Bollywood’s Saffron-clad Sadhus Are Scheming Criminals Who Deserve Violent Ends

In Bollywood, Sadhu is not an ascetic who has renounced worldly attachments to attain moksha by practices guided by his guru. Onscreen, he is a scheming, lusty, political mastermind in cahoots with the tilak-dhaari antagonist. 

In the 50s

This misrepresentation of this spiritual sect began early in independent India. In a 1954 film called Nagin, Rajinder Krishan penned this gem of a song where a Sadhu sings “Kashi Dekhi, Mathura Dekhi.” This piece is set at a waterfall where the so-called Sadhu watches the heroine bathe and dress.

Watch a clip below:

Hameed Butt had written the screenplay for this film. The film was a blockbuster and the highest-grossing film of the year. It also established the career of Vyjayanthimala in Bollywood.

In the 60s 

Bhagwati Charan Verma’s novel Chitralekha was adapted onscreen for the second time (after 1941). The theme of the story is that being judgemental is futile. Yet, it has a song where the lead heroine, who plays a dancer, questions a Sadhu’s relinquishment of earthly pleasures (wine and women) and mocks his religious practices. The song goes “Sansaar se Bhaag Phirte ho Bhagwan ko Tum Kya Paoge.” You can still find this song on YouTube.

Progressive Writers’ Association member Sahir Ludhianvi, chased away by the Pakistani regime in 1949 for his controversial poem Avaaz-e-Adam promoting Communism, was this song’s lyricist. Although treated kindly in India, Ludianvi couldn’t contain his dislike for Hindu faith in his poems. 

He was so offended by the 1954 hit ‘Kitna Badal Gaya Insan’ that he wrote the Hinduphobic’ Kitna Badal Gaya Bhagwan’. He was one of the first writers to promote direct hate on ‘Bhagwan’ in Bollywood songs.

Take a look at these two tweets by Gems of Bollywood:

Unlike the previous version of Chitralekha, the 1964 film did not do well at the box office, and critics blamed the poor screenwriting and incorrect casting. Hritik Roshan’s paternal grandfather Roshan Lal Nagrath composed the music for this Sadhu-mocking gem.

By the end of this decade, Urdu PWA writers like Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri were ruling the roost in Bollywood. They normalised the Pakistan-loving, Hinduphobic narrative that plagues the industry to this date.

The 70s

Many movies from this decade show that Sadhus were viewed with deep distrust by the A-listers in Bollywood. By this time, there was only one way to portray a Sadhu onscreen. He would be a man with a long beard, clad in saffron robes, lusting after women and committing frauds.

For instance, check out this scene in Victoria no. 203 (1972). The film is a heist comedy starring Saira Banu, Navin Nischol, and Ranjeet. Writer Ehsan Rizvi deliberately inserted the fraud-lusty-Sadhu narrative out of context in this gem. Check out the lyrics of this song tweeted by Gems of Bollywood:

“Just like Ram is in the heart of Hanuman, you are in the mehfil of my heart. If you have doubt, burn the Lanka in your heart.”

There was also a film named Sanyasi that came out in 1975 starring Manoj Kumar, Hema Malini, Pran and Prem Chopra. Take a look at a scene from this film:

The narrative is that Sadhus are conning imposters who store alcohol in their kamandal instead of holy water. This insinuation has resulted in well-known actors like Paresh Rawal distributing alcohol as Ganga Jal onscreen in Oh My God produced by him and Akshay Kumar. 

Needless to add, Bollywood’s leftist writers positioned their vilification of holy men from only one religion. Even though a large number of men from the priestly class in Islamic and Christian society have been found to be paedophiles, this has seldom been the subject of any film. On the other hand, films have inserted special sequences to establish them as the best caretakers of children.

It isn’t as if the government did anything to check this slander of Hindu Sadhus. Check out this gem from Maha Chor (1976), starring Rajesh Khanna and Neetu Singh, that came out in the middle of the Emergency era. The Congress government had censored press freedom and exercised heavy control over mass media messages but had no qualms in promoting the narrative that spiritual people in Hinduism were lusty frauds.

Rajesh Khanna wasn’t the only A-lister who promoted such gems. Check out this scene below from Suhaag (1979), starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Shashi Kapoor and Amjad Khan.

What a clever way to make the viewer think – Muh me Ram, bagal mein chhuri when they see a Sadhu next.

Sunil Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha starred in a film called Jaani Dushman that came out in the same year as Suhaag. Writers of this film wanted their audience to abuse and thrash saffron-clad Sadhus, it seems.

The protagonist was no longer the baffoon dressed like a Sadhu, monkeying around the heroine. Now, he bashed up the saffron-clad baba and threatened him with dire consequences.

The 80s

The vilification of the holy man in saffron robes intensified in the 80s. Even the elderly supporting characters onscreen would warn the audience against seeking guidance from Sadhus. Watch this scene from Naram Garam (1981) starring Dina Pathak and Utpal Dutt (both staunch Communists in real life):

Bollywood went to cringeworthy lengths to portray sadhus as despicable villains who don’t deserve the righteous hero’s mercy. Take a look at these two gems from a film called ‘Zakhmi Sher’ (1984):

The hatred for the Sadhu was no longer subtle. Bollywood wanted the cine-goers to believe that it was justified to kill the saffron-clad man, even if he were your father.

Also, we didn’t miss the propaganda that a sadhu is only interested in looting people, even if he chants by the name of his Bhagwan. Con-artists in 80s films often dressed as Sadhus to commit a crime:

The 90s

Bollywood films of the 90s continued to build on the narrative passed down by their predecessors. Men with long beards abandoning earthly pleasures and searching for divinity deserved violent ends, and it was only if they belonged to Sanatan Dharma. 

If they belonged to any other faith, they were the all-knowing miracle men worthy of reverence and devotion. Check out this scene below from Sapnon ka Mandir (1991), starring Jeetendra and Jaya Prada:

After subjecting the Dharmic holy men to teasing, mockery, and explicit violence, it was time to attack anyone remotely associated with them. 

Here is a scene from the forgettable China Gate (1998) :

The 2000s

Sadhus of the 2000s were sinister criminals who were in cahoots with the evil politician to cause riots in the city. They were the meat-eating alcoholics who didn’t mind the company of women now and then. It was no longer possible for the masses to connect the term ‘Sadhu’ with a character who had renounced worldly attachments in search of divinity.

In Ek Aur Ek Gyarah (2003), Govinda and Sanjay Dutt play con-artists who rob rich men posing as Sadhus. No one protested or called out this religious misrepresentation because Bollywood’s audience had been well-trained to accept insults toward Hinduism as “comedy” by this time.

Comedy wasn’t the only genre employed for this defamation. Here is a scene from Sarkaar (2005) in which Shankar Nagre (Abhishek Bachchan) enters pooja-sthal wearing his shoes and interrupts a Sadhu’s pooja because, as Bollywood taught us, Hindu Godmen are criminals pretending to be saints.

And since Bollywood writers consistently worked so hard to discredit Sadhus over decades, most of us didn’t even squirm when Sankat City (2009) came up with this gem:

As Gems of Bollywood rightly asks, can they enact the same scene showing a peer, fakir or maulvi?

The 2010s

Hinduphobia under the garb of comedy became the new norm in Bollywood. Writers saw humour as a clever tool to justify their propaganda. 

It was also the decade when Aamir Khan took the lead in projecting blatant Hinduphobia onscreen, especially with PK (2014):

Bollywood celebrities who popularise Hindu hatred have a common excuse to cover their agenda – “We aren’t criticising religion, we are only attacking those who commit frauds under the garb of Hinduism.” 

That is a whole lot of codswallop because these self-nominated “intellectuals” are the ones creating these fictional characters. Their religious reform movement never covers any Abrahamic faith, especially their own. And since they mask all this tripe with slapstick humour, just about anyone from their brigade can portray Hinduism as they like and get away with it.

This scene from Bank Chor (2017) proves our point further:

On top of such gems, Bollywood wallahs blame the Hindu society for creating “darr ka mahaul” in the country.

The 2020s

Bollywood continues to attack communities who remain steadfastly Hindus to this date. It tells the audience that it is better to follow preachers from other faiths than believe in Sadhus. Check out this scene below from Akshay Kumar’s so-called comedy Laxmii (2020), where saffron-clad Hindu sadhus are fraud (opening scene of film), but Peer Baba is Allah ka Banda. He is not only big in size but also in powers and every ghost is scared of him.

Spewing venom against devout Hindus also seems like a promising formula to revive careers in the industry. Bobby Deol tried his luck with Aashram (2020 – 2022), in which he plays a saffron-clad preacher who rapes women. Several tweets by Gems of Bollywood call out problematic religious agenda in this anti-Hindu drama series. One of them is as follows:

Even the ruling government seems convinced that mocking Sadhus on television is a worthy concept for edutainment. Take a look at this animated clip on DD National:

There is an adage that what one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace. This saying holds especially true among the audience of India’s most famous film industry, whose Hinduphobic mass media messages have gone unchecked for decades. As a result, cine-goers can now only shift uncomfortably in their seats when their favourite actors tell them their religion is only worthy of contempt. 

Could this Sadhu-hating narrative have contributed to the lynching of Palghar Sadhus in any way? Is the normalisation of that narrative why only a few people spoke up about it? We think so.

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I watch how Bollywood engages with and represents Hindu society. A non-Marxist film critic writing in English.

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