Abhishek Kapoor’s latest film Kedarnath starring Sara Ali Khan and Sushant Singh Rajput is Devdutt Pattanaik-esque in its essence. Just like the mythologist’s work, this film also seems to celebrate the apparently ‘innate’ ability of Hinduism to promote syncretism and invokes the memory of a puritan past of the golden age of Hinduism.
It is ironic that in the song ‘Namo Namo Shankara’ sung and composed by Amit Trivedi, there is a phrase ‘Adi Dev Shankara,’ which is a reference to Shiva, the deity. But Adi Shankara was also Adi Shankaracharya – a Hindu philosopher of the 8th century. In an article titled ‘How Adi Shankaracharya united a fragmented land,’ Pattanaik, talking about Adi Shankaracharya’s non-dualist maxim: jagat mithya, brahma satyam (the world is an illusion, only Brahma is the truth), opines, “This doctrine of reducing the world to mere illusion, popularly known as maya-vada, enabled Shankara to do something remarkable: unite a land with diverse communities and diverse, seemingly irreconcilable, worldviews – from the Buddhists, the Mimansakas (old Vedic householders) and the Vedantins (the later Vedic hermits), to the Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas…”
Commenting on the same teaching of Adi Shankaracharya, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, in the concluding paragraph of Riddle No. 22 in ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ writes, “…What is more ridiculous is the teaching of the Great Shankaracharya. For it was this Shankaracharya who taught that there is Brahma and this Brahma is real and that it pervades all and at the same time upheld all the inequities of the Brahmanic society.”
The politics of Kedarnath is, exactly what Dr. Ambedkar was suggesting decades ago, to propose a brand of all-pervasive, benevolent Hinduism. The film would like its imagined audience to celebrate the secular fabric of our nation. But the one question that needs to be asked is, who is dictating the terms of such a fabric?
While watching the film and the representation of the Muslim community in it, one cannot help but ponder the dynamics of the public versus the private domain in Hindi cinema.
The private domain of the self-sacrificial Muslim characters in Hindi cinema always remains a mystery to the audience. Remember the symbolic last shot of Kabir Khan in Chak De! India, where he just shuts the door? Or Rizwan only navigating public spaces like airports and bus stops in My Name is Khan?
In Kedarnath, while Mukku’s Hindu wedding is given sufficient amount of screentime, the Muslim wedding of Mansoor’s best friend is hardly shown (Mukku is played by Sara Ali Khan and Mansoor by Sushant Singh Rajput). On the contrary, a song is thrown in to show the brewing romance between the leads. This lack of interest in the private domain of the Muslim community adds to the mystery around the community which leads to gross stereotyping of Muslims on screen. Why I argue Bollywood is Islamophobic is precisely because of this.
The othering of the Muslim community happens on a regular basis in Hindi films. Bollywood uses this trope of making a Hindu actor play a Muslim role and vice-versa to promote itself as a secular industry. In films, where you see a ‘bad’ Muslim, a ‘good’ Muslim character is introduced to balance things out. This fear of offending the Muslim community arises out of the years of stereotyping and sidelining the Hindi film industry itself has indulged in.
In the film, Mansoor almost begs to be accepted as a part of Kedarnath by flagging the historicity of his community’s contribution to the place and how ‘they’ have always been there. In Kedarnath, the chants of Shiva are normalised but the namaz has to be an isolated, underwhelming affair.
In one scene, Mansoor prays to Shiva so India wins the cricket match while an awestruck Mukku looks on, part surprised and part shocked. Here, Shiva becomes a post-Hinduism symbolic representation of faith accessible to people of all religions. There is an effort of subsumption that is at play here with regard to Shiva. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that in this Kedarnath where a Muslim man prays to Shiva for India’s victory in a cricket match, Allah can never enjoy the same status as Shiva as the former is relegated to being the inaccessible supreme while the latter is freed of that trapping and thus becomes a spiritual symbol.
In retrospect, this idea of the Muslim ‘outsider’ begging to be a part of the mosaic of the dominant order (the nation-state) has been a leitmotif in most films involving Muslim characters.
Why Kedarnath is important is because it is symptomatic of a larger effort by a section of the academicians and historians to glorify the past of Hinduism (which apparently is inclusive) and pits it against the more evident, aggressive historical interpretation by the BJP and other right-wing parties. But one must not miss a point here.
This effort is a crude one to validate Hinduism by dint of construction of a ‘glorious past’ which was free of all contemporary evils. This effort is a further step in the ongoing process of marginalisation of the Dalits and Muslims of this country by pitting two different interpretations of Hinduism against each other.
This should be read as a larger strategy adopted by the two leading parties – the Congress and the BJP to strengthen the binary of national politics and further silence the voices of the marginalised. Not only the parties, almost all so-called ‘national’ news channels and newspapers are also guilty in this effort to contain categories.
The nature of coverage of recent results of five assembly elections that were declared a few days back is illustrative of what I am talking about. It’s high time we understood that the political spectrum of our country is not limited to just the Congress, BJP or the Left. What is noticeable is that the Brahmin leaders of many parties have jumped into this bandwagon of proving the sanctity of ‘true Hinduism.’
No wonder the Mamata Banerjee-led-TMC is suddenly organising post-immersion rallies after Kali Puja in West Bengal. In her speeches, she has started differentiating her party’s ‘brand of Hinduism’ from that of the BJP. And no wonder Rahul Gandhi feels the need to invoke his benevolence as a Kashmiri Brahmin.
In cinema as well as in politics, there is a trend to make a Hindu ‘normal,’ which is to suggest that this ‘normal’ Hindu isn’t Islamophobic or casteist. This trend has dangerous implications for the politics of our times as once again, marginalised identities are being appropriated under the broader rubric of Hindu majoritarian order.