In a country as steeped in religiosity as ours, topics like god and religion unfortunately end up being more taboo than they should be. We seal our lips and pretend that some of the most vital aspects of our life (gods, religions, and the various rituals we take part in on a daily basis) simply do not exist. Knowingly or unknowingly, we all seem to stand by an unspoken social contract — that we must not talk about god and religion. Contrast this with the extremely healthy tradition of self-criticism inherent in Hinduism and various other Indic traditions, and you come away with a picture that is truly sad — a very religious population that flinches at the very mention of religion in public.
This problem affects our urban folks more than it affects those who live in our villages. Outside of the intellectual circles whose primary occupation it is to wax eloquent about how badly India needs to be liberated from various ‘social evils’ (all of which are inevitably traced back to Hindu culture, history, and society), one finds almost no conversations happening on religion and related topics.
This is why one watched the new Paresh Rawal starrer Oh My God with much interest. Having heard the Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh the previous day using India’s many temples to make a point about public hygiene, the movie’s central theme — the role of religion in society — seemed even more timely.
Movies like OMG mark a welcome change in the Indian cinema scene. where once storytellers dared go no further than the tried and tested young love formula, now we have matters of social relevance making their way into the public consciousness through popular entertainment. Having said that, efforts such as this also do end up oversimplifying and confusing matters to a large extent.
A pleasant realisation that struck me as I watched OMG was the comfort with which a predominantly Hindu audience appreciated the movie. Cinematic presentations much less critical than this have brought about blasphemy-powered riots in various countries in recent times. In a country as largely Hindu as India, very little mention is made of this in-built spirit of self-critical humility among the people. Instead, what people of the world’s most pluralist society get are sanctimonious lectures teaching us ‘tolerance’ and ‘secularism’.
I think the very fact that a movie as potentially controversial as OMG could be conceived, get made, and be telecast all over the country to appreciative audiences, speaks volumes about how comfortable Indians are with respect to matters related to religion. India and Indians have, for ages, been in the middle of an ongoing religious discourse. A discourse that has excluded no philosophy — not even atheism, a philosophy that often finds itself at odds with religion in the West.
It is therefore a little unfortunate that in the popular mind, India’s relationship with religion is seen as being something it is not — destructive. Even the movie in question Oh My God falls prey to this very trap by portraying its central character as being on the run after he goes to court against god. The other common tendency the makers of OMG fell prey to was what fellow writer Rajeev Srinivasan took offence to in Jairam Ramesh’s comment on temples. It is amusing to see the characters make token references to Islam and Christianity in their tirade against religion, but it is only too evident that the full force of their atheist protagonist’s anger is directed at the many gods that Hindus worship and the ways in which they do so.
The idea of god, as it is understood in this country is not something beyond reproach or criticism. India’s pluralist society rests on the foundation of an age old tradition of critical self-examination. This is where all religions are respected, and all religions are criticised, all the time.