Many fear the demise of Indian culture and see modernization and westernization as the villains. Religion is a very important part of Indian society, and therefore a film such as Mohalla Assi, a satire on religion, based in Varanasi is sure to be difficult to digest for many!
“…in the name of modern we can’t barter our country. We can’t sell our culture”, Nihalani says, but commercialization of Indian culture for tourism is taking place all over the country. Mohalla Assi isn’t a far-fetched depiction of Varanasi, where religion and spirituality has been turned into a huge business. The idea of Varanasi as a playground for pot-smoking hippies looking for spiritual enlightenment is common among foreigners and Indians alike.
People use obscenities all the time everywhere, and a character in the film explains, “Arre har har Mahadev ke saath b*sd**e ka naara toh Kashi ka sarvajanik abhinandan hai bhaiyaa”. However, when this fact of life is shown in films, self-appointed defenders of Indian culture such as Nihalani object to it- such is the hypocrisy in the country. Many will have a problem with Mohalla Assi and it will be seen as insulting the society and culture, but one would find it difficult to argue that the film is unrealistic.
As artists muster the courage to push the envelope, it also becomes important to ensure a safe space for them and their work. Violence by Right-wing groups against anything deemed to be anti-national such as the attack by ABVP against FTII students over the screening of Anand Pathwardhan’s Jai Bheem Comrade is a serious concern. As the Charlie Hebdo incident and the killing of atheists in Bangladesh indicate, speaking up against religion is not taken lightly. With the recent clashes between art and religion, censorship and freedom of expression have become important topics.
Art is supposed to hold up a mirror to our society. Satire challenges the dominant ideas and forces us to reflect while inciting humour, teaching us not to take ourselves too seriously. This film along with others such as PK and OMG with their seeming irreverence for religion and culture comes as an attempt to take religion down from its high pedestal and open it up to candid discussions.