Trial by fire

Maverick: Ram’s Agni Pariksha
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Aug 21, 2007

Is Ram Gopal Verma doing a Rushdie? Should we see the film Ramgopal Verma Ki Aag, a remake of Sholay, as analogous to Salman’s Satanic Verses? Are they not both about interpretation or re-invention?

I have never regarded Sholay as a cult film. It merely packaged the tried-and-tested with aplomb. Caricatures were camouflaged as characters. It was the triumph of hype. Verma may end up doing a Spiderman, as he said; he has to say something to justify a “tribute”. Purists, however, don’t like it. This is amusing. For, pop culture is only dignifying pop culture. What Andy Warhol did to Marilyn Monroe is considered hugely flattering.

Whether it is satire or black humour, there is the egotistical belief that the mindless millions must be given some cud to chew on while they are petting their holy cows. Which is where sweet justice steps in for it is the so-called moronic masses who cannot understand the nuances that are the first to pronounce a verdict. They don’t have time to indulge indulgences.

In a strange twist, those who want to do away with holy cows become the holy cows themselves. Salman Rushdie blasphemes religion and cultural liberals rush to uphold his freedom to express himself. Campaigns are organised to garner support for what they insist is an attempt to not let minds turn mouldy. Years before the Mumbai underworld and Uttar Pradesh hinterlands had become chic enough to have Macbeth and Othello transposed on them, some cultural czars had got pretty uptight when stylistic changes were made to the Bard in a theatre production. Today, in his own country young students will be given a “dumbed down quick text” version of his works in comic-strip format. Would Naseeruddin Shah still ask, as he had done then in a biting essay, “Why the hell can’t we change Shakespeare?”

The same query cannot be posed in the case of religious texts simply because we are dealing not with one person’s creativity but the very foundation on which a section of people base their concept of society. It is not about a playwright, a novelist or a filmmaker believing in that particular belief system but whether s/he has an alternative.

No one knows what to defend anymore. The creative world by its very nature is meant to be in flux, dynamic in the face of stodgy status quoism. But when can it be said that going against the tide has gone overboard? At every point in history there have been heretics. Even the messiahs and prophets immortalised in holy books have gone against the established norms prevalent in their days. Then, why is it that we cannot accept our latter-day heathens?

There are several reasons for it but by far the most important one is that the compulsions behind the creative person are not to change society’s outlook but to provoke. The motive is to use the licence rather than to work on a crusade. At a time when religion, myth, history and its geographical position are having a field day, one wonders how sanctified any stand can be. Synthetic attempts are justified as having universal appeal.

This is far from the truth for in the late Eighties we were being told that for a woman to prove her virtue she would have to jump into her husband’s funeral pyre, as happened with Roop Kanwar. Isn’t this itself blasphemy when we consider the world we live in and how outdated and reprehensible such ideas are? Must we not then give credence to those who are keeping their heads above such beliefs? This is a tricky situation.

Many attempts have been made to upset Valmiki’s applecart. In one, Sita gets quite incensed when Rama meekly agrees to renounce his throne. Accustomed to the good things of life, when Ravana makes an offer to elope, she jumps at it. When Rama traces and captures her, she shows no signs of repentance. She is ordered to be buried alive. A lot of people think of these interpretations as brave attempts, but do they really turn the tables? The Sita of this world could exercise her choice only within a clichéd circumference. Did she have to use Ravana as a crutch? She defied Rama by letting him bury her alive. It may have become a revolutionary statement but there is a cop-out and she is conveniently packaged as a patriarchal puppet in a glamorous wrapper to hide the warts.

To what purpose are such efforts when they strive to be solely a defiance of formula, not essence?

Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American professor, has recently come out with a new English-language interpretation of the Quran challenging terms that feminists say have been used to justify the abuse of Islamic women. “Why choose to interpret the word (idrib) as ‘to beat’ when it can also mean ‘to go away’,” she wrote in the introduction about one such expression.

While I am all for changing with the times, why is it important to re-interpret religious texts? None of them are applicable in their original forms today. It is also a bit far-fetched to assume that several unlettered men who beat their wives are relying on the Quran to do so.

Now that we have a feminist version, someone may want a version palatable to the West, another group may ask for an Oriental one, yet another may demand a Sufi take on it. And there will be disputes regarding each.

Will Verma’s Basanti be asked, “Kitney aadmi the” and get away without being accused of nymphomania? No. That is the point. Poetic licence cannot ensure a parallel consciousness.


  1. Dear Farzana,

    Thank you for this.

    One thing I feel is a major issue here is the Muslim reverence for Holy Quran as the unchangeable word of god.

    Since the scripture is literally the word of God according to the Islamic belief, even the question of looking at it as wisdom literature, some of which may not be relevant, is an issue for the Muslim mind. It creates a paradox which puts the Muslims of today in two minds.

    In many ways "Hinduism" is a cultural determinant before it is a religion. In fact, I am sure it is possible to be a Hindu culturally. It has to do with pride in an ancient culture and tradition. Thus the modern Hindu is quite comfortable with accepting Ramayana as an age old fable without seeking to reinterpret it to suit his or her own modern belief system.

    Now there are a fair share of cultural Muslims out there... but as most Muslims in the subcontinent are converts... this creates a new dilemma. The fellow "Raw Dust" on Chowk is a classic example of this. Since Quran remains the literal word of God for us, we have to constantly seek validation from it. Hence any notions of cultural Muslim identity devoid of theological belief is like graft on deadwood.

    So I understand why the Iranian Feminist has sought to reinterpret Quran instead of saying that indeed certain parts fo Quran may not be valid. It is a dilemma all Muslims face.

  2. Hi Yasser:

    Thanks for the detailed response.

    It is true that the Quran is seen as the unchangeable word of god. But if you see how the Muslim world has developed, then there have been noticeable paradigm shifts, and there is no uniformity in Islam. How does then one explain the One Word theory?

    I do not think cultural Muslims seek validation because I do not believe you can be a cultural anything if you add a religious identity to it. That is a cop-out.

    One reason i disagree with you regarding Hinduism being a culture first and what they call a way of life. i really am tired of it. The rituals do not necessarily constitute culture outside of religion. And why is there a resurgence of Hindutva based precisely on the epic you say they consider a fable?

    These are interesting times and gods are constantly being created, anyway.

  3. That actually is my point. Because there is no agreement, for the Iranian feminist it makes perfect sense to interpret the word of god as she pleases.



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