A recent Bollywood film brings a fresh breeze of air at a time when India is facing a growing threat of Hindu extremism under which space for pluralism and diversity is constantly shrinking.
Laal Singh Chaddha is the story of an autistic Sikh man who is in love with a Christian woman. The two become friends at a school where Laal (Aamir Khan) is constantly bullied. Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan) takes him into her embrace in a hostile classroom environment.
However, as they grow, she walks away to become a movie star, leaving Laal behind to fight his own battles for survival in a difficult world, only to reunite with him later.
Laal witnesses too many major political events, including the 1984 Sikh Genocide that followed the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Laal's mother is forced to cut his hair to protect him from the mobs who target Sikhs with long hair during the state-sponsored massacre in early November 1984.
He also observes from a distance other ugly developments over the years, such as the demolition of an ancient Babri mosque back in 1992 by supporters of the currently ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government.
His mother keeps trying to save him from trouble by telling him that he should remain home as malaria has broken out in the country whenever there's sectarian violence. He therefore identifies religion with an epidemic and remains nonreligious even as he begins sporting a flowing beard and turban like a practising Sikh after his mother passes away.
It’s not surprising to see why the Hindu Right was so alarmed by the film. Apologists of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been calling for a boycott even without watching it, accusing Aamir Khan of being “Hinduphobic” and making “anti-India” statements.
He previously acted in PK, a film critical of superstition that is so rampart in Hinduism. He has also shared his concerns over growing religious hatred in India.
This was in spite of the fact that he was stating the facts. After all, attacks on minorities, especially Muslims, have spiked since Modi became prime minister in 2014. Khan's comments are one reason why Laal Singh Chaddha became a target of smear campaign.
Even my favourite Bollywood star, Kareena Kapoor Khan—who is married to a Muslim actor and adopted Khan as her last name despite being a Hindu—has faced such animosity. The calls for a boycott began almost two years ago.
That prompted me to write a book on her. From Nazneen to Naina is a political statement on how the toxic environment of India has enveloped Indian cinema.
The boycott calls were enough provocation for me to go and watch the show at Strawberry Hill Cineplex in Surrey. Despite it being a working day, close to 50 people showed up at noon and there was a huge applause by the audience as the film ended. It was a clear victory of Khans and defeat of the bigots who have vitiated the social atmosphere of India.
After watching the movie, I am less surprised over the backlash from by supremacists. Laal Singh Chaddha gives a message of hope for secular India and deals with intersectionality of the challenges faced by minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and those with disabilities.
Why would it appeal the people in power who are determined to redefine India as an intolerant Hindu theocracy under which religious minorities are expected to live as second-class citizens?
Not only that, such a movie directly challenges other poisonous and anti-Muslim films recently made and patronized by the government in India. BJP supporters should feel humiliated as Laal Singh Chaddha also questions Islamic extremism, unlike the one-sided films they have been promoting without any shame.
Instead of expecting any endorsement or validation from Modi and his cohorts, we all need to flood theatres and watch it to show our solidarity with the makers of the film.