Commentary by Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston).
The SGPC and the Akaal Takhat have argued that Harinder Singh Sikka’s biggest bungle is that Nanak Shah Faqir violates the Sikh tenet of never portraying the character of Guru Nanak though an actor – something Sikka was aware of as he has openly claimed that computer animation and not an actor was used for Guru Nanak’s role.
One could argue that portraying the character of the Guru is the least of Sikka’s bungles. The more serious botches are elements of his endeavour that appear manifestly anti-thesis to the principles of Guru Nanak – the very philosophy that his movie is attempting to portray.
SACRIFICING THE TRUTH
The first virtue that comes to mind when contemplating Guru Nanak is Truth. His God was thus Sat Kartar or Satnam. He stood up for the truth to the clergy of his time, the political tyrants and social oppressors. He taught that “Truth was the highest virtue, higher still was truthful living.”
But Sikka is so devoid of even simple basic truths. His claim that he has used computer animation to create the character of Guru Nanak was a lie. An actor did play the role.
His claim that “the Jathedar of the Akaal Takhat Sahib Gyani Gurbachan Singh had watched Nanak Shah during a private viewing and was pleased with what he saw,” turned out to be devoid of truth as well.
The Jathedar refuted Sikka’s claim, saying that the filmmaker merely conveyed to him his “intention” of making a film on the Sikh religion, and that the subject matter of the film was never discussed.
There are other bigger untruths.
WHERE DID THE MONEY COME FROM.
Movie makers are forthright with their budgets and openly announce them as selling points. But Sikka preferred to spin tales of self-grandiosity, divine intervention and timely miracles.
Sikka said the mysterious Kashmiri woman who blessed him and was the inspiration behind Nanak Shah gave him two conditions: (i) he was not to borrow any money for the movie, and (ii) the proceeds of the movie are “not to be brought home.” He said he lived up to the first one, and will obey the second too.
Guru Nanak taught Sikhs to earn a decent living. Dhram dee Kirt, as the Guru called it. Sikhs all over the world earn their living through a variety of ways and take loans from financial institutions to buy their homes, cars and realize other endeavours. And all honest Sikhs are taught to bring home the proceeds of their honest labour to sustain themselves, their families; and to give out a dasvandh to the needy.
So why is Sikka extolling as a “virtue” the act of not borrowing money when he himself admits he had none of his own. And what is so virtuous about not bringing the proceeds home? After all his movie is the product of honest labour, is it not?
Does Sikka know something about the financing of this movie that he does not want his audiences to be aware of?
In his pronouncements, Sikka claims the money just came when he needed it. The making of Nanak Shah involved 5,000 personnel. Its shooting was spread over 18 months in locations spanning North to South and East to West of India. The six-minute artee scene alone involves 1,500 people shooting over 2 days. The Talwandi set was specially created over a vast plot of land. The movie’s post production was done at the world’s finest studios. So who paid for it?
Sikka can continue to claim that none of the 1,500 people in the artee scene were actors, so there wasn’t any need to pay them actor fees. The believability of such claims is low, to say the least.
So until and unless Sikka comes clean on the financing issue, it will be difficult to see his handiwork as dhram dee kirt. Sikka can start by telling us where the Rupees 35 crores actually came from?
Sikka also needs to come clean on his personal and professional role within the official Indian establishment. While in the Navy he admits he had access to information regarding the clandestine activities of the Kashmiri spy turned holy; by his own account he was allowed into Kargill war zone even after his retirement, and his book Calling Sehmet was launched on a Naval vessel by the then Chief of Navy.
These may all be co-incidences or his networking initiatives. But Sikhs have had sufficient difficulties with the Indian establishments for Sikka to have not been aware that such dealings of his would come into question at some point of his movie making endeavour.
WHAT’S WITH THE SCREEN ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS?
Nanak Shah pays gratitude to Indian Prime Minister ‘Shri’ Narendra Modi ‘Jee’, the Late ‘Shri’ Bal Thakeray ‘Jee’ and ‘Shri’ Uddhav Thakeray ‘Jee’. One is the founder of the nationalist right wing party Shiv Sena, the other its incumbent president, while Modi has enjoyed long association with both. It is thus natural for the movie’s audiences to ask Sikka at least three questions.
First, why has he chosen to accord the salutations of “Shri” and “Jee” to these three ordinary mortals while stripping Guru Nanak of even the customary “Ji” and relegating the Guru to a mere “faqir” instead?
Second, what are personalities whose party is known for its anti-Sikh agendas doing in a movie about the founder of Sikhi? What role did their party have in the story line and plot?
Third, is Sikka alluding to the party of the Modi, Bal and Uddhav when he says he was told by that Kashmiri spy to not borrow and not bring home the proceeds? Why borrow when someone’s agenda is financing it? And if that is indeed the case, then there will be nothing to “bring home” too because agendas do not come free. Only Sikka can answer these questions.
WHY THE MULTITUDE OF INACCURACIES?
Sikka claims Guru Nanak did not have discourses with anyone; he merely conversed through Shabads. So the movie has no conversations involving Guru Nanak. Whey then is there a banee in the Guru Granth Sahib titled “A discourse with the Sidhs.” Why then does Bhai Gurdas’ Vaars talk about Guru Nanak’s discourses with the yogis, brahmins, kazis, mullahs, rulers etc?
It is difficult to take issue on such matters with someone whose understanding of Guru Nanak is based on a 7 night dream, but take issue we must. The entire travel of Guru Nanak to the Muslim Holy lands and Baghdad and his rich discourses with the spiritual leaders there is reduced to scenes of Nanak Shah getting on and off a boat.
sakhi of Malik Bhago and Bhai Lalo has always been that Guru Nanak took what was served by both in each of his hands and held them up to squeeze both. But in Sikka’s movie, milk and blood is flowing out of the trays.
Sikka claims the film is a recounting of Guru Nanak through the eyes of his co-traveller Bhai Mardana. Yet the sakhis are derived from the Janamsakhis of Bhai Bala. Mardana was not even in Guru Nanak’s company when the Vayein river and sacha sauda episode – both depicted prominently in Sikka’s movie – occurred.
Guru Nanak is seen emerging from Vayein, saying ‘Na Koi Hindu Na Koi Musalmaan” and walking around as a wet glowing man with long open hair and baggy clothes. The absence of history of this event notwithstanding, the verse is patently wrong.
One would imagine that making a movie on Guru Nanak would involve extensive research and consultation with a plethora of Sikh theologians, academics, researches and thinkers who sit at Sikh universities and other institutions. Accuracy is an important ingredient in movies based on historical events.
To his credit, Sikka did employ Prof. Amrit Basra, now Deputy Dean at the Foreign Student’s Registry of Delhi University and a Researcher with Bhai Veer Singh Trust. Yet it is clear that handing such a huge responsibility to just one individual was clearly insufficient.
WHAT ABOUT THE IRONIES?
Sikka claims that one of the major discoveries about Sikhs was that they were consumed by the very rituals that Guru Nanak has preached against. Yet the artee scene in Nanak Shah is equally consumed by ritual.
Some 1,500 villagers cum actors are shown doing the artee ritual in a mandir, presumably Jagannath. Bhai Nirmal Singh renders Guru Nanak’s shabad “Gagan Mei Thaal” (meaning, why perform the artee ritual when artee is already happening in the cosmos) in mesmerising style as a white image of Guru Nanak hovers in the open grounds outside the temple.
The crowd then empties from the mandir and takes its lamps, drums, cymbals, dancing and other paraphilia to the open grounds and does the artee rituals in the presence of Guru Nanak. The result is the transportation of the ritual from inside the temple to outside in the presence of Guru Nanak. The ironical result is that the ritual of Jagannath becomes the ritual of Guru Nanak !
People who make movies on prophets do make a variety of super-natural claims. Even Mel Gibson could not resist the temptation in Passion of Christ to claim that Jesus guided him.
Yet Sikka’s claims stand out as bordering on irony. The irony of being inspired to do a movie on Guru Nanak by an individual with dubious credentials (spy cum murderer turned spiritual) is as ironical as Sikkas’s claim that he “stayed with Guru Nanak for 7 nights.”
Sikka claims he wants Sikhs to know Guru Nanak through his banee, but Sikka shows no inclination to develop his story line based on banee.
Sikka tells us Sikhs are mired in ritual, but Nanak Shah legitimizes ritual, complete with Gurbani being sung in the midst of the rituals.
SIKKA’S NANAK SHAH IS NOT GURU NANAK
The consequence is that Sikka’s Nanak Shah Faqir – discovered within a 7 night dream – is vastly different from the Sri Guru Nanak Sahib Ji that Sikhs discover through his 974 compositions that are contained within the Guru Granth Sahib.
The word “faqir” denotes poverty and paucity. The Punjab University dictionary defines “faqir” as a recluse, mendicant, beggar and anchorite.
Whereas the words “Sri Guru” and “Sahib Ji” as used by Sikhs to address Guru Nanak symbolise spiritual majesty, divine splendour, celestial brilliance and godly illustriousness.
The conceptualization of Guru Nanak’s godly persona in Sikka’s mind and movie is thus severely lacking and it comes across as such in Nanak Shah. Yes, there were people in the Guru’s era who saw him as a faqir and even lesser as acknowledged by the Guru himself “Koee Kahay Bhootna, Koee Be-taala.” They could be forgiven for not knowing the truth of Guru Nanak and his Sikhi then because Sikh spirituality was still under construction.
The portrayal of Guru Nanak as Nanak Shah Faqir at a price tag of Rupees 35 Crores therefore comes across as calculated within an agenda to severely humanize the Guru and to strip Guru Nanak of his divine uniqueness and spiritual distinction.
A mediocre Guru becomes acceptable to a broader range of human beings – even to those within bhramanwad who have always claimed that Guru Nanak and his Sikhi is nothing more than a branch of their tree. For them then, the relegation of Guru Nanak to Nanak Shah faqir is welcome.
Sikka claims that Nanak Shah is Sikhi parchaar in essence. But parchaar that relies on sanitizing the Guru’s spiritual heights merely relegates Sikhi to the lows of spiritual mediocrity. End.