By Vivek Raj
In most development-oriented countries, elections are contested in the name of education, health, employment, social and communal harmony, poverty, population growth, crime control, corruption, drug abuse, environmental problems, the welfare of farmers and other marginalized and underprivileged sections of society, etc. But our country India is unique in many ways. Here elections are contested by paying little attention to the issues mentioned above (little because it can be observed at least in the manifesto of the parties). But the major focus is on the dirty tricks of religious aggression and communal violence, polarization based on caste and religion, luring voters by giving them money and liquors, fielding candidates of criminal background, etc.
One of the major issue which helped NDA in 2014 Lok Sabha election to form the government was the issue of Ram Mandir – heating up since ‘The Ram Rath Yatra’ (1990) of the BJP and its Hindu nationalist affiliates – along with discontent of people from the scandals of UPA government. This issue worked as Brahmastra for the NDA to win the faith of Hindus, a major faction of the Indian population as the majority of people in India act blindly in the name of religion and caste. However, in Lok Sabha election 2019, the issue of Ram Mandir was not as prominent as in Lok Sabha election 2014. In the purview of this scenario, the film Mohalla Assi (2018), based on Dr. Kashi Nath Singh’s popular novel Kashi Ka Assi, dealing with commercialization of pilgrimage city and fake gurus luring tourists, is very relevant. The very release of this movie, directed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, and the stay on it by a Delhi court (30 June, 2015) for allegedly hurting religious sentiments is quite interesting (after its initial delay in release because of an allegation of nonpayment to its director and use of abusive language). Set in the post-independence period, Mohalla Assi is a satirical-comedy drama film exploring the complexities and changes which have occurred over some time due to the commercialization of Assi Ghat and its surroundings.
Now, Assi Ghat is one of the ghats on the bank of the holy Ganges in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), a city of temples. The story of the film revolves around the dilemma of an orthodox priest and Sanskrit teacher named Dharamnath Pandey (Sunny Deol) and his wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar). They must either embrace change or remain glued to traditional-religious holds, fighting those succumbing to the increasing demands commercialization of this pilgrimage city. It becomes tougher and tougher for Pandey, owing to the growing obsolescence of Sanskrit and dearth of traditional jobs for pundits. The film also takes us through the events in 1990ss including Ram Janmabhoomi movement and Mandal Commission implementation. The setting of the movie in Varanasi is also very vital from both the point of view politics and religion.
The film stars Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Ravi Kishan, Saurabh Shukla, Mukesh Tiwari, Rajendra Gupta, Mithilesh Chaturvedi, and Seema Azmi. Along with the dilemma and complexities of the characters which are the main focus of the movie, Pappu’s Tea Stall is the axis around which reflection and commentaries on problems dealt in the movie revolve. It is a social space where characters from different ideologies gather and dissent and debate ongoing events. In this habit of discussion at the tea stall, characters also discuss the issue of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in which several characters take part.
In the past few years, much religious and communal violence has taken place in India. India, known for its cultural-religious-communal diversity and harmony, appears to be at a loss. A character (Rajendra Gupta) in the debate at the stall makes a thought-provoking remark regarding the Ayodhya dispute of Rama Mandir and Babri Masjid. He says, “Lord Rama had gone to exile for peace and harmony of Ayodhya and their so-called devotees are fighting for building a temple.” This dispute and the resulting hatred create a strong rift between the Hindus and Muslims which was earlier not the case. Perhaps we have forgotten the horrific situation during the partition of India. The feeling of insecurity based on religion has also been shown in the movie. There are several things which people of India can learn from the discussions in Mohalla Assi as a reminder of where we are heading towards. We need to be aware of this and other dirty tricks of political parties which are following the idea of “Divide and Rule”. We must act like sincere citizens of the largest democracy in the world and try not to get trapped in the dirty tricks of politics.
Debates at Pappu’s Tea Stall by characters in the movie Mohalla Assi succeed in making us aware about the ongoing problems in Varanasi as well as issues of national importance such as Ram Janmabhoomi Movement and Mandal Commission. The movie presents a reflection on these issues and urges us to think logically. Taking a cue from movies like these we should try to look at multiple aspects of any event and its impact on our lives. Recent news of organizing an iftaar party by Ayodhya Sita Ram Temple and announcement of Shiv Bhandara by Meerut’s Jama Majid is certainly soothing.
Vivek Raj is a research scholar in the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University. His research focuses on ritual economy of his native town Gaya (a city in Bihar). Along with academic interest in cultural studies, he also takes a keen interest in politics.
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