Earlier this year there was an incident involving Hindi movie director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in Rajasthan. While shooting for a film, Mr Bhansali was allegedly slapped around by a group of people who had issues with the subject of his film. Anyone who follows news in India must have heard about this. As is the wont these days in the predominantly leftist Indian media, there was a deluge of opinion write ups linking the incident to what they consider right wing politics in the country. One such piece that I happened to read was in an online portal called The New Minute written by a Ramanathan S (note: I am intentionally not including a link to that website or article). The piece followed the typical left-liberal template of unsubstantiated assertions, intellectual snobbery and pusillanimous name-calling.
The standard protocol of left-liberals to counter any adverse opinion involves either dismissing the person or entity as intellectually inferior or to respond to the least skilful criticism. On social media, for example, whenever a left-liberal’s hypocrisy or post-truth is called out, the typical response is either to label the critic as a troll or respond to the occasional abusive counter from an anonymous account and play victim. Ramanathan too employs this technique in his write up. He highlights Pahlaj Nihalani and Gajendra Chauhan as typical examples of who he calls right-wing’s “unremarkable and substandard” film personalities. It would, of course, not suit his narrative of right-wing’s failure to “successfully influence films” if he were to talk about a K. Viswanath or an Anupam Kher. The write-up includes such assertions as:
What then frustrates the Hindu right-wing in India is that popular cinema, across languages, has not been effectively used as a tool for their propaganda. Pop cinema could be elitist or nationalist, is most definitely casteist and patriarchal, but it has never been effectively used to propagate Hindutva.
So, I thought it would be a delightful exercise to highlight a few movies made by masterly filmmakers whose subject matter would make the left-liberals squirm uncomfortably in their seats. First up in this series is a Malayalam movie titled Paithrukam (പൈതൃകം).
Paithrukam (heritage, विरासत) released in 1993 and was directed by Jayaraj (trivia: he adapted Othello and Macbeth to Malayalam cinema as Kaliyattam and Veeram). The movie’s story is of a conservative Vedic scholar, Devadattan Chemmadirippad, his atheist son Somadattan Nambudirippad and the conflict between their philosophies. Devadattan was played expertly by late Narendra Prasad (for which he won a Kerala state award) and Somadattan was played by Suresh Gopi. The movie begins with Somadattan, till then working with Times of India in Delhi, returning to his village in Kerala and taking over as the president of the local chapter of an atheist’s association. As a “rationalist”, he deems it his duty to stand against everything that his father had believed in all his life and uses every opportunity to spite him. Like, buying a house that his father advises others not to because he considers it to be inauspecious.
One very impressive feature of the movie’s narration is the subtle manner in which it highlights the contrast between the aggression of the vacuous Somadattan and the dignified humility of his father. This is established from the loud dialogue and aggressive body language of Gopi and the understated performance of Prasad. The first major confrontation between father and son ensues when Devadattan agrees to perform a Sudarsana Homam after much pleading by leftist Chief Minister of Kerala to secure his political future. Somadattan finds an opportunity in this to gain publicity for his cause and organizes a protest at the minister’s house. He abuses the minister as a traitor who betrayed the cause of working class after using it to gain power (isn’t that what commies do everywhere in the world?) and as practising 5000 year old tribalistic rituals to stay there. Following the protest at minister’s home, Somadattan is confronted by his father who is astonished that all the education and exposure had not inculcated civility in his son. Somadattan accuses his father of profiteering from exploiting the superstitions of the gullible. He vehemently disregards his father’s clarification that though he was not as educated or intellectual as his son, he had always acted in good faith to do whatever he could to help others and has never done anything that might cause harm.
As the story moves along, it does a great job of exposing the hypocritical attitude of the leftist activists. While the conservative father is accommodative of differing opinion, even abuse, the self proclaimed rationalist son is highly intolerant of anyone who doesn’t agree with him. After falling out with his father, Somadattan marries his mentor’s daughter, Gayathri and moves into the house that he purchased against his father’s advise. Following a miscarriage, when Gayathri becomes pregnant again, and starts experiencing complications as before, she abandons her atheism and turns to spirituality for solace. This conversion enrages Somadattan so much that he serves an ultimatum on Gayathri that she either gets in sync with his political ideology or move out of his home. After even her father disowns her for having abandoned the leftist ideology, Gayathri is invited into his home without any reservations by the “conservative” Devadattan.
One of the best scenes in the movie is after Gayathri moves in with her in-laws and gives birth to a son. Somadattan, who never attempts for a reconciliation with his father till then, meets with him upon the later’s request. When asked for his views on how his son be brought up, Somadattan insists that the kid would have nothing to do with his brahminical tradition. He continues with this insistence even after being informed that Gayathri wishes otherwise and declares that he is going to be the one to bring up the child. The meeting ends with Somadattan being reminded by his father that he did show a similar insistence on bringing his son up in his own image and allowed him to take his own course. This, in my view, is one of the iconic scenes of Malayalam cinema for the brilliance of Narendra Prasad’s understated performance.
As the movie’s climax approaches, a group of villagers approach Devadattan requesting him to perform Athirathram, a ritual they believe will cause rain in the water starved region. There is a scene at the beginning of the movie where a couple of foreign tourists approach Devadattan with a request to perform a Soma Yagam, so they can witness it. In seeing them off, he clarifies that these Vedic rituals are to be performed only as a means of public good and not as a spectacle. Again in the climax, though reluctant to perform Athirathram, as he wishes to retire, he relents as a means to help the villagers. At this point, the movie includes one more scene that discusses the typical modus operandi of the left-liberal activists in India. Somadattan is frustrated by the villagers’ plan to perform Athirathram and intends to prevent it from happening. He proposes an action plan where they would initially canvas with the people to not support the ritual and if that fails, use violence. He confronts Devadattan and other scholars and warns them not to proceed with the rituals. When they do not relent, he challenges his father: will he become an atheist if it does not rain at the end of Athirathram? Devadattan humbly submits to fate and accedes to the challenge, without asking back what his son would do if it does rain.
And it does rain, as soon as the yaagashaala is burnt down, forcing Somadattan to concede defeat and regret his attitude towards his father and traditional values. But the humble scholar has enough of the abuses and insults from his own for no reason other than that he was not prepared to despise his tradition and heritage. The movie ends with Devadattan sacrificing his life at the fire altar and Somadattan, having accepting his father’s Vedic legacy, preparing to pass it on to his own son.
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