In an earlier time, when political India was a lot more innocent - despite Indira Gandhi's Emergency excesses and other such political perversions - Bollywood directors oftentimes took it upon themselves to package 'social messages' into their cinematic offerings. Their scripts may have been packed to the gills with masala twists and turns and formulaic elements that are calculated to maximise cinemagoers' vicarious pleasures, but the directors endeavoured valiantly to appear to be 'socially responsible' in the subliminal message they slipped in. The films themselves were a kind of sugar coating to the bitter pill that they felt had to be administered to Indian masses.
In January 1977, when Indira Gandhi's Emergency was still in force, was released Manmohan Desai's iconic film Amar, Akbar, Anthony, with its syrupy-sweet message of 'secularism'. It milked what had by then become one of the enduring cinematic cliches of Bollywood - three brothers, separated when they were young by the quirk of fate - who find themselves abandoned at the foot of a Gandhi statue, much like the boys in the photograph at left. In the film, the three boys grow up under the influence of different faiths - the first as a Hindu, the second as a Muslim, the third as a Christian, and, after much singing, romancing and villianous action (and coincidences that happen only in films), are reunited.
With an easily digestible, entertaining storyline that advanced the merits of mutual respect for all religions, the film was enormously well received, not least because of the star value of its lead actors. The masses may have come for some time-pass entertainment, but when they left the movie halls, they were brimming with treacly, feel-good sentiments that reinforced their pride in their respective faiths without diminishing their respect for others'.
But look what a generation of politicking with religion, an abuse of the concept of secularism, and a widespread slide into intolerance have done to Amar, Akbar and Anthony.
Today, each of those brothers-separated-at-birth has become an excessively prickly, easily offended specimen nursing a wounded pride that reeks of latent insecurity. Each of them has yielded space in his mind to what may have earlier been merely a stray thought on the fringe - to the point where the outlier sentiment has come to colonise the mind.
Today's Amar, for instance, likely sees Hindu right-wing groups that disrupt fashion shows on the grounds that they "denigrated Hindu gods and goddesses" as defenders of their faith. According to this report, the Kingfisher Ultra Vizag Fashion Week, organised in Visakhapatnam, had to be cancelled on Sunday following a complaint from a local VHP leader that the models had had pictures of Ganesh and Lakshmi on their "skimpy" clothes. Police said they had booked a case against the organisers on the charge that they had deliberate and maliciously intended to "outrage religions feelings."
Elsewhere, in Mangalore, the self-appointed vigilante force of the Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the RSS, targeted young women who were smoking and drinking at a restaurant, ostensibly on the grounds that they were an affront to "Indian culture". Police intervened to ease the tension, although no crime was committed. (More here.)
Likewise, today's Akbar too is touched to the quick. He is offended by everything from a slick spy thriller from Kamal Haasan to author Salman Rushdie's participation in a literary festival in Kolkata to an all-girl rock band in Kashmir. And in every case, he will intimidate governments into capitulation merely on the threat of disrupting law and order.
It's true, of course, that at least in one case - in Kashmir - Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has, somewhat rarely for a politician in power, given public support to the intimidated group and dismissed those calling for a ban on the all-girl rock band as "morons". But, as this editorial points out, Omar Abdullah's influence doesn't extend beyond the Twitter world into the real world; on the ground, the group, Pragaash, has not been reassured by his expression of support and the band members' families feel sufficiently intimidated to force the girls to disband the group.
And what of Anthony? When his separated-at-birth brothers are so prickly, how can he be immune? After all, it's a congenital disease that afflicts the entire family. So, Anthony today is offended by Mani Ratnam's latest cinematic offering Kadal. And much like the extra-judicial, extra-constitutional authority wielded by Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu to get Kamal Haasan to excise seven minutes of his film Vishwaroopam - Anthony now wants some scenes deleted from Kadal.
According to this report, the Indian Christian Democratic Party had filed a complaint with the police alleging that Mani Ratnam's film had "objectionable scenes" referring to Christianity, which it wants deleted. If the police failed to act on their complaint, the party warned of "intensified protests."
The report adds: Christudas, a representative of the organisation, told reporters that the filmmaker had hurt the sentiments of the people belonging to the Christian community. "We have demanded that the director remove scenes which hurt sentiments of the Christian community. They should take action against the director if the scenes are not immediately removed," he said.
So, if there's one thing that unites Amar, Akbar and Anthony in 2013, it isn't any pride in a shared cultural heritage, but a prickliness about their own faith that sees imagined slights everywhere and in every action. And, as often in such cases where the voice of reason has been stilled, it manifests itself in a muscular assertion of religious identity and in brutish bans on anything that is deemed "offensive".
All this can be directly traced to the failure of successive governments over the decades to conduct themselves in the true spirit that resonated with the 'secular' siblings of 1977. Instead, over time, governments have perverted the notion of secularism by pandering to religious sentiments - first on one side, then on the other - and effectively whittled their own authority to the point where governments can be held to ransom by even the most inconsequential fringe groups.
Today's Amar, Akbar and Anthony are tearing away at each other's souls. And, sadly, this isn't a Bollywood film that ends after three hours.