Last Friday, three states — Punjab, Haryana and Delhi — were held to ransom by self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan’s disciples, who demanded their guru be not convicted in a rape case by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court. The orgy of violence unleashed by them in different parts of Haryana and the salacious details of Singh’s dera have been described in great detail by the media, so I shall abstain. With courts on Monday sentencing him to 20 years in prison, justice seems to have finally caught up with Singh, who also starred in — and also directed, wrote, edited and gave music to — two blatant propaganda films, MSG: The Messenger and MSG 2: The Messenger.
Religion has played a significant part in Indian cinema, starting from the very first full-length feature, Raja Harishchandra (1913) to Aamir Khan-starrer PK (2015). One might argue that popular Hindi cinema, too, has had a significant influence on religion: Take the example of Jai Santoshi Ma. The low-budget mythological, devotional film was one of the biggest hits of 1975 — the same year Sholay was released. It also provided fuel to the cult of the “new”, relatively unknown goddess, which has now become a pan-India phenomenon. But self-styled godmen, of whom we have never had any paucity in this country, have fared not too well on the silver screen.
The opening scene of Satyajit Ray’s Mahapurush — adapted from Parashuram’s (Rajshekhar Basu’s pen name) Birinchi-Baba — might be uncannily familiar to any audience today. As the Birinchi Baba of the title distributes prasad to his devotees, gathered to see him off at a station, he holds to hostage the departure of the train he is on. Even the station master is his devotee, and waits till his signal — and a piece of prasad — before showing the green flag to the waiting train. The scene is similar to the images of police officers saluting Gurmeet Singh before arresting him, or even worse, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living hosting a festival on the Yamuna flood plains in Delhi and destroying it in brazen disregard of authorities and with obvious political patronage. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a guest at the event.
The Baba in Ray’s film — played by the grossly underrated Charuprakash Ghosh — has no problem in finding new victims, either. In the train itself, he meets advocate Gurupada Mitter, who has been deeply depressed since the death of his wife. The Baba and his unnamed assistant (Rabi Ghosh in yet another brilliant cameo), set up base in Mitter’s house, and start delivering evening sermons, where he claims to have engaged Shankaracharya, Christ and Plato in philosophical discussions, eaten hippopotamus roasts, and taught Albert Einstein all about the Theory of Relativity. But, his pincer grip on the hapless family brings him to conflict with Mitter’s younger daughter Nilima’s (Geetali Roy) paramour Satya (Satindra Bhattacharya) and his friends.
With great economy, Ray’s opening shot of the scene in which we meet Nibaran, Paramartha and Nitai — the gang that eventually unmasks Birinchi Baba — shows a chess board. It is Sunday morning (the Sunday Statesman is on the centre table) and Nibaran, a professor of philosophy, and Paramartha, an insurance agent, are playing a game of chess. Both chess and The Statesman would figure in Ray’s later films — Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) and Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) as different metaphors — but here both represent reason; “intellectual pursuits”, as a miffed Paramartha reminds Nitai and Satya. Games figure significantly in Ray’s films — the memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri; the tongue twisters in Sakha Proshaka, 1990. In another scene, Paramartha is seen playing a game of patience alone.
Their games, however, are harmless, unlike the games and lies of Birinchi Baba, aimed at fooling and cheating the naive. One of his many performances is moving his right and left forefingers in opposite directions, denoting the movement of time into past and future. After a few attempts, Nibaran, too, masters it — and the audience is made aware that the Baba’s tenure at the Mitter household is limited. Ray would continue his attack on such false gurus in his two Feluda films — Sonar Kella (1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (1979). In the latter, Machchli Baba, who gives his devotees fish scales with his blessings, turns out to be an associate of the arch-villain and smuggler Maganlal Meghraj (Utpal Dutt). The villains in Sonal Kella — Amiyanath Burman and Mandar Bose — had set up a practice like Franz Mesmer (or Birinchi Baba and his assistant) before being busted by parapsychologist Dr Hemanga Hajra.
For Ray, perhaps the last Bengali Renaissance man, godmen were — like his film —black and white. A more colourful representation is in Dev Anand-starrer Guide, which was also his production house Navketan’s first colour venture. It was on Pearl S Buck’s suggestion that Anand read R K Narayan’s eponymous novel and convinced the writer to sell him the right. (Narayan was not too happy with the adaptation; in The Misguded Guide, he wrote, in characteristic humour, that the superstar had promised him the sky but by the time the film was released the sky had come so low that one could poke it with one’s umbrella.) Anand’s character, Raju, is not a swami, till denizens of a village he has wandered into mistakenly take him to be one. The title of the film is, of course, a double entendre — Raju is actually a guide in real life, but also turns into a spiritual guide. His 12-day fast to make it rain in the drought-afflicted village is ritual self-purification. The ending of the book is more ambiguous: it’s unclear if Raju’s fast leads to the rain or if it happens naturally.
Both Guide and Mahapurush were, incidentally, released in 1965. To my mind, they were responses, albeit of very different kinds, to the phenomenon of hippies flooding into the country, escaping conscription for the Vietnam War, and in search of easily available drugs and religiosity. The hippies were following the trail of American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who had spent nearly two years in the country, in the early sixties; by the end of the decade, the Beatles would set up camp in the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, another self-styled religious guru.
The ridiculous extent to which these orientalist fantasies were stretched have been well documented by Geeta Mehta in Karma Cola: “The kings of rock and roll abdicated. To Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi... Mao had lost out to Maya. The revolution was dead... So we tagged along with the Americans one more time. Not because of right thought, right speech, right action. But because of the rhythm section. ...Everyone suspected that whatever America wanted, America got. Why not Nirvana?” This Nirvana Rush was brilliantly depicted — glamorised and lampooned at the same time — in Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971).
But it was not all sex, drugs and rock and roll with the religious gurus and their organisations. In 1975, former Union minister L N Mishra was killed in a bomb explosion at the Samastipur station; three members of West Bengal-based Anand Marga were accused in the case. (They were finally convicted in 2014.) The group has also been implicated in the Purulia arms drop case and in the Sydney Hilton bombing of 1978. In 1984, a senior member of “sex guru” Rajneesh’s cult was accused and convicted in a food poisoning conspiracy in The Dalles, Oregon, the US. While Rajneesh (later popular as Osho) was never convicted, the popularity of his cult in the US took a major hit after this.
In India, the most popular religious leader was perhaps Sathya Sai Baba, whose brand value managed to survive almost every attack: “from charges of homosexuality, a cover-up of murders in the ashram, exposes of his magic tricks, not to speak of the fabulous wealth controlled by his trust”, writes Sheela Reddy (“God On A Phone Line”, Outlook, 9 May 2011). How his magic tricks were exposed is recalled by Vir Sanghvi: “the magician P C Sorcar Jr was refused entry into Sai Baba’s presence. He went under a false name and when the Baba miraculously produced a sandesh, Sorcar returned the compliment by miraculously producing a rasgulla. The Baba began shouting and Sorcar was physically evicted from the ashram.” (“Truth about Sathya Sai Baba”, Hindustan Times, 26 November 2006)
Godmen-busting magicians and rationalists were the inspiration for Goga, Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Prakash Mehra’s Jaadugar (1989). The spark of Bachchan-Mehra collaborations — Zanjeer (1972), Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), Laawaris (1981), Namak Halaal (1982) and Sharaabi (1984) — is missing from this one, their last film together. It’s patchy at best and did not do too well at the box office. The only striking thing about it is Goga, a drunkard and skirt-chaser, who has enough cunning to unmask and dethrone Amrish Puri’s trick-performing Mahaguru. This is not a film I would recommend. However, with one Baba in jail, and a few others facing rape charges, one would not mind a maverick magician vanishing these “miracle workers”.