Late last week, a trailer was published on to Youtube for an upcoming feature film titled ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’ which depicts the life of Guru Nanak through the eyes of his companion Bhai Mardana. The trailer began with a message thanking the Akal Takht Sahib for their support and blessings – enough to placate many that this film is endorsed by the most revered Sikh institution, but of course for seasoned Sikh activists such a message usually sets off alarm bells ringing. And as I watched on, they got louder and louder. With our own plans at NAUJAWANI.com to announce a crowd-funding project for a feature film today, I felt that it was a good time to explain where I stand on Sikh cinema.
Firstly, let me make it clear that a trailer or selected clips from a film are not enough to determine whether it as a whole will make for satisfactory viewing; that would be akin to judging the proverbial book by its cover. However, one is able to ascertain how certain content will be presented both visually and audibly from such short clips, giving rise to the question of appropriateness and suitability. For many this will be an academic point of discussion, but I would argue that in the Sikh context such an intellectual debate is at the heartbeat of this very way of life and pervades every sphere of our existence – simply ignoring or even shutting down this conversation is as un-Sikh-like as it gets! In this light, some of the scenes depicted in ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’ were incredibly troubling, if not unsurprising. The production company has made it clear that they have avoided portraying his face on screen so as not to cause disrespect by having an actor play the role. But it is an actor portraying the role; there is a voice that utters the words of Guru Nanak; and it doesn’t sound or look anything like Guru Nanak who is portrayed as the stereotypical Messiah, not unlike Moses or Jesus.
The deification of personalities from Sikh history including the Gurus themselves has been a growing problem for the last hundred years, an associated consequence that came with the diminishing of Sikhi as a way of life and being forced by outsiders into the confines of a ‘religion’. The British invaders and their Indian successors have strived to dampen Sikh revolutionary zeal and social reform, by imposing the notion of Guru Nanak as a softly-spoken, fluffy white-bearded, miracle-doer as opposed to the reality of his character and personality. Any Sikh who has read Guru Nanak’s dialogue with the thinkers of his time (Siddh Gosht) or his political stance against Imperialism (Babar-bani), will not recognise the Guru Nanak that is depicted in ‘Nanak Shah Fakir’. He is an imposter presented to us to placate our imbibed tendencies to oppose injustice and oppression; to put us in our place amongst the Worldly religions as “just another path”.
There will be no physical or petitionary protests against this film or any other from these quarters, nor should there be. I can wholly appreciate that art is not subject to constraints of any kind, or that it should even be reflective of reality – that is the right of artistic licence – but where art is used with the sole intention of portraying a hidden agenda does it still remain art? Has it not crossed over into a form of corporate exploitation? Some might argue that the producers or financiers of such films (‘Char Sahibzade’ being a good example) have been Sikhs themselves, but whether intentional or oblivious to what they are creating, it is the right of any Sikh to question and ask whether what is being shown is appropriate. The acclaimed author Ajmer Singh expressed this extensively in a video discussion for Punjab-based media outlet Sikh Siyasat – a video which makes for incredibly insightful viewing about the box office hit that is ‘Char Sahibzade’, a film which I, quite alone, found to be undesirable.
Unfortunately, Sikhs as a whole have looked at the World and tried to imitate it. What the Abrahamic religions and South Asian traditions have produced, we simply try to replicate, substituting our own characters and places for theres. Leaving aside the deeper issue here of an inferiority complex, what we are also ignoring is the vastness of Sikh arts themselves that go back to the time of Guru Nanak himself. In an article I authored last month, I transcribed the words of an academic, Professor Jagdish Singh which are most appropriate here:
“How Sikhs see the World and everyday life – this is the type of art that will truly represent Sikh cinema. Real Sikh cinema is not to produce films portraying the Gurus and their sacrifices; we will showcase Sikhs and this way of life in its true form, how our ideology can solve issues that impact modern life. These are the artistic endeavours that will reflect true Sikh cinema.”
It is in light of this school of thought that we at NAUJAWANI.com are producing a feature film titled ‘Their Last Stand’ to explore the dialogue and drama that unfolds as twelve people trapped in the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar in 1984 as the Indian State invades, reach a most difficult decision. Ours is a story (for which we have produced a short film version – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPm6R0Y0qdc) that reflects the human experience, through the eyes of the Sikh psyche. It is a film that we want to make to the best of our ability and so we are crowd-funding the project with rewards for contributors that reflect their investment. I’m not expecting tens of thousands to find their way to us and make this film into a box office blockbuster, but I would like to hope that it appeals to some of the more discerning cinema goers who are interested to see what can be created when the fetters of the ruling slave-masters are smashed to pieces. It is our response to the production of “Sikh” films that are at least in my opinion, anything but.