ScreenSavour: Where’s the Pluralism?

Ill-informed and narrow-minded perspective of strident Hindu practitioners who refuse to acknowledge the plurality of Indian civilisation and insist on a monolithic and a bigoted version of Hinduism is becoming a reality today

While the anti-colonial movement engulfed the entire nation, with all its myriad shades and contradictory traits, there were forces that were more interested in issues that did not have much to do with the freedom call. Unmindful of the grand social and educational changes that swept the subcontinent, these forces were more interested in establishing an obscurantist version of Hinduism that they believed would solve all social problems. And their views found a ready voice in Kalyan — a Hindi magazine that came out from Gita Press in Gorakhpur, UP. 

Established in 1926, it was essentially a Marwari enterprise owned by a certain Jaydayal Goyandka, a Bengal based trader and edited by Hanuman Prasad Poddar who ran it with a missionary zeal, promoting what is known as the Sanatan Hindu Dharma. Shunning any kind of advertisements, it relied solely on subscriptions and achieved phenomenal popularity. It continues to be published till date from Gorakhpur.

Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India delves into the history of the magazine which shaped the minds of a significant section of the urban and semi-urban Hindu populace. Since its inception the magazine hit on an extremely regressive and misogynist template that focussed on preserving the ‘purity of Hindu women’, opposition to widow re-marriage and Child Marriage Restraint Act; resistance to modern methods of birth control — to counter the alleged Muslim growth rate, prescriptions for the healthy mental and physical growth of the Hindu male child, segregation of the sexes, justification of untouchability and the four-fold varna system, promotion of Hindi as the national language — and of course, militant cow protection. During the period of intense communal polarisation in the ’40s, it spewed strident Hindu nationalism and in a series of vituperative articles, laid the blame on communism, western education and Muslims for all the evils that afflicted India.

Given its wide coverage of subject matters, it is natural that Indian cinema would also come under its purview. Gita Press considered cinema and film journals the worst vehicle of moral decay amongst youth. To quote from the book, “Cinema was accused of spawning a craze for fashion among boys and girls, from Awara and Barsaat bush-shirts to saris named after successful female actors like Madhubala, Nargis and Suraiya… As models for consumer products, actors were omnipresent in everyday life, staring out from soap wrappers, hair oil bottles and even medicines...”

Gita Press that had been working diligently to popularise Hindu iconography could not fathom the way film actors had eclipsed gods and sages as icons of the youth. It requested the government to exercise control on cinema and demanded a complete ban on film magazines as they made children aspire to a life of glamour and luxury. It deplored the growing trend among boys and girls to run away from home to try their luck in Bombay films, forcing many girls to become prostitutes and the boys to return home after spending all their money. “Readers were requested to discontinue subscriptions to film magazines to exert pressure on their publishers to dilute the content that had destroyed etiquette, modesty and morality among people.”

However, Poddar conceded that it would be impossible to ban films completely; so he suggested that widespread reforms should be introduced to make cinema socially relevant: “First and foremost, female actors should be thrown out completely. They are the root cause of all evil…”

Poddar took umbrage against a mythological film called Rama-Hanuman Yudh that showed Rama and Hanuman battling each other, whereas in Ramayana, Hanuman is an acolyte of Rama. An outraged Dalmia complained to the Censor Board, but the Board replied that reference to such a battle existed in Sudarshan Samhita. Another source pointed out that Valmiki’s Uttar Ramayana indeed talked about such a battle.

This attitude goes on to prove the ill-informed and narrow-minded perspective of strident Hindu practitioners who refused to acknowledge the plurality of Indian civilisation and insisted on a monolithic and a bigoted version of Hinduism based on patriarchy and misogyny — something that has become a reality today.

We sincerely hope that what Gita Press proposed about cinema does not turn into reality, given the times we live in.

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)

Ranjan Das