Laal Singh Chaddha

The latest Bollywood film brings a breeze of fresh air at a time when India faces 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 many major political events, including the 1984 Sikh Genocide that followed the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Her mother is forced to cut his hair to protect him from the mobs who target Sikhs with long hair during the state sponsored massacre. He also observes from a distance other ugly developments, such as the demolition of an ancient Babri mosque by supporters of the currently ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government back in 1992.

In any situation of sectarian violence, his mother keeps trying to save him from trouble, telling him that he should remain home as malaria has broken out in the country. He therefore identifies religion with epidemics, and remains non-religious even as he begins to sport a flowing beard and turban like a practicing 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 of the film, without even watching it, accusing Aamir Khan of being “Hinduphobic” and making “anti-India” statements. He has previously acted in PK, a film that was critical of superstition that is so rampant in Hinduism, and has shared his concerns over growing religious hatred in India, just stating the facts. After all, attacks on minorities, especially Muslims, have spiked ever since Modi became the leader in 2014. Because of that, Laal Singh Chaddha became a target of a smear campaign.

Even my favourite, 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, and the trolls started calling to boycott the film 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 political environment has eclipsed the Indian cinema.

The boycott calls were enough provocation for me to go and watch the first show on Thursday, August 11 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 Hindu supremacists. It gives a message of hope for secular India and deals with intersectionality of the challenges faced by minorities – the Muslims, the Christians, the Sikhs and those with disabilities. Why would it appeal to 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. The BJP supporters should die of shame 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.

Gurpreet Singh  is a journalist


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