A Celluloid Test for the Gospel of Christ

The last terrible propaganda film made by and for right-wing Evangelical Christians I watched was ‘God’s not Dead’. Its flaccid, puerile stereotypical characters and plot made me puke. And then, like Wednesday in Episode 6 of ‘American Gods’, I pissed a curse all over it.

Blessings surely fall upon those who curse such ill-conceived and pathetic cinematic ventures. Thus three films, one fictional and the other two based on real-life stories, having nothing much to do with the ‘anti-Christ’ of the right-wing Evangelical propagandists, re-turned me to the heart of the Mystery of the Evangelion.

1.Mack (3rd from left) with the Trinity in ‘The Shack’ 2. Desmond Doss in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ 3. A scene from Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

‘The Shack’ directed by Stuart Hazeldine.

‘Hacksaw Ridge’ directed by Mel Gibson.

‘Silence’ directed by Martin Scorsese.

I’ll begin with ‘The Shack’, the weakest of the lot and yet miles ahead of juvenile films like ‘God’s not Dead’. ‘The Shack’ is based on the best-seller by William P. Young who has already faced trial, condemnation and judgement at the hands of the mostly illiterate, die-hard Evangelical fanatics who have no clue about artistic devices like metaphors, symbols or personification. His ‘error’, in the eyes of the Evangelicals, was to portray G-d and the Holy Spirit as women; Jesus, of course, remains a man. Worse, G-d is a black woman and the Holy Spirit is a Japanese woman with a Sanskrit name, Sarayu.

The better part of this film is about how this ‘Trinity’ helps the protagonist, whose little girl was kidnapped and murdered, to come out of bitterness, anger and hatred and to forgive the murderer. G-d as Light and G-d as Love egg him on to confront the darkness that is in himself, empower him to abandon his failings and judgmentalism and ease him into a relationship with the ‘Trinity’ whose nature is unconditional love and patience towards human beings.

The book and the film together, the former more engrossing than the latter, are indicators that it is possible for sensitive, Spirit-led Christians to escape the seductive noises of the loud, uncouth, dogmatic Evangelicals and experience something more sound and truly divine.

In his foreword to Richard Rohr’s new book ‘The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation’, Young writes: “Bad theology is like pornography — the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one. It tends to be transactional and propositional rather than relational and mysterious…. Bad theology is not a victimless crime. It dehumanizes God and turns the wonder and the messy mystery of intimate relationship into a centerfold to be used and discarded.”

The voice of ‘intelligent mystics” like Rohr and new writers like Young are affirmations of the possibility of an authentic relationship with a loving G-d. And such relationships, warts and all, are precisely what are conceptually and aesthetically probed in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Silence’.

Strangely enough, Mel Gibson, a Roman Catholic by faith and director of ‘The Passion’, that brutally powerful film about the last hours of Jesus Christ, chose the true story of a Seventh Day Adventist to drive home the reality of this relationship and its high price. In ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, the protagonist who has joined the military during WW II maintains his relationship with G-d by clinging to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” against all odds.

Desmond Doss refuses to touch a gun and is persecuted by his comrades for his conviction. Finally, he works as an army medic alongside them. After his battalion is crushed in battle by the Japanese, with supernatural help from his G-d and his own untiring effort, he rescues 75 of his wounded comrades in a single night, a feat that leaves his battalion stunned and believing and leads to their defeating the enemy in the next battle.

It’s a gripping film that does not dilute the message that great things can be wrought by human beings who are in a constant, consistent relationship with G-d and who might dare to love their neighbours as themselves.

‘Silence’ is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Hauntingly slow and picturesque even when moments of horror are depicted, it tells the tale of Jesuit priests who go to convert the Japanese to Christianity in the 17th century. The Japanese outlaw Christianity and are bent on exterminating the Christians. Two priests are sent into Japan to find a third priest who is thought to have apostatised. They are captured and one of them is executed.

The other priest, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, finally finds the apostate priest. But he himself is forced to apostasize, a sacrifice he makes to save the lives of the few poverty-ridden Christians they came to serve. He then gets married, learns Japanese culture and philosophy, and serves the Japanese as one who weeds out any signs or symbols relating to Christianity that are sought to be smuggled in via traders.

However, he dies with a symbol of the cross cupped and glowing within his palms, a sign that in pressing circumstances a relationship with G-d has perhaps nothing to do with one’s failure as a ‘witness’ or ‘martyr’, but the relationship is bound by the love of G-d and can be nurtured in secret, deep within the heart. Therein too, lies triumph!

These three films are certain to challenge their viewers and get them to ponder the deep, deep aspects of the compassionate and forgiving nature of G-d while also encouraging them to consider the possibility of a passionate and mature relationship that can be forged with Him/Her (the Trinity) via the Mediator, Jesus Christ.

Their sublime, subtle advocacy gently steers one into the infinite ocean of G-d’s love, with all its waves and storms, a far cry from the Evangelical propaganda shoved down the throats of viewers.

Surely, films of this calibre are what may keep alive one’s faith in that genre known as ‘Christian cinema’ which the Evangelicals continually besmirch with their infantile productions.

Rob Bell is Right Here, Right Now!

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Rob Bell just gets better and better. Right here, right now!

Try his latest book — How to be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living — and you’ll see the Light. The ‘way’ is expounded in simple, clear language that communicates to layman and priest-pastor-Pope in a manner bereft of complicated theological speculations, hardened doctrinal coerciveness or intolerant dogmatic assertions.

Reading his new book, I was reminded of how in 2011, the Evangelical fundamentalist preacher-teacher John Piper wrote off Rob Bell with his famous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet when Bell’s promo video for his earlier book ‘Love Wins’ went viral.

Piper was only demonstrating the standard Evangelical position of hatred towards those who do not toe their right-wing authoritarian line and, instead, seek to discover more deeply the Lord of Love who animates the universe.

Piper was asserting, like most fundamentalists do, that ‘Love does not win, hatred does’. The most powerful demonstration to date of that kind of ‘faith’ has been the political victories in India and the USA of bigoted hate-mongers like Narendra Modi and Donald Trump, respectively.

People like Piper are directly responsible, as much as insane terror groups like the IS and the RSS and the swamis and mullahs behind them, for the rise of such demonic forces in society.

But Rob Bell’s book tells us how to be creative and fruitful and become whole in precisely the kind of context generated by the hate-mongers. He goes back non-intrusively to the ‘beginning’, to the book of Genesis, to the notion of ex nihilo, of how something emerges from nothing and how every one of us has emerged from this ‘nothing’ so that we can become someone or something unique as partners in creating and enlarging the scope of LIFE and its wonders on earth.

In other words, creation was accomplished ex nihilo and continues and is as yet unfinished and we all have unique roles to play in the ongoing ‘play’ as partners with G-d.

As usual, Rob Bell’s book (and I have read most of his books, the first one that grabbed me was Velvet Elvis) is superbly designed. Each chapter begins with an excellent, well-considered quote. And then a single, focused idea is enunciated and chapter flows into chapter unraveling the process of being and becoming.

To begin with, Bell says every one of us is confronted by ‘the blinking line’ where the cursor waits for us to dare bring forth something that requires to be brought into existence.

The blinking line asks us: What are you here for? Will you dare create something out of nothing? What will your work on or out because ‘all work is creative work because all work is participating in the ongoing creation of the world”.

What about suffering? Death? Disease? Disaster? These too are blinking lines from which you can bring forth something of worth, of value. Breath itself is a gift every moment and so long as you live you can use your breath to affirm that it’s still worth it. Suffering and loss can alert and awaken us to the gift that life is, he notes.

Boredom. Cynicism. Despair. Beware of these. They can get in the way when the blinking line asks: Who are you to do what you propose to do? That’s a brutal but enlightening question, Bell affirms.

To do what you dare take a risk to do, you need to ‘get out of your head’ wherein lie excuses, fears, comparisons, memories of past failures and humiliations and so on. And you have to shed your fear of what ‘they’ might think or do. Bell cites the example of Peter asking Jesus about John — “And what about him?” Jesus responds: “What is that to you?”

Everybody starts again and again with the blinking line or the blank page that asks: Who are you to do this? Can you counter it with “Who am I not to do this?” Bell thus introduces us to the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’, your reason and purpose for being. Your ikigai is a work in progress involving all the networks of being and becoming with which you involve yourself.

Your ikigai empowers you to try all sorts of things, whether they fail or succeed, whether they bring you fame and money or nobody takes note of you. Are you angry about something and want to do something about it? It’s your ikigai egging you on. There are some things you do for yourself and that’s fine and there are other things you do for others.

How do you get to be ‘here’? How do you trust your ikigai which changes over time? Do it step by step. More often than not, you do not know what step 5 or 10 might be and yet you have to take step 1. Do it. The other steps will follow.

This book is not just for those who want to spiritually ‘be here now’. It’s also for those who embrace creativity. Here one must distinguish between ‘success’ and ‘craft’. Success can suddenly turn sour. Craft is love for what you are doing. Beware of ‘new fuel’, it might run out and then what will you do? Find the craft in all you do.

Rob Bell does not mention it, but he is treading very close to the Indian concept of ‘sadhana’. To quote the flamboyant, foxy Sadhguru, sadhana is “about using every aspect of life — both internal and external — so that it is a continuous nurturing for your life.” Of course, a fundamentalist like John Piper would have never come across terms like ikigai or sadhana even, being ever a frog in his ‘gospel pond’.

Bell has some cautionary tales too that warn us not to be ‘overthinking’, to learn how to ‘suspend judgement’, to be glad that you have butterflies in your stomach (nerves) for they tell you that you are alive, and to accept that more often than not we do not know what exactly we have on our hands.

In the end, being a creative person, one who lives in the here and now, entails RISK. There’s the risk of trying something new and the risk of not trying it. Which path is less risky, Bell asks koan-like. Risk leads to diving deep and also embracing failure. “Failure is over-rated.” It is yet another opportunity to learn. Surrender to what you seek to do. Surrender the outcomes. Reject rejection. The joy is in the work.

Does this sound like pop psychology to you? Perhaps. And yet, having followed Rob Bell a long whiles, it becomes increasingly clear to me that he is becoming a master of simplicity and clarity. He is no longer a religious. He is no longer a preacher-teacher. He is not a guru. He is just a seeker of the Light and the Truth, coming from the depths of wisdom demonstrated in aspects of the Bible, the life of Jesus and the Wisdom Books.

“Seek and keep on seeking and you will find and keep on finding,” urged Jesus. Bell has the gift to communicate both the mystery of what he is seeking after and the treasures he keeps finding in the dark.

And what more does he tell us about? Rhythm. Sabbath or rest. The power that in the details of any creative endeavour or life itself. The power of the Now. Presence. Seeing.

‘How to be Here’ is ultimately the layman’s guide to the numinous Presence and to becoming and being both a Seer and Doer. Buy a copy right now and read it at least twice. Shalom.



The problem with some who review works of art deeply imbued with a sense of the spiritual from the perspective of a particular religious doctrine or dogma is that they turn the very work of art into a caricature and present it as such to the ‘faithful’.

This is the sum and substance of the review of Martin Scorsese’s radical film Silence that appeared in the Evangelical ideological mouthpiece Christianity Today on December 16, 2016.
What is implicit in such an approach is that the reader must not be allowed to ‘read’ the work of art by and for himself but must have an ‘interpreter’ or, worse, a ‘teacher of the Law’.
That is, the reviewer presents the work of art as a ‘readerly text’, a manifestation of The Book. The reviewer’s task, in the context of an ideological publication akin to the old Communist newspaper Pravda (Truth) in Soviet Russia or the fascist Indian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s The Organizer, is to keep its readers on the straight and narrow path within the covers of The Book when viewing possibly subversive art.
The reviewer is conscious that he must not allow his ‘readerly text’ to be seen as a ‘writerly text’, one where the reader is the site of the production of meaning. The reviewer then labors to ensure that the reader is the ‘receiver of a fixed, pre-determined, reading’ consistent with his particular interpretation of The Book.
However, Scorsese’s Silence pre-empts such attempts on the part of the doctrinaire reviewer even as he throws crumbs under the table of High Art to bring joy to self and the ‘faithful’ for their genuflection.
Beyond that, Scorsese creates a masterly, ‘writerly text’, ‘a perpetual present’ in which we find ‘ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages’.
Scorsese’s masterstroke in this film is that he proposes Jesus Christ as the Zen God of Zen Master who both encompasses the doctrinaire notion of the Son of God and the traditional Japanese notion of the Sun God and goes beyond it. What the ‘fallen priests’, Jesuits who have apostatized for the sake of saving the lives of simpleton, poverty-ridden, persecuted, and tortured Christians in 17th century Japan, discover afresh is Jesus Christ, the Zen God or, simply put, the process and mastery of the practice of Zen. That is, they experience Kensho, the ‘seeing into their true nature or essence’, and Satori or ‘enlightenment’.
At its simplest, Zen is about being relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change. At a deeper level, Zen is Mystery that resonates in koans as, for instance, this one:
Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”
Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”
Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”
Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”
That exactly is the point of Scorsese’s film about the Zen God. The Jesuits (and Evangelicals) come from the West with the arrogance of a world-view that tries to fix or box the Zen God by reductionist, linear, supposedly logical and universal means and methods, but trace their roots to The Book which has its own paradoxes and irrationalities.
In Japan, in Silence, this mindset encounters a very different, perhaps more ancient world-view, one that has pondered the nature of Ultimate Reality in ways about which Christianity’s stellar instruments of proselytization, the Jesuits (and Evangelicals), had/have very little understanding.
In more recent times, there have been wise Christians like Thomas Merton or Bede Griffiths who have sought to understand world-views that have been ‘othered’ by Jesuits, Evangelicals and the like. When turned into the ‘other’ and paid back in the same coin, the proselytes call it persecution or martyrdom for the Cause!
How does Scorsese, with his peculiar Catholic (universal) sensibility subvert the narrowness of the Jesuit and Evangelical enterprise of proselytization of the ‘heathen’? By pointing to the Zen God who hides himself in Silence.
Perhaps such a God or Mystery or Truth or Supreme Reality does exist but not exactly in the form imagined by the Jesuits or the Evangelicals. So then, does this God exist as and in a variety of forms or as formlessness? How does understanding, wisdom and enlightenment dawn? Via form and symbol or emerging from the formlessness of Silence?
This is the old conundrum being revisited by a maestro using the medium of film and a story woven around both Christian and Zen elements. Is this God-Mystery saguna or nirguna Brahman? An incarnation or several avatars might embody or manifest the Mystery, but the Mystery itself does not impart its glory to any so easily as it is supposed.
The Mystery hides within Silence and it is into this place that the ‘fallen priests’ are taken. Having ‘fallen’, these priests of a particular religion discover the Mystery that is in the heart of Silence or the Silence that is at the heart of the Mystery.
It might be that this is precisely what any true disciple of Zen might also discover, but that sort of generosity is something neither Jesuit nor Evangelical possesses. And, on the journey, lie the milestones or millstones of intellectualization, religious doctrine, dogma and duties and, possibly, suffering and martyrdom.
The latter half of the Christianity Today review, as befits a publication of apologetics, vomits standard Evangelical jargon, draws to its defense proof texts from The Book and quotes a ‘Christian’ poet and artist to validate the Christocentricity of the film and the suffering of Christians depicted therein.
Finally, condescendingly, the review forgives, restores and commends Scorsese, who turned Nikos Kazantzakis’ masterpiece ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ into a film that roused the hackles of Evangelicals and Catholics, as having matured into a ‘good Christian’.
But, in an ‘other’ reading of the film, Scorsese has demonstrated that he is an Osho, a ‘technologist of the Spirit’ who has learnt invaluable lessons from his dai-Osho, the Christ who dwells in the Temple of His Cosmic Body as Silence, immortal, invisible, joy inexpressible and full of glory. The Sat Chit Ananda. The Shalom. The Silence of The Lamb.

Udta Punjab, Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial venture exposing the drug crisis and its victims in the once golden land of Punjab, is flying high in the box office and reaching out towards the magical figure of Rs 50 crore towards the end of its first week run.

The success of the Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt starrer comes in the wake of a court allowing it to be shown in theatres following an excruciating legal battle with the moronic Censor Board in India over cuts and its success threatened by the release of a Censor Board pirate print on torrents just prior to its launch in theatres.

Although emerging from the general morass of Bollywood, new directors like Chaubey are bringing fresh, contemporary and often hidden stories to the screen along with a look and feel that is different. And it seems, there are enough takers for such films to succeed.

The 1970s led the charge of what was termed parallel or middle cinema, offering an alternative to mainstream Bollywood, Tollywood or Kollywood cinema to viewers, the bulk of whom are middle-class or lower class. Since then such films have consistently referred to sociopolitical issues and offered critical perspectives thanks to directors like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Girish Karnad, Ritwick Ghatak, and Rituparno Ghosh.

Udta Punjab is a sort of parallel or middle cinema today but it has come a long way from its predecessors. It flourishes contemporary cinematic tropes, culled from Bollywood, Hollywood and elsewhere, uses zippy editing techniques, a bevy of hot actors and actresses,and, finally, throws in the right bits of thrills, romance, comedy, action and gore.

In this sense, films like Udta Punjab extend the reach of Bollywood and yet challenge Bollywood and the hypocritical moralists in the Censor Board.

For those familiar with modern film-making, Udta Punjab begins with its Star Wars-like introduction. Then there is the scene of Shahid Kapoor, the fading cokehead and Punjabi pop star, staring into his reflection in the toilet bowl, a tribute to the film Trainspotting. The film seemingly comes to an end at one point and the credits appear. But suddenly it surprises with a visual postscript and a ‘happy ending’.

The realisation the film brings is that nobody, but nobody, in Punjab is left untouched or unaffected by the menace of drugs. The film adheres to the romantic picture one has of the Punjab and Punjabis, especially Sikhs. They live in the beautiful ‘land of five rivers’, they are hardworking, there are no beggars among the Sikhs, Punjab is the wheat bowl of India, Punjabi is a colourful language and the beats and music of Punjab are both hypnotic and global, etc.

But there is a serpent in Eden.

The film warns that Punjab is well on its way to becoming a drug cartel-ridden state like Mexico flush with corruption and drug money that flows all the way from the top to the bottom via the keepers of law and order.

But there is also an insinuation in the film, a dangerous subtext. It is that this state, unwittingly perhaps, has become ‘anti-national’ or, at least, is a threat to national security and the next generation. Its border with Pakistan has become ‘porous’ and Punjabis, notably Sikhs, have become partners with Pakistan in undermining the state and nation by being a conduit for drugs supplied by Pakistan.

It is not just Sikhs and Punjabis who are drawn into this subversive web of intoxication, decay and death but also Biharis and others from other north Indian states. Thus the tale of Alia Bhatt, who plays the nameless Bihari migrant, tempted to make money off drugs she finds accidentally and captured by the drug runners and turned into a sex slave.

In this Punjab, there is no space for honest cops like the one played by Diljit Dosanjh or those who want to see the land healed, like the doctor whom the cop loves, played by Kareena Kapoor. Even though the cop kills some of the baddies, he has to live with the truth that his teenage, drug-addicted, younger brother killed his lover, who was also seeking his son’s rehabilitation.

The film is, indirectly, a slap in the face of the Parkash Singh Badal-led Akali Dal government, with its alliance of convenience at present with the BJP-RSS nexus, that has ruled Punjab since 2007. The drug menace has grown to terrifying proportions since he came to power.

The film seems to conclude, apart from the last happy scene of the pop star and his rescued beau enjoying the beach and sea in Goa, the idyll that has replaced Punjab, that the only solution to the drug problem is to use the ubiquitous hockey stick or the gun and eradicate its purveyors.

Udta Punjab comes in the line of a series of films that Bollywood has made across decades on drug issues beginning with the blockbuster ‘hippie’ filmHare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) and moving on to Charas (1976), Jalwa(Pankaj Parashar’s 1987 hit), Dev D (Anurag Kashyap’s take on Devdas),Pankh (2010) and Go Goa Gone (2013).

There is also the offbeat Bengali film Gandu directed by Qaushiq Mukherjee, which is in another league altogether. Udta Punjab falls somewhere between the standard Bollywood fare and Gandu.

22 June 2016

Playwright Shekinah Jacob has Judas deliver a searing new monologue in her new work

Abel Mathews delivering the Judas monologue. An artwork at the show “Eyes for the Other”
An artwork at the show. Playwright Shekinah Jacob speaks on “Empathy in the Arts”.
An illustration by Anoosha G. for Leo Tolstoy’s story The Three Hermits.

Playwright Shekinah Jacob premiered her latest work, titled “One Quick Kiss”, a monologue delivered by Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus Christ, at a public show held at the Rangasthala auditorium in Bangalore on June 18.

The monologue was delivered by Abel Mathews.It was preceded by a perceptive talk on “Empathy in the Arts” by Shekinah Jacob.

The public event titled “Eyes to see the Other” was organised by the Bangalore Art Collective and consisted of a display of a few artworks — paintings, photographs and an illustrated book — and the screening of four short films.

While the artworks were ‘nice’, the highlight of the evening, of course, was Shekinah’s talk and the monologue penned by her. Shekinah said the Arts were driven by empathy — the firing of similar neurons in the brains of both the artist and members of the audience. Empathy creates a bridge between artist and receiver.

Shekinah critiqued contemporary artworks. Much of it, she felt, was cynical in nature and shaped to shock and provoke audiences. She was of the view that empathy would serve the higher purpose of Art being used for the greater good.

The playwright cited the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who contended that real Art destroys, “in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” This power is what Tolstoy referred to as ‘emotional infectiousness’.

Coincidentally, one of the artworks on display was an illustrated version of Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Hermits” by the artist Anoosha Gopinath, in which the reader is hard pressed to recognize the “Other”.

Shekinah had a cautionary tale about ‘emotional infectiousness’. She mentioned how the book Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes by Edward Lytton (1935) led to Richard Wagner turning it into an opera. Adolf Hitler, who saw the opera, experienced an ‘epiphany’. It could be argued, said Shekinah, that this paved the way for Hitler’s murder of seven million Jews.

The talk was followed by the monologue which has a distraught Judas cursing the temple priests who would not take back the 30 pieces of silver because it was ‘blood money’. Almost unwittingly, Shekinah portrays Judas as the ‘saviour of the Saviour’, the man to whom G-d had allotted the “dirty” task of betraying the Moshiach, an act that would lead to His crucifixion and Resurrection with its manifold consequences.

Judas is also shown as unwilling to wait three days for the Resurrection of his Kurios because he wants to make atonement for his deed. This is possible under Mosaic Law which demands blood for blood. Judas, by committing suicide, it is suggested, might have redeemed himself by paying for his ‘crime’ with his own blood.

It was a subtle twist, perhaps missed by the audience which was possibly glad that the play did not deviate too much from the scriptural tale in which Judas is demonized as an “Other” unlike in the musical play/film Jesus Christ Superstar.

Shekinah is, undoubtedly, an authentic, contemporary Indian artist probing la condition humaine rather incisively. Otherwise, she would not have found her play “Ali J” banned as ‘anti-national’ in India but lauded in the UK. She is working on a new play titled “How to Brew A Bomb”.

Of the four short films, one was a comedy and the others emotive. One short was the Look Beyond Borders’ film using refugees from Syria and Somalia to propagate psychologist Arthur Aron’s theory that 4 minutes of looking into each other’s eyes can bring people closer. Another short was an Italian film “Invisible”, revolving around a small girl who empathizes with a homeless man. The Armenian short film “Identification” suggested that only an “Other” can positively empathize with another “Other”.

The discussions around the films were didactic and participants tried to establish which characters were “wrong’ and which “right’ and whether or not it is worthwhile to empathize with or ‘make visible’ the invisible “Other”.

The show’s undertow indicated that art influenced by Christian notions was seeking to make a comeback in the urban, multicultural and pluralistic milieu of Bangalore city. Tolstoy was a bright star in such a firmament once, but the question remains as to what his heritage might be in the contemporary art world which has, by and large, left religion behind or conveniently uses its devices to express what Art will.

Further, the push by accomplished, experienced, questioning and empathetic artists like Shekinah Jacob into the public sphere raises four tough questions for the cruder, aggressive, proselytizing Evangelical philistines who would put blinders on Art and constrain artists.

  1. Can Evangelicals consider the pursuit of Art and make a radical shift from exclusivity to inclusive?
  2. Can Evangelicals be challenged to leave behind their history of iconoclasm and embrace a new world of imagination, symbols and cross-pollination of aesthetic forms?
  3. Can Evangelicals shed their narrow, fundamentalist obsession with Sola Scriptura and return to the orthodox, catholic idea of Prima Scriptura that has fuelled the Arts, particularly Christian art, in the past?
  4. Or, will Evangelicals continue to be taken in by leaders like Bill Bright (Campus Crusade), Loren Cunningham (YWAM) and the late Francis Schaeffer, all of whom propagated a form of dominion theology in which Evangelicals were encouraged to infiltrate and conquer the “Seven Cultural Mountains” (including Art), now dominated by the heathen and the unsaved, in order to establish a kosmos controlled by the Evangelical religion?

Questions apart, this alternative show allowed for a pleasant evening, moving from the ‘nice’ to the ‘emotive’ and, finally, to the authentic, leaving one with the choice of ignoring or pondering the mystery of the “Other”, or both by turns.

16 June 2016

Pre-release ruckus over leak on torrents gets Udta Punjab free publicity

Udta Punjab, the Abhishek Chaubey film that rips the veil off Punjab’s drug crisis, is expecting a rocking good reception at its release across India on Friday, 17 June 2016.

And this is now guaranteed with a Censor Board copy of the film, running 2 hours and 28 minutes (including anti-smoking ads) hitting and topping torrent sites thanks to a leak, apparently originating in Mumbai.

High-quality Udta Punjab torrents are being seeded and downloaded across the world on leading torrent sites. The producers of the film have sought to get the torrents deleted, succeeded awhile, but the torrents are back and in larger numbers.

What’s worse, pirated hardcopies of the film that have appeared across India in pirate market spaces and are being devoured.

Leading, progressive Indian film-makers who backed the film’s battle against the Censor Board, have been alarmed by the leak. Anurag Kashyap, a leading director, made a desperate plea on social media.

“Piracy happens because of lack of access and in a world of free internet, i do not have a problem with it. My problem is that this time its a case of vested interests trying to demoralise people from fighting for their rights. So all downloaders of Udta Punjab , i urge, wait till saturday till you decide to not pay for the film, don’t download and share , curb the curiosity for two more days,” he pleaded.

But those whose appetite for the film was whetted in recent weeks with the Indian Censor Board, headed by Pankaj Nihalani, a toady put in place by the BJP-RSS government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and despised by filmdom, fighting to have the film emasculated. At first the censors demanded 89 cuts which was brought down to 13.

The film makers took the issue to court and won. That victory in court came on 15 June. The Bombay High Court on Monday (13 June) said Udta Punjab could be released with just one cut and three disclaimers.

Those who want the film suppressed, especially because Punjab is going to the polls next year, filed another appeal on Thursday (16 June) before the Supreme Court to stay its release. The SC declined to intervene.

Phantom Films, Udta Punjab’s makers, have filed a copyright theft case with the cybercrime cell in Mumbai. The cell, news reports suggest, is zeroing in on whoever might have leaked the film.

It has been alleged that a member of the Censor Board might have leaked the copy of the film to destroy its box office potential. Censor Board chief Nihalani, who lost face in this battle, has denied it.

Udta Punjab stars Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Diljit Dosanjh. It has all the ingredients of a good film — a contemporary issue, tragedy, the pace of a suspense thriller, a social message, romance, melodrama, action and more — brought together using the mytheme of good versus evil.

Watch the film in the theaters. It will not disappoint.

13 June 2016

The Bangalore Hunt, it ain’t over yet!

Artist Ayisha Abraham & one of her transposed collages
Arnab Basu
Amithabh Kumar
Raghavendra Rao
Pooja Kaul
Leslie Johnson
Allison Byrnes — The Other One
Rakhi Peswani
Matt Lee & Smriti Mehra
Yashas Shetty & Shreyasi Kar

There is a legend about Kempe Gowda I, considered the founder of Bangalore. This ruler of the Vijayanagara empire was a hunting enthusiast. On one such expedition, he reached the village of Shivasamudra, near Hessarghata. Here, he saw a hare chase his hunting dog. This omen helped him decide to build his capital in Bangalore and he called his Bangalore Pete (market centre) the ‘gandu bhoomi’ (place of heroes).

As one entered the Venkatappa Gallery to look at the recent art show titled The Bangalore Hunt June 10–12), one was invited to pick up Amitabh Kumar’s eight-page untitled comic in which he equates this hare that built a city to the ‘hare of time’. Other than that, strangely enough, no mention was made of the ‘hunt’ being a mandatory cultural aspect of rulership, whether British or Indian.

The show primarily took some critical and satirical pecks at the British colonial indulgence of hunting and the extensive paraphernalia and infrastructure associated with the ‘barbarous’ practice and its glorification.

The centerpiece was Ayisha Abraham’s ‘archival’ series of photographs and newspaper clippings of the Bangalore Hunt, its related personae and varied aspects. These occupied several tables in the centre of the gallery. Along its four walls, several well-known artists put up what Ayisha called ‘annotations’ or ‘punctuations’ to the centerpiece.

The rare photographs were sent to Ayisha by a friend in New York who had found them at the bottom of a trunk in Jamaica following the death of Simon Simmons, a British military man. He had shot these pictures, an extensive documentation of the Bangalore Hunt and associated activities — riding, hunting, picnics, parties — when he was posted in Bangalore in the 1930s, said a note written by Ayisha on the curation of the show.

“This attempt to show these photographs is to see how a niche subject like the hunting expedition can become a place from where we can reflect upon more than what the photographs reveal …the artists have tried to find a way to have a dialogue with this small personal archive…”, she wrote.

The show, apart from taking the visitor back in time to the colonial landscape of the 1930s by means of the hunting expedition and its accouterments, extended itself into an aesthetic critique of not only colonialism but also of cruelty to animals, notions of the ‘whip hand’ and the ‘new colonialism’ pervading modern, metropolitan Bangalore in terms of American enterprise and the oppressive presence of land sharks and land grabs.

The ‘punctuations’ seemed to be asking the question: “What hounds Bangalore today?” Sculptor Arnab Basu’s image of a dog pissing on the high-rise city scape was a hard-hitting annotation. Raghavendra Rao and Karkala Vasudeviah’s work highlighted the ‘whip hand’ that enforces power, whether in the past or the present.

Ayisha herself created a set of collages, combined with a video, that transposed the Hunt images, a sort of questioning of the ‘times’, then and now. So too Yashas Shetty and Shreyasi Kar’s ‘VR’ goggles, a video-playing gadget titled ‘The Unreality of Time’.

Some incredible illustrative work took the viewer deeper into the world of dogs. Allison Byrnes’ work singled out the only dog Simmons seemed to have given a name to — Paul — from a whole line of them. This was ‘the other one’. Pooja Kaul’s sketches of dogs in groups and in motion attempted to “reverse the logic of these photographs as memory-making tools of the success, military control and exploits of the colonial masters”. She has, in her sketches, ‘deleted’ Simmons, the other male officers and ‘the whiplashes that choreograph the dogs into action.”

Matt Lee and Smriti Mehra, in their work, sought to highlight some aspects of those working to save animals, especially dogs. Their photographs included a ‘hotel for dogs’ and beagles set free from scientific labs in Bangalore. Leslie Johnson’s installation had two ‘gateposts’ with chains and a bone with the signs “Beware of the Dog’ and “Don’t wait for the Dog”. A choice? Rakhi Peswani’s work ‘Happy Hunting’ made viewers pause and ponder!

In all, there was something for everyone, some of it historical, some of it simplistic, some of it satirical and some of it subtle. The show was produced by the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, where most of the artists teach or run projects.


Nine-banded Armadillo and Chinstrap Penguin
Illustrator Anoosha Gopinath and the Invite to the show

A set of radical illustrations by a Bangalore-based artist exposes the sadistic pleasure human beings get from tormenting and torturing animals and birds.
Anoosha Gopinath is a young graphic designer at SAP Labs, Bangalore. Her exhibition, titled STOP!, is a series of 20 illustrative works on show at Urban Solace-Cafe for the Soul, Bangalore, from June 14–30.
Anoosha says, “I hope to get viewers to STOP! and ponder the inalienable rights of animals and birds. This is where art forces humanity to encounter and empathize with animals.”
There are women illustrators in India like Nisha Vasudevan who are animal-friendly. But Anoosha makes a stronger, militant visual statement about the sentience of animals and birds and, therefore, the pain they endure at human hands.
By and large, Indian artists have mostly represented animals as motifs in temple architecture or textile prints, in realistic or sometimes stylized forms.
In a country where Hindu fanatics have banned the killing of cows for beef and worship the animal, there are few artists who have given voice to the pain the animal kingdom endures, especially in India.
On June 8, for instance, a rhino was killed by poachers in Assam for its horn even as the new BJP government in the state was holding a meeting on its animal policy. In Kerala, a powerful movement is afoot to stop the torture of elephants used for Hindu temple festivals.
These illustrations are a wake-up call for all, and a spur for animal lovers and rights activists. For artists, they pose the questions asked in the first lines of the book Artist|Animal by Steve Baker: “Can contemporary artists be trusted with animals, living or dead? Can they be trusted to act responsibly, ethically, when their work engages with questions of animal life? Will they put ethics first, or will they put the interests of their art before ethics?”
Anoosha has put empathy and ethics first in her strong, stirring, colourful images. A penguin is burnt at the stake. A nine-banded armadillo, reminiscent of the martyr St. Sebastian, is pierced by arrows.
She joins forces with animal studies scholar Randy Malamud who highlights “the harm (whether actual or symbolic) done to animals … in the work of artists ranging from Damien Hirst to Eduardo Kac.”
She wants to keep working with animals in her art because her heart beats for them. Her work is a counterpoint to the ideology of William Kotzwinkle’s Dr Rat who, broken upon a vivisectionist rack, justifies the torture of animals for the ‘good’ of humanity.
Anoosha’s work springs from the wellspring of the sacredness and oneness of all life, in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi who wanted the rabbit in the trap to be set free, the netted fish to be returned to the sea and who proposed living in peace with Brother Wolf.

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