Oh, for the love of god! 

The makers of Adipurush (an upcoming Hindi-Telugu adaptation of Ramayana) might have accepted the criticism of the VFX in its original trailer to be warranted and as being fair game.
A still from the upcoming Indian epic Hindu mythological film, 'Adipurush.' (Photo | Prabhas Instagram)
A still from the upcoming Indian epic Hindu mythological film, 'Adipurush.' (Photo | Prabhas Instagram)

Rather paradoxically, now seems both like the best and worst times to make films on Hindu mythology. On the one hand, the renewed interest in telling the tales of our land means that there’s a ready audience for such stories (as seen in the popularity of myth fiction as well)—and social media goodwill to boot, provided the makers play their cards right. And yet, filmmakers have to walk a tightrope in this new world that places impossible, often irrational, expectations on art and artists.

The makers of Adipurush (an upcoming Hindi-Telugu adaptation of Ramayana) might have accepted the criticism of the VFX in its original trailer to be warranted and as being fair game. When they addressed some of the issues and released a new trailer with a background score punctuated by high-pitched choral screams of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, they might have been forgiven for thinking that only effusive love would pour forth from then on. In a recent twist befitting social media, though, actor Kriti Sanon—who plays Sita in the film—was judged as an inappropriate fit for the character for having played ‘glamorous’ roles in the past. Most well-meaning responses questioned the double standards by sharing some old film clips in which Prabhas (playing Rama in Adipurush) plays characters who don’t necessarily act in gentlemanly ways. Thankfully, these responses didn’t result in Prabhas being denounced for playing Ram.

Can you imagine if self-anointed defenders of purity also unleashed their irrational wrath on male actors? Akshay Kumar, who plays God in the upcoming sequel, OMG 2, would be an easy target, given some of his roles in the past. What if these guardians of morality and art went back in time to criticise other actors who have played God? Amitabh Bachchan played God 15 years ago in God Tussi Great Ho; Sanjay Dutt played Lord Yama in Vah! Life Ho Toh Aisi!—and that’s a bad god to get on the wrong side of. The examples across Indian cinema are far too many. Yet, this burden of purity, perhaps in keeping with the functioning of Indian society in general, is placed on only women actors.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, this indictment of heroines who play deities has some precedence. Many years ago, Nayanthara, who played Sita in the Telugu film, Sri Rama Rajyam (2011), was also deemed an inappropriate casting choice for reasons that had nothing to do with cinema and everything to do with her personal choices. This film, incidentally, went on to do incredibly well, receiving, it would appear, the kind of blessings some believers didn’t think were possible. 

The same actor played a goddess in Mookuthi Amman three years ago, and a stray voice or two on social media raised some opposition, which wasn’t attractively incendiary enough to garner any momentum. Thank God for that. When questions are raised about the character of heroines who play gods, perhaps the best response, even if well-intended, isn’t to ask why similar exacting standards don’t apply to heroes. This ends up almost as validation of the original criticism. The best straightforward response would be to demand the separation of art from the private, unproblematic choices of the artist.

So powerful is the pressure of ‘good behaviour’ on those working on devotional films that the cast and crew often advertise choices not necessarily connected to the making of the film. Heroines working on deity films have often spoken proudly about abstaining from non-vegetarian food during the shooting. We have had filmmakers talk about entire sets eating ‘pure’ food and thinking’ pure thoughts’ while making such films. A good thought experiment would be to consider the ridiculousness of those playing evil roles—say Saif Ali Khan playing Raavana—trying to emulate behaviour befitting their character in their life. Somehow, we can spot the ludicrousness and isolate a performance for public consumption from the performer’s private life.

Better questions can be asked when making such adaptations, not aimed at protecting God but at creating a better society for us humans. One easy question would be, why are beautiful women from our myths always portrayed in our films as being fair to a fault? While there may be room for debate over Sita’s descriptions, what about our depictions of Draupadi, clearly described as a dark-complexioned, beautiful woman? Another useful question could concern the rudimentary notions of good and bad such adaptations proffer—especially when these go on to fuel real biases.

While Tamil films like Raavan and Kaala have turned the conventional white-vs-black, good-vs-evil narrative of Ramayana on its head to great value, why does the larger, national interpretation still feel rather monochromatic? What must the objective of such adaptations be anyway? Should it be to inspire propaganda and fuel single-minded devotion… or should it be to foster a greater understanding and tolerance for humanity in general? So long as simple questions are asked and simple problems raised, our cinema shall continue giving us simple answers.


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