Ashram-Bajrang Dal controversy: Why many film industry insiders choose self-preservation

Bobby Deol, Prakash Jha on the sets of Ashram. (Photo Credits: Instagram/@itsprakashjha)Bobby Deol, Prakash Jha on the sets of Ashram. (Photo Credits: Instagram/@itsprakashjha)

What is an attack on someone’s faith? This question is difficult to answer because faith does not exist in a tangible form like a person or thing. If someone says that their trust has been attacked, there is nothing one can do to refute that claim. Faith can build up a reservoir of inner strength to face life’s difficulties but it can also turn beliefs into dogmas. When this happens, the faith loses its restorative ability. It becomes something to defend and fight for.

Filmmaker Prakash Jha and actor Bobby Deol are at the receiving end of Bajrang Dal’s wrath. Bajrang Dal activists claim that Ashram 3 – the web series on which Jha and Deol are working – is an attack on Hinduism. According to news reports, Bajrang Dal workers have used this justification to vandalize the sets, darken Jha’s face and beat up the crew members. They are looking for Deol. The series is about a Hindu religious preacher who is also a thief.

Interestingly, the Producers Guild of India’s official statement condemns “brutal acts of violence, harassment and vandalism”, describing the incident as a law and order problem that disrupts economic activity. It says nothing about an attack on freedom of speech and expression. It acknowledges that “it is not an isolated incident” but that there is no connection between “impunity” and an easy weapon of hurting religious sentiments.

“Material production contributes significantly to local economies, creates jobs and promotes tourism, which is why authorities in India and around the world formulate policies to attract producers to their respective regions,” the statement said. Huh.” The Guild has called for strict action against the perpetrators and asked for guarantees of safety for production units, but also cautiously refrained from mentioning the need to protect creative freedom.

The kind of criticism I’m making here is easy when one’s own life and resources are not on the line. It must be tough for producers, distributors, exhibitors, filmmakers and actors to compete with Bajrang Dal as they may fear being targeted in a similar fashion when their films are being shot or released in cinema halls that are about to open. Huh. Faith, in any case, is a sensitive issue, so many film industry insiders choose self-preservation.

The attack on the sets of Jha’s Ashram 3 is reminiscent of the attack by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018). The army, named after Goddess Karni Mata, claimed that the film was distorting Rajput history. He assaulted Bhansali, and threatened to cut off actor Deepika Padukone’s nose for playing the role of Rajput queen. Abbas Ali Zafar’s web series Tandav (2021) was in trouble when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders demanded a ban on it for mocking Lord Shiva and hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.

Penguin India has just released TJ Joseph’s book A Thousand Cuts – translated from Malayalam to English by Nandakumar – the real-life story of a Christian college professor in Kerala, whose hands are Islamic. The organization was cut by the Popular Front of India. Why? Well, a question which he had covered in an exam paper in 2010 was seen as a deliberate attempt to defame Prophet Muhammad, Allah and Islam.

Why do these incidents keep happening? While a mix of politics and religion may be the easiest culprits, perhaps we also need to look at why our feelings are so easily hurt. Doesn’t faith mean giving us the courage to face all kinds of adversity? If someone says something about our beliefs that is disrespectful to us, can we express our hurt in a way that doesn’t add to the damage that has already happened? How can we make our faith firm?

Thinking about these questions, I go back to the words of the 8th century Indian philosopher Shantideva for inspiration. He was a Buddhist monk and scholar at Nalanda University. In his famous text Bodhicharyavatara (A Guide to the Path of Life of a Bodhisattva) – translated from Sanskrit into English by Raji Ramanan – he says:

“All those who tell me bad things

or do me some other harm,

And those who ridicule and insult me

Have the privilege of being fully awake.”

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