapist.

They are the mailed fists of extremist elements, waiting for a signal. When it arrives, they douse the village pastor with kerosene before putting him to flame. His adopted son is saved by the tribal dancers, singing about the glory of human soul and of things that could eat it away. The only witness to this horror, Uttara, runs from pillar to post seeking help and ultimately her predators catch up with her. She is brutally raped and killed. As you watch the proceedings, you diminish in your eyes by the minute, until the dwarf, the only one who would try to rescue Uttara, begins to look like a giant. ``Dwarfs have dreams'' would be his famous last words, ``they do not kill and destroy like tall men.''

``Sarfarosh'', the blockbuster of 1999, makes a strong case against waging an undeclared low-key war in the name of religion. Terrorism ultimately is a self-defeating activity. The most notable factor was the frankness with which Hindu and Muslim characters turn the spotlight on the grey areas of their relationship. The mutual suspicions, hitherto unstated, come out rolling loud and clear, almost like molten lava, the residual lack of faith deeply embedded in their souls.

Two other films -- ``Kachchey Dhage'' and ``Zakhm'' -- moved on similar lines. In ``Zakhm'', an active religious fanatic discovers to his horror that he is the flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood of a Muslim woman who falls victim to communal riots started by him and his leader to serve their political ends. In ``Kachchey Dhaage'', a Hindu city slicker goes to rural Rajasthan to meet his father who is on his death-bed and finds himself saddled with a step-brother who happens to be a Muslim.

``Shaheed-a-Mohabbat'', which won the National Award for the Best Punjabi film, was based on a real life story of a Sikh who rescued a Muslim girl from certain death at the hands of the religious fanatics in 1947. He married her with her consent and had two children before Partition caught up with them. The Sikh's relatives who had an eye on his landed property, informed the police. The mother of two was ``rescued'' and repatriated to Pakistan where her family lived. The Sikh husband went to Pakistan and fought a losing battle in a court. When he died there, even the most orthodox of the Pakistanis had to recognise the sacrifice he had made for the woman thrown into his arms by love and torn asunder by religion. They buried him and called him ``Martyr Of Love''. Even today, once every year, men and women hold a gathering (Urs) there to pay him their homage.

More recently, ``Refugee'' told us what politics of religion can do to members of the same community. It reflected the sad plight of Mohajirs (refugees) left in Bangladesh who had declared themselves Pakistanis. Pakistan, which fancies itself as defender of the faith, refuses to repatriate their co-religionists who are now living the life of penury without citizenship rights. Indian films thus have recently told us that peaceful religious coexistence is no more a matter of choice but an unassailable verdict of our history and geography. How contemporary can you get?

VIJETA (Shiela and other Delhi theatres): Bollywood beware! Hollywood is learning Hindi fast. ``Vijeta'' (``Gladiator'') today, ``Mission Impossible'' tomorrow. Our ``Vijeta'' will make a film like ``Sholay'' look like a nursery rhyme. ``Quo Vadis'' and ``Spartacus'' already look like Roman holidays. And to think that these films were once considered epitome of unacceptable violence!

What is worse is that our Indian audiences despite our famous Italian bahu may not be able to get under the skin of Roman General Maximus. So they might miss the engrossing debate between Maximus, the democrat, and Emperor Commodus, the warlord, and be content with gory details of the thunderous spectacle magnified to almost nth degree through computer imagery. Our Baba Log of Bollywood may not even remember in their enthusiasm that Rome was not built in a day. So they might try to make their own ``Vijeta'' in just half a day which will probably end up with Hrithik Roshan eating the lions in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, our version of ancient Roman Colosseum. Meanwhile, if you do not mind a few decapitated heads, a few thousand dead bodies, a few close- ups of shining blades going through human bodies as if they were butter slabs, do go and see ``Vijeta''. Khoob mazaa aayega!

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