An irrational act – Narendra Dabholkar and Amrit Manthan

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The shocking cold-blooded assassination of rationalist activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar on 20 Aug 2013 draws a parallel with pre-Independence progressive Maharashtra and how far it has regressed since. In 1934, two of Maharashtra’s favorite sons got together to collaborate to address the specifically archaic issue of exploitation of religion in the garb of blind faith.

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Influenced by 19th century reformist movement, Narayan Hari Apte, a bestselling novelist, was writing simple stories with soul-stirring themes. And film director V. Shantaram, co-founder of Prabhat Studios in Pune, with a slew of box office hits like Ayodhya ka Raja and Sinhagad saw art as a harbinger of change. Blending artistic merit with social concerns was to become his hallmark.

This mutual engagement of minds resulted in prying open a contentious can of worms which promulgated the cult of necromancy and sorcery. The film Amrit Manthan (1934), written by Apte and directed by Shantaram was a caustic critique of god men and the, then, prevailing conformist edifices.

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Nalini Tarkhud as the princess

Diving headlong into the age-old ritual of sacrifice, human included, to appease the Gods, Amrit Manthan was a direct assault on this antiquated practice. The plot revolved around a cult that worships the Devi Maa Chandika and is led by the high priest Rajguru.

Like Emperor Ashoka, when the enlightened King Krantivarma embraces ahimsa and bans this inhuman tradition, an enraged Rajguru hypnotizes a disciple to assassinate the king. After the deed, the assassin is betrayed by Rajguru and during the coronation of the princess, is tortured and killed.

As the plot unravels, the conspiracy is unveiled and the indoctrinated citizens awaken and rise in revolt, royalty and peasantry join hands to overthrow the evil priest.

Subtly cloaked as an analogy to urge freedom of mind and body for the people and to overthrow all constricting regimes, including the British,Amrit Manthan was the first silver jubilee of Indian film industry, running 25 weeks. Shantaram, having visited Germany the previous year used multiple techniques he observed there: deep shadows, Dutch angles and for the first time in Indian cinema, the telephoto lens to show screen filling extreme close-up of the hypnotic eyes of actor Chandra Mohan, who played the evil priest.

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Samudra Manthan

Inspired by the ancient Puranic tale of Samudra Manthan, which appears in the Bhagvadapurana, the underlying metaphor was not lost on the audience: for change to occur, a disturbance or upheaval in the status quo is imperative.

This can only come about from education and comprehension but before that stage is breached, from this churning will arise vicious elements demanding supreme personal sacrifice.

The 19th century egalitarian movement, which brought Maharashtra to the forefront, had the intellectually driven progressive thinkers rebel against the archaic religious beliefs of the Brahmanical orthodoxy, which brooked no arguments. Driven by the teachings of erstwhile saints like Dyaneshwar, Eknath and Tukaram, issues such as abolition of the caste system, sati and female infanticide, uplift and education of women, remarriage of widows and championing of education for all were brought to the fore.

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Ironically, the ordinance making Maharashtra Eradication of Blind Faith Bill as a law came the day after this two-century-old battle claimed its latest victim recently.

The gun that killed Dabholkar was fired near a park but it may as well have been at the altar of a bigoted belief system.

In a world where personal liberty is threatened by fanatics and detrimental customs impede intellectual progress, would Apte and Shantaram have any place in 21st century India? Would they have faced death threats if Amrit Manthan was released today?

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Will we ever learn that religion was created to include and embrace, that the primary purpose of faith is to give us succour and strength; and anything that precludes the possibility of love for humanity is to be abhorred and abandoned, let alone practiced or preached.

Here’s the link for this article published in the Sunday Spectrum Edition of The Tribune.

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