Finally, I got a chance to watch Nanak Shah Faqir the biopic about the life of Guru Nanak. I was delighted to see the movie make it to the public, in spite of its tremendous criticism, opposition and extra-ordinary efforts to derail its release and exposure. So strong was the opposition that to counter it, another movie was quickly released at the same time and under the same title and marketed so heavily that in google searches, it subdued all references to the actual movie.
The main objection to the film was its human portrayal of Guru Nanak and his family. The original version was released for a short duration but bowing to the extremist opposition, the producers withdrew it to make it more palatable.
I had developed an interest in the movie while it was still in its planning stages. I was excited to read about Arif Zarkaria’s enthusiasm and the preparations he was making to play Bhai Mardana. However, after learning that the producers had to give-in to radicalism, my enthusiasm faded, and I didn’t care much to watch it on its second release. I am glad, at last I watched it, may be not the original version – but ‘a’ version of it. Is it a good movie? The short answer is, ‘yes’. It’s made beautifully and is very enjoyable to watch. The landscapes and the actors effortlessly transport you to the sixteenth century. The direction, presentation and the graphics are all second to none, I ever watched.
The movie is based entirely on the stories and anecdotes popular in the literature. Unfortunately, it is never possible to get to the reality behind a story by simply stripping its author’s imagination (even if we know what parts of the story are the imagination) because after some time, the truth and the narrative become one, it all becoming the believers’ reality and we have no right to rob them of ‘their’ reality. The only way to stay close to the truth about Guru Nanak and his stature could have been to stay close to his Bani, something that he himself produced. In my mind, the movie did not always succeed on that account. One example of such a shortage is Nanak’s visit to an old sage in the Himalayas. A brilliant record of deep questions and answers between Guru Nanak and the Sidh-Yogis is provided in guru Nanak’s Ramkali Rag ‘Sidh Ghosht’. It would have been delightful if those discussions were brought to life using simple to understand dialogue. Instead, the entire episode is reduced to depicting Guru Nanak’s superior magical powers, expressed as a fight between two animals.
Throughout, I felt that the producer made the movie with his hands tied behind his back. His mind must have been fighting a multitude of forces. An example is the skipping of ‘Rotating the Makkah story’, which is actually a beautiful anecdote to illustrate that God cannot be bound to one place. However, it wouldn’t have boded well with Muslims if the Makkah were to rotate and it would have invited the ire of the Sikh faithful if an alternate, simpler description were to be used. The solution? The topic was not addressed. Similarly, the instance where Guru Nanak demonstrated the absurdity of watering the Sun was conveniently reduced to one simple sentence. The fact that the producers were forced to portray Guru Nanak as white graphics took away from the essence of the life of Guru Nanak, who roamed this world as a human being and all of his greatness emanates from the fact that he could accomplish unbelievable feats, in spite of being born a human.
But we cannot and should not criticize the producers for everything; we should embrace our share of the blame. The fact that they fought all that resistance to use this strong new media to spread Guru Nanak’s message is, in itself laudable. Early on, when stage drama was the only medium to play a story, people had a somewhat stronger reason to not portray the gurus – there were no retakes. However, modern films can describe our thoughts and beliefs with near perfection, and they are now backed by powerful social media that instantly takes the story to the farthest audience. The gurus never mandated against depicting them as humans, but we have made their respect dependent on our protection of it, forgetting that the gurus, through Gurbani, established their distinction and excellence so eloquently, it doesn’t crave the mercy of our protection. Our job is to simply understand the Message, follow it and spread it as well as we can, as quickly as we can and as far as we can. Ironically, we do not object to the pictures of the gurus or those of their families being displayed in our homes, calendars or the places of work or worship. People routinely burn incense and pray in front of these pictures, none of which is, more real than its artist’s imagination. Carefully listen to all the preachers, each has a different take on Gurbani, but we gladly allow their imperfections and inconsistencies.
Christians, the followers of the most dominant religion on earth, seem to be the most liberal in this regard. The movie, Passion of the Christ (Jim Caviezel played the Christ) shows the brutal flogging of the Christ, so brutal that his whole body including his face is disfigured. Even the tormentor turns his face. Did the movie lower Christ’s stature or the respect for him? You be the judge – when the movie was released, people were coming out of the theaters in droves, crying and feeling one with him and with his pain. I still remember a lady who started crying talking to me about the pain the Christ (Jim Cavizel) endured in the movie. If we wish people, the human beings, to follow Guru Nanak’s message, we need to provide a way for them to relate with him as a human being and not as some white graphic. In the end, I salute the film makers for paving the way to spread ‘the Word’ using modern technologies, in the modern day.
01 May 2019
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