That Bollywood has a penchant for mocking Hindu gods openly in films is quite well-known, thanks to Gems of Bollywood.
One such film is Suhaagan, released in 1986, featuring Jeetendra, Sridevi and Raj Babbar in a fatal love triangle. It was a remake of a Tamil film but re-written for Bollywood by Afghan-born Kader Khan, the son of a maulvi. After reading the review, you would understand why we emphasise on Khan’s background.
Janki (Sridevi), a girl who loves reading books and has no interest in household chores that village life entails, meets her match in Murli (Raj Babbar), a zamindar’s grandson with a large library in a big house.
While they are dating, Murli chides Janki for reading stories from Sanskrit texts about Prabhu Ram, Maa Sita, Raja Harishchandra and Nal-Damyanti. He says these stories reduce readers into “mitti ka Madhav” (literal meaning is ‘idol of Lord Krishna’, but popular usage is for calling a person ‘imbecile’) and paint a sorry picture of women.
Watch the scene:
Janki is married off against her wishes to a simple and hardworking farmer named Ramu (Jeetendra) by her father, who is the village’s mukhia or head. Murli is distraught and begins drinking his life away.
Within a year of marriage, Janki gives birth to a baby girl. The wailing baby makes her hate her life even more. She runs away with Murli to the city. Guilt-ridden, she is unable to continue her relations with Murli and returns to the village, where she lives as a pariah ostracized by the villagers. Murli commits suicide.
Suhaagan is a clear allegory for the Ramayana. The film is not shy about this, as the opening credits play over paintings of scenes from the epic, the two protagonists are Ramu and Janki, referring to Prabhu Ram and Maa Sita.
As Janki steps out of her husband’s home, running away with another man and abandoning her husband and child, the frame flashes with a painting of Maa Sita stepping beyond the Lakshman Rekha. Ramu also believes Janki to be chaste after she returns to the village after living with another man, just as Lord Ram did despite the suspicions of his subjects.
While imitating the superficial plot of the Ramayana, the film heavily distorts the essence of its characters and what they represent. Bhagwan Ram, an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, the perfect man of dharma, is an unimpressive simpleton Ramu, who is also abusive and threatens to beat his wife many times.
Maa Sita, the ideal daughter, ideal wife and mother, who adhered to her values despite unimaginable circumstances, is Janki, a woman who abandons her husband and newborn child. Maa Sita’s abduction is portrayed as a voluntary escape with another man, which, to an alert eye, seems to be an intentional distortion of a story beloved by millions of Indians by one who does not hold a reverence for it.
Curiously, the Ravana analogue in this film is named Murli, an epithet of Lord Krishna. Based on the accuracy of the other two protagonist’s names, this does not seem like a random choice.
Murli is playful and humorous, a perfectly lovable character at first, until it is revealed he has a room full of pictures of Janki taken without her permission. Later Murli tries to justify eloping with another man’s wife.
If that was not enough of an insult to Lord Krishna, the film goes on to spit directly on his idol through a side character named Leela Kishan, played by Shakti Kapoor.
The lewd character proclaims in his first scene that he will use his name ‘to perform Krishna-Leela with the village girls.’ Calling himself Krishna, he attempts to rape a girl. It must be noted that Shakti Kapoor is reportedly a partaker in the casting couch practice of Bollywood.
In a scene, Ramu beats Leela Kishan, but he fails to learn his lesson, and the next time, appears in a Lord Krishna outfit, complete with blue body paint. He attempts to rape another girl accompanied by his ‘Narada’, until he is given an ultimatum by the mukhia to get married or leave the village.
Watch this compilation of Leela Kishan’s antics here:
Would Kader Khan have styled a character with references from his own faith? For example, show the practice of being allowed to rape ‘Ma Malakat Aimanukum’, or ‘what your right hand possesses’ – a law that supposedly allows men to have sex with infidel women? Or, maybe, show the lewd character and some of his friends playing ‘taharrush’ or group sexual assault, a supposed pastime for men in the Islamic world during which they surround a woman and sexually assault her?
The practice has been documented in Egypt and has more recently been imported to Sweden and Germany by North African migrants.
Shakti Kapoor’s character also provides the final motivation to Janki, alone at night in the forest, to escape the bounds of marriage by looking back into our holy scriptures. He gives her the example of the goddess Tara, who ran away with Chandra, the moon god. He gives the example of Ahilya, who was reverted to human by Rama after she was turned to stone by Gautama Maharishi for her unknowing infidelity with Lord Indra. Finally, he gives the example of Draupadi, who was married to five men.
Of course, Bollywood has failed to show that Brahaspati fought a war to get his wife back, and the gods rallied behind him. Ahilya’s story is a false analogy, as she was tricked by Indra and never had any relations with Lord Ram. Even though a little unconventional, Draupadi’s marriage is an example of the Pandavas’ unshaken adherence to every word of their mother. There is also a story of Draupadi asking Lord Shiva for a husband with five qualities in a past life. The epic itself features strong criticisms towards such a marriage.
The film also shows that Janki doesn’t immediately flee when found alone in the forest by Shakti Kapoor.
Providing a selective view of these stories from the Hindu tradition without the necessary context leaves the unlearned audience with the impression that the culture promotes infidelity and promiscuity.
Years later, Leela’s son is caught spying on bathing women, an apparent reference to stories of Lord Krishna stealing the clothes of gopis. Leela couldn’t be prouder of his son.
Liberals would argue that this allegory is not directed towards Lord Krishna but only towards people dressing up as Lord Krishna. This loophole is a common ruse used by Bollywood filmmakers to get away with openly mocking Hindu gods. Dress up a character as a God of a religion they don’t follow, but write them as dimwits who get humiliated to deflect any criticism.
Hindus have become so accustomed to seeing their gods ridiculed on screen that now it hardly evokes any reaction from the vast majority. Why permit any excuse for such a vile portrayal of a sacred Avatar (as a rapist) when even drawing an image of the God or Prophet of Islam is deemed worthy of beheading?
Those who do not see a more profound significance will only see Lord Krishna as a philandering trickster and Draupadi as a characterless woman.
Adil Chishti of Ajmer Dargah’s Chishti family recently mocked Lord Narasimha and Lord Hanuman, calling them ‘illogical’. The discovery of a shivling-like structure at the bottom of a well in the Gyanvapi mosque inspired thousands of unoriginal jokes referring to it as a phallus. But since insults to the Hindu faith do not result in ‘sar tan se juda’, they are perpetuated endlessly.
Ramu, Janki and Murli are ultimately portrayed as victims of an anachronistic Hindu tradition and ritual system. The recurring theme is undermining the Hindu ritual, which is shown only to bind people and lead to disaster.
Kader Khan’s character comments on the “so-called” sanctity of marriage as Ramu and Janki make the seven rounds. Mukhya, ashamed of his daughter who eloped with another man, performs the final rites of his daughter, who is as good as dead to him, and Khan’s character calls him ‘mad’. Finally, Ramu, his daughter and Janki’s sister are forced to leave the village after performing the final rites of Janki, even after she was declared an orphan by her father.
The film is a remake of a Tamil movie, Enkeyo Ketta Kural, in which the outright mockery of Hindu gods and traditions is absent. What inspired the additions to the Bollywood version? The story has enough drama and tension without the recurring theme of disparaging a specific practice. Sources of comic relief need not denigrate Avatars revered by millions. All this can be achieved with little effort and originality – but that is something perhaps outside Bollywood’s capacity.
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