I must begin with a disclaimer. I have not watched Adipurush, the much-hyped multilingual retelling of India’s favourite epic, Ramayana, directed by Om Raut, starring Prabhas and Kriti Sanon, with dialogues by lyricist and self-appointed hindutva spokesperson Manoj ‘Muntashhir’ Shukla. I have seen the trailer. And I have seen audience review videos, tracked social media posts and followed the debate, and the controversy around the film that has included protests by hindutva groups and petitions in the Allahabad, and Punjab and Haryana high courts by right-wing activists demanding a ban on the film. Both as an actor and as a social media user, I have been used to trolling, abuse and negative commentary on my work by the right-wing social media ecosystem (often by those who haven’t seen it), but I watched and read the controversy around Adipurush with bemusement.
From watching the trailer, and the marketing of the film, it was clear that the makers of Adipurush were trying hard to cash in on the general hindutva sentiment that is rampant in India today. The trailer, which described Sita/ Janaki as Bharat ki Beti (India’s daughter), and showed her being abducted by the evil one, who must be reminded of the paurush (masculinity) of Ram’s army, which will vanquish the arrogant enemy by the victorious Bhagwaa Dhwaj (saffron flag) to the thumping anthem of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, incorporated all qualities that the hindutva ideology identifies itself with. Raut, who also wrote and directed Tanhaji, an Islamophobic and grossly inaccurate fiction film marketed as a historical in 2015, credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the promotions for Adipurush, claiming that Modi created a conducive atmosphere and gave power to the film fraternity to make the films they want. The credits of the film thank all nine chief ministers of BJP-ruled states.
However, the day the film released, social media was abuzz with angry comments from viewers feeling affronted, having discovered that the film took too many creative liberties. The main complaints were that the dialogues were not Sanskritised enough; there was an overuse of Urdu; Hanuman and Ravan’s dialogues were crass; Ravan was depicted to resemble Alaudin Khilji; Hanuman wore his beard like a Tablighi Jamaat member; Lanka, known to be made of gold, was shown as being charcoal black; Ravan’s pushpak vimaan was replaced by a large carnivorous bat; Ravan, a scholar and devotee of Lord Shiva, was feeding raw meat to his pet; and the action sequences looked like they belonged to Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings or the Marvel metaverse.
In a bizarre turn of events the very sentiments that the filmmakers wanted to profit from, seemed to have been affronted. Even the sly move to depict Ravan like a medieval Muslim ruler seemed to have backfired. The right-wing ecosystem on social media joined in to troll the writer and director, who till the day before were poster boys of hindutva. A bench of the Allahabad High Court lambasted the filmmakers for hurting the sentiments of a tolerant community (Hindus).
While the irony is too delicious to ignore, one wonders if this moment is a satire on what culture, common sense and public discourse will look like in the Hindu Rashtra. Is this what it feels like to live in a nation of perennially hurt sentiments? Is there a moment of self-realisation hidden somewhere for Hindus who are affronted by how Ram and Ravan are depicted but who stir not when the very name of our Lord Ram is used as a war cry to bully Muslims, by the very people now protesting this film?
Did a Bollywood propaganda film attempting to slyly incorporate widespread political discourse, and use people’s devotion, belief and sacred nostalgia to rake in box office profits, inadvertently just show the mirror to a nation where idiocy and hypocrisy reign supreme?
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.