Monday, November 10, 2008

Holy Cow - Shooting with Paul Merton in Junagadh

Last March I worked on the now-infamous British documentary series Paul Merton in India. The most talked-about, debated and hated/loved story in the show was Paul visiting Junagadh, a town in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Lots of Hindu groups and individuals in the UK found the story on Naga Sadhus at the Shivratri festival offensive and insulting to the Hindu faith. Read the comments here on the Telegraph site and here on the Hindu Voice site.
Lots of Desis in the UK, stuck in the typical NRI time-warp, felt any mention of a Shivling and penis in the same sentence was insulting to the Hindu faith. As one of the production coordinators on the shoot, I took the crew to Junagadh to meet the crazy Naga Sadhus.

I know about Junagadh because I was born there and grew up there. I had seen the Shivratri fair and the antics of the Naga Sadhus since childhood and saw nothing particularly odd or bizarre about them. These were a group of men who had discarded everything including clothes and if they could pull trucks with their dicks, it just meant that Hinduism was too big or too huge for us to comprehend and this was just one of its manifestations - however bizarre.
It was a revelation filming the Shivratri festival, the sadhus and the millions of devotees who came from villages all around Junagadh. The devotees' reverence and faith for this crazy lot of Sadhus was amazing - it was there for everyone to see. Often we'd find a poor farmer or a bank official in a Safari suit sitting amicably with a stark naked sadhu and sharing a chillum - knowing that his faith allowed him this minor digression and the sky would not open up if they enjoyed a couple of heady drags. There were strange sights all around, and that the religion and society had space within them for this extreme-ness was exciting in itself.

Oneof the Sadhus was dressed like Merlin - with a pointy hat, dark glasses and purple hair - rightout of Hogwarts School, and a female Sadhvi walked around wearing a pink hat and nothing else. One of the disciples of the Sadhus we were sitting with said very proudly, "Maharaj can perform 501 tricks with his ling (penis)!".

None of the villagers or even the very respectable middle-class Hindu Gujjus found any of this strange - nobody's faith was threatened and nobody raised an eyebrow. Well, nobody except the devout in their plush sitting rooms in Leicester and Southall.

Naga Sadhus and Akharas are extreme forms of the Hindu faith - they are strange, bizarre and outlandish - like many other things in India and we were just there filming it. India is a fascinating mix of cultures, religions and no film can do complete justice to its huge store of bizarre and strange stories. It might embarrass us, but it's all unmissably there.

An Indian from the UK I bumped into at a hotel recently told me that she thought the Paul Merton show made fun of India. Well Ma'am, slimy, cunning Westerners did not put all those nutty things there - they have been among us ages and will continue being here forever - or at least I hope so!

While we can live happily amongst the squalid and the bizarre, there is a strange coyness about showing any of it, especially among fatcat NRIs who have happily abandoned all of it to live in the sanitised West, and are suddenly very protective about the image of 'their' land and religion. Yes, the Tatas have bought Jaguar, and we are a booming economy, but that doesn't stop your average Naga sadhu from enjoying his occasional chillum. Bum Bhole!
- Amit (for a change!)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The rest is silence

I'm not sure about this, but I suspect I'll never write a book because everything I want to say has been said already by two gentlemen: Berkeley Breathed in his Bloom County books, and Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury. Of the two, I enjoy Trudeau in his current form, and I LOVED Breathed in his '80s, '90s form. Of late, Breathed's comp-coloured extravaganzas somehow lack bite. I think a great comic artist-writer is a sort of oracle, spotting trends, and being able to see the pitfalls and blunders we are heading for. That was what I loved the early Breathed for. Now, only Trudeau sems to be doing it. Here he is on the elections - is he cool, or what??

PS: As i clicked publish post, news came that the O-man has won. Amazing and truly wonderful, but really given the royal republican mess made by GBW (who Trudeau symbolizes using a battered Roman-legionary-type helmet), was there any doubt? I mean, I was scared and had doubts that McCain would win - nothing against him specifically, but because it would mean an endorsement of everything gross that the republicans stand for. In true oracular style, Guru Trudeau at least had no doubts.