The blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan rescues Hinduism from Hindutva and restores it to what it remains to a large extent even today–a loose faith which in some ways embodies the spirit of “live and let live.

Jyoti Punwani ([email protected]) is a Mumbai-based journalist.

Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi could well have been your average Bajrang Dal activist. Son of the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha chief, he is totally devoted to Hanuman, hence his nickname Bajrangi. His favourite greeting is “Jai Sri Ram,” and he makes no bones about his respect for upper castes, his dislike for meat lovers and “Mohammedans’’ who follow a paraya dharm, and his hatred for Pakistan.

But the hero of Bajrangi Bhaijaan turns out to be the antithesis of the typical macho Bajrang Dal lout. In the akhaada, where his father takes him to learn wrestling, he is reduced to helpless giggles because the combative sport induces in him a tickling sensation. Nor can he cope with the exacting discipline of the RSS shakha. And far from being a war cry, as the RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal has made it, Bajrangi’s “Jai Sri Ram” is said quietly, with genuine devotion.

Maybe the film-maker did not intend it, but Bajrangi Bhaijaan rescues Hinduism from Hindutva and restores it to what it thankfully remains to a large extent even today—a loose faith which in some ways embodies the spirit of “live and let live” (of course, this spirit does not extend to the so-called lower castes and to women). A faith in which Ram is not an aggressive warrior god, Hanuman not a militant destroyer, and “Jai Sri Ram” not a cry of hate. This version of Hinduism is what the RSS has, for decades, been trying to change into a narrow, aggressive Hindutva.

Return from the Edge

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the story of a devout Hindu brought back from the edge of fanaticism. By the end of the film, our hero is a changed man. Yet, he has not abandoned his core beliefs. His faith in Hanuman remains unchanged; as does his vegetarianism. The change lies in his new-found accommodation of those whose beliefs run counter to his own; the spirit of “live and let live” which now extends for him even to the enemy—to Pakistanis, and therefore to Muslims.

There is barely any heavy-duty preaching in this process. First, the transformation works primarily because Salman Khan is the hero, and whatever he does, audiences will love him. Second, even as a bigot, Bajrangi is likeable. He is simple, good-hearted, generous—in fact, the classic old-style Hindi film hero, who can also, when needed, bash up evil people and withstand the worst kind of torture. So when he sheds his bigotry, he becomes even more likeable.

What is significant is that this change is wrought in the hero through his encounters with Muslims. But no Indian Muslim features in the film, except as shadowy figures in the background, to be spoken of disparagingly and best avoided. It is Pakistani Muslims—the ultimate figures of hatred for extremist Hindu Indians—who change Bajrangi, starting from the little girl who latches on to him as her anchor in an alien country.

Natural Change

Appalled when he discovers she is a meat-eater, by the end of the film, Bajrangi has not just risked his life for this Pakistani, but is ready to risk his hard-earned freedom from a Pakistani jail by turning back from the Indian side of the border and re-entering Pakistani territory, only for a final embrace with her. In India, living with Hindus, her hair was left carelessly open. Back in Pakistan, she reverts to her original self, properly Muslim with a tight headscarf, the Bajrangi pendant gone. The change seems just natural, and has no bearing on their relationship.

The headscarf wearing girl’s cry of “Jai Sri Ram,” the second phrase she says after miraculously finding her voice, is not a triumph of Hindu India over Muslim Pakistan. It is more an expression of the mutual respect for each other, including each other’s faith, that the film shows is—or should be—the heart of the relationship between Indians and Pakistanis. While his love for the little Pakistani girl forces the mosque-fearing Bajrangi to enter one in Delhi, he finally grows out of his intolerance only in Pakistan, after meeting devout Muslims who accept him warmly as a devout Indian Hindu.

Apart from a few policemen and officials, the films shows Pakistanis treating this proud Hanuman-bhakt from India as they would any other human being. The scenes of Pakistani officials breaking the rules to help this Indian  intruder are far-fetched, but the message conveyed is not—it is man-made rules that divide the two countries.  It is significant that the final scene takes place on the border of Kashmir, with Pakistanis rushing to break open their gate to enable their Bhaijaan to go home.

India Kashmir, Pakistan Kashmir

The reference to Kashmir comes but once in the film. “I’ve to go to Kashmir?’’ Bajrangi asks the friendly Pakistani maulana who helps him escape the cops. “You mean back to India?’’ he adds. “No, we too have a little bit of Kashmir with us,’’ laughs the maulana.

In those few words lies the matter-of-fact acceptance of Kashmir as a disputed territory, as much part of Pakistan as of India. While in real life, the two governments remain permanently hostile because of their claims to Kashmir, in the film it is a Pakistani Kashmiri child who acts as the bond between the people of both countries.

Drop the hostility, we can be friends despite our different faiths, is what the film underlines throughout. Does the difference matter, it asks. In India, it is taken for granted that the lost Pakistani Muslim child is an Indian Hindu. In Pakistan, the child’s Hindu saviour is treated with respect.

In fact, Pakistanis are shown as more accommodative of Hindus from India, than Indian Hindus are of Pakistanis or even of Indian Muslims. The Pakistani journalist laughs at Bajrangi folding his hands reverentially when he sees a monkey. But seeing the Pakistani girl do the same, he too follows suit, just in the spirit of things.

Recognising Bajrangi’s reluctance to say “Khuda Hafiz,” the maulana asks him what Indians say when they depart. Before Bajrangi can reply, it is the journalist who replies: “Jai Sri Ram, that’s what they say.” Without any hesitation, the maulana says “Jai Sri Ram.”

Do these different rituals matter, asks the film.

Hindus and Muslims in India

Bajrangi Bhaijaan is not only about the meaninglessness of the enmity between the two neighbours; it is also very much about the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India. The film does not just break stereotypes; it smashes some holy cows which have today become very sacrosanct indeed. Fanatic vegetarianism; caste “purity”; the concept of “foreign religions”; the phobia about mosques and, finally, the biggest of them all: Pakistanis are the enemy.

The film demolishes these myths simply by showing the other side. In Pakistan, Bajrangi’s vegetarianism is regarded as a sign of ill-health; for the little girl lost in India, it is natural to enter the mosque with its daadhi-topi-wallahs, and not a temple.

The hero’s adherence to these sacred cows disintegrates in the face of his love for the little girl who reposes absolute trust in him. The vegetarian Bajrangi who cannot bear the smell of meat ends up celebrating meat-eating, singing: “sare upvaas aaj nasht ho jaaye, le aao aaj dharm brasht jo jaaye” (let all fasts be destroyed today, bring on (the meat), let religious purity be violated today). By the end of the film, Bajrangi has eaten at the same table with her; slept inside a mosque; worn a burqa. “All that is left is circumcision,” he laments—and the audience laughs.

Turning Point for Bajrangi

But these acts have been thrust upon him. The turning point comes when Bajrangi asks to visit a dargah, ties a thread there and prays. At the end of the film, while he cannot bring himself to say “Khuda Hafiz,” he does end up abandoning, for the first time, his trademark “Jai Sri Ram” for a respectful, silent “salaam” to his Pakistani supporters. Limping to the border because of the way he has been tortured by Pakistani police, he unhesitatingly accepts the helping hands offered by ordinary bearded and skull-cap-wearing Pakistanis.

The relationship between Bajrangi and the little girl for whom he risks everything embodies the ideal relationship between India and Pakistan, and also between Hindus and Muslims in India. As the stronger neighbour, India should act not as a bullying Big Brother but one confident enough of its strength to go out of its way to help the younger brother, a true Bhaijaan. As far as Hindus and Muslims in India are concerned, there is no question that the relationship must be that of elder and younger brother (or sister).

The film brings home another reminder. Since Narendra Modi began his Lok Sabha election campaign in September 2013, we have witnessed a deliberate strategy by him and his party to polarise Hindus and non-Hindus. Muzaffarnagar, where Hindus and Muslims lived in peace for decades, now has villages devoid of Muslims who have run away and built new ghettos for themselves. The children there miss one another; it is the adults who refuse to live together. Attempts to repeat Muzaffarnagar have been made elsewhere by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Validating an Axiom

In this context, Bajrangi Bhaijaan validates a simple axiom that has been practised across the country for generations: close interaction with other communities is the best antidote to communal hostility. The Brahmin family at the centre of the film lives surrounded by Muslims and mosques, but keeps a scrupulous distance from both, thanks to the father’s fanaticism. (It is obvious the wife and daughter do not subscribe to his views, but typically, they do not confront him.) Their child, however, is thrilled at the prospect of his new friend spending a month more with him because, ironically enough, Hindu fanatics have forced a closure of the Pakistani embassy.  The fact that the newcomer is Muslim, and Pakistani, matters little to him.

Being an out-and-out commercial film works both for Bajrangi Bhaijaan and against it. Can a Salman Khan film with all its song and dance routines, its heavily made-up heroine, its melodramatic background score, and Khan’s own larger than life presence, be taken seriously? At the same time, because the hero is Salman Khan, will audiences be more influenced than they would be by a slice-of-reality film with authentic actors?

Reconciling Contradictions

So far, the film is the second biggest hit ever in Hindi cinema, the first being PK, which demolished even more precious holy cows than Bajrangi Bhaijaan does. The best thing is that it has broken box-office records in Pakistan too. “You think your Bajrang Bali will help you in Pakistan too?,” the Pakistani journalist asks Bajrangi teasingly. Obviously, Bajrangi’s faith has not put off Pakistanis. Perhaps, the people of both the countries are saying something the governments are not hearing.

Bur are they? How does one reconcile the popularity of these films with the continuing support for god-men, and the frequency of communal riots since last year? Are audiences appreciating films which mock their own beliefs because of the hugely entertaining manner in which they do so, or does this appreciation signify a change in their own attitudes? Seeing Bajrangi Bhaijaan at a single screen theatre with regular movie goers of all communities, one was pleasantly surprised to see them laughing at Bajrangi’s horrified expression as the little girl bit into a fleshy chicken leg or when the caste-obsessed pehelwan spluttered with rage. A sophisticated audience at a multiplex was less expressive. But in both theatres, parents had chosen to bring their little children along; obviously, they were not afraid of the latter being “corrupted” by the film’s audacity.

What about Real Life?

There is, however, a dark side to the film. Its makers have refused to include in the film the fact that it is inspired by a true incident of a deaf-mute Indian girl who lost her way into Pakistan 13 years ago. She has since been looked after by Karachi’s famous philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, whose wife named her Geeta. The girl has not been able to give her address, and Pakistani activists such as Aziz Burney have failed to track her family. Had the film-makers made this little inclusion, and given her picture and contact details, that girl may well have been home by now.

Geeta’s story embodies the ideal relationship between the people of India and Pakistan that Bajrangi Bhaijaan portrays—the Edhis have even built a temple-room for her.  Including this information would have served to break stereotypes of Pakistanis more effectively than any of the film’s make-believe scenes. So why was it not done? One can only speculate, but the reasons do not seem pretty.