This piece was first published on Firstpost.
Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan released MSG – Messenger of God on Valentine’s Day this year. In a miracle that rivals the Immaculate Conception, the godman has birthed a sequel just seven months later. It’s called MSG 2 – The Messenger. If there is a god, then no doubt he’s heaving a sigh of relief that “of god” has been dropped from the title. Sadly, no one else can feel relieved – certainly not this writer, who paid Rs 250 for a ticket and thus unwillingly contributed to MSG 2‘s kitty.
I walked out of MSG – Messenger of God because to consider it worthy of being reviewed offended my sensibilities. Not because I’m Bengali (our sensibilities are notoriously delicate and sophisticated) but because I have a functioning brain and I know the difference between cinema and propaganda. Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is not a filmmaker and what he makes aren’t films. When we watch his on-screen spectacles, we are choosing to be entertained by the most tasteless exhibition of rhinestones in the history of human endeavour and letting a man with thoroughly questionable credentials get away with seeming like he’s a harmless entertainer.
Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan is neither harmless nor entertaining. If he was either, then one presumes he wouldn’t have to round up crowds of people from other parts of the country to fill theatres.
In Mumbai, there was only one morning show of MSG 2 and it was a full house. When I reached the cinema about 45 minutes before the show time, there was a man near the ticket counter who was talking loudly on the phone. “Twenty four were booked and I’ve bought 96 more,” he said in Punjabi-accented Hindi.
(When I went to get my ticket, I was told at the counter that there were just two seats available. “They’ve made block bookings,” said the man at the counter, with a pained expression.)
Fifteen minutes before the start of the show, the hordes started gathering outside the cinema’s entrance. Dressed in their Friday best, they came in like a procession. “Break it up,” ordered a young man wearing reflective wayfarers like the ones “Guruji” sports in MSG 2. “Go in in groups of two or three, not more than that,” he said. “Remember, two or three.”
Another man said, “Those who are going to the counter, over here.” Ten-odd people, mostly men, gathered around him. “You go one by one, and ask for tickets to the man on the other side of the glass.”
Further away, a woman was talking about the afternoon show’s timings. Someone else was distributing tickets to the people around him. One person asked him, “When will we go in?” He told them to be patient, that they would be told when it was time. I didn’t get the point of this vague answer until much later.
When the film started, the theatre was about half full. It was evident that most of the audience were not from Maharashtra. Either that or they’re unused to watching films in theatres. As the slide announced that the national anthem was about to start, just seven people stood up (four of them were film reviewers, incidentally). It took a few bars of “Jana Gana Mana” and some hissing to get everyone else in the theatre up on their feet.
By the time 10 minutes of the film had unfolded, more audience members started trickling in. Two or three people – most of them brandishing the torchlight on their phones – walked up and down the aisles, occasionally talking to someone who was seated. From time to time, one person would leave and another would take their seat. Sometimes groups of two or three would leave. Their seats would be filled by different people. It’s as though the audience was on rotation.
On screen, Guruji was telling us about the paramilitary relief force that he has set up, which has saved lives in Nepal and West Bengal. From being the man with a bastion of hospitals in MSG, Guruji is now the Dear Leader of an actual army it seems. His deputies wear boxy suits and have medals pinned to their chest. Just to make sure you don’t read too much into that or the fact that there’s footage of mass marriages that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan has held for adivasi couples in order to “civilize them”, Guruji sings a love song. To himself. As in, he gazes into the eyes of his own mirror image and croons romantic lyrics. Praise be.
In MSG 2, which we’re told right at the onset is based on true events and “a fiction” simultaneously, adivasis need civilising and Guruji is the man to do it. Thanks to his awesomeness, he’s able to see adivasis are in fact human despite their tiger-striped-leopard-spotted boxers, brown body paint, dreadlocks, blackened teeth and the whooping noises that some of them make. So what if in addition to all this, the adivasis also eat beef, get drunk and don’t believe in marriage? They’re also cannibals, primitive, cruel, stupid and have a surprising affinity for shell jewellery, which is curious given MSG 2 appears to be set in landlocked north India.
Fortunately, Guruji is here to hose adivasis down, and give them manicures, clothes and moral values. Next thing we know, the adivasis emerge fairer, without dreadlocks and with brightly-coloured ensembles and nail paint. That a man with Guruji’s fashion sense is going to give any one advice on what to wear is itself astounding, but before you can be ironic, you have to listen to Guruji’s offensive spiel on how adivasis just need a love to go from asabhya to sabhya.
On the plus side, at least Guruji is anti child marriage and recognises that girls should be given an education. There’s also a contest between Guruji and an elephant and without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say the bigger belly wins.
It’s worth pointing out that Sant Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singhji Insan may be pulling out his gold-trimmed armguards and his Made-In-China sudarshan chakra, but his audience was not riveted by either his antics or his lectures. From my last-row perch, I could see a constellation of glowing screens, which is never an indicator of engagement (at least not to what’s on the bigger screen). There were no applauses, no cheers. There may have been a snore or two.
About 15 minutes before the interval, when I was trying to decide if I should leave the cinema now or let my intelligence and aesthetics be assaulted till the end of the first half, the seat next to me emptied. A woman sat down a little while later. “You’re not allowed to record the film,” she told me. I told her I would rather die than have even a second of this on my phone. She blinked. I realised I’d spoken in English so I said in Hindi that I wasn’t recording it.
“You turned on your phone,” she said. “I saw the light.” Then she realised that I was using the phone to light up the page on which I was taking notes (yes, it’s true, I have notes for MSG 2).
“What are you writing?” she asked me. “You can’t write down the story.”
“There’s a story?”
“I’m allowed to write anything I want actually,” I told her.
“You can’t write the whole story,” she insisted.
“According to whom?”
“I want to see what you’ve written.”
I handed her my note book, confident in my ghastly handwriting. I can barely make out my notes and I’m the one who wrote them. This hapless woman didn’t have a chance in hell.
By this time, one of the torchlight patrolmen had showed up. He peered down at us.
“She’s writing in her book,” the woman told him. He shone the light at my notebook for a moment and then on my face.
“You can’t write in here,” he told me.
“Who says?” I asked.
“It’s not allowed.”
“Who says?” I repeated.
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” I asked in return.
“You’re far away from home,” I told him.
On screen, an eagle had dropped what looked like a coconut on an adivasi village. The coconut cracked open and it appeared to be full of blood instead of, well, coconut.
“It’s not allowed, to record the story,” said the young man.
“I’m not recording it.”
“You’re writing it.”
“First of all, I’m not writing the story. Secondly, even if I did, it’s allowed.” I smiled with what I hope was saccharine sweetness.
“There are more of us here,” he told me.
“That doesn’t mean the rules change,” I replied. “It’s still not a crime to write in a cinema. I’m pretty sure it is a crime to bring in more than one person with one ticket though.” I smiled at him again, inwardly cursing my ghastly Hindi grammar.
The young man switched his torch off. “You want me to sit here?” he said in Punjabi to the woman beside me. The woman shook her head. He went and dislodged a boy from the row in front of me and sat down.
On screen, an adivasi boy grabbed hold of a CGI snake and shook its head. A little later, Guruji revealed among his many miraculous talents is the ability to communicate telepathically with buffaloes. A buffalo whisperer – if that isn’t an honest-to-goodness Punjabi superpower, I don’t know what is.
I left the cinema at interval. When I reached the office, in my inbox was an email informing me MSG 2 had had record-breaking first shows in Gurgaon. I’m expecting one about its box office run in Mumbai soon enough.