GAIL MINAULT University of Texas, Austin
Film Review: Journal of Asian Studies
Rampant machismo is never a pretty sight, and this two-part video contains a lot of excruciating imagery and some brutal truths. Part One, “Trial by Fire,” opens with flames in the dark, licking at the shops of Muslims in Bombay in the post-Babari Masjid riots of late 1992. In voice-over, Anand Patwardhan, the talented filmmaker known for his documentary images of Bombay life, interviews some of the perpetrators of this holocaust: “Yeah,” they say, “we enjoyed it.” They knew exactly which shops were Muslim, after all, they had been neighbors for years. At daybreak, a charred corpse lies in a street while people hurry past as if the macabre sight did not exist. Then the scene cuts to the leering faces of youths: “We taught them a lesson … we don’t wear saris.” Patwardhan observes that what started as a documentary about communal violence quickly became a film connecting such mayhem to masculinity, and to the fear of physical weakness and impotence.
After some facile assumptions about ancient matriarchy (read: peaceful) being overtaken by patriarchy (read: warlike)—views that are neither easy to support historically nor visually—Patwardhan comes closer to the source of the problem by tracing it to the nationalist movement and the Hindu reaction to British stereotypes about “effeminate” Hindus as versus “martial races” that included Muslims but also Rajputs. The Kshatriyazation of Hinduism, then, was part of the nationalist movement, with the warrior god Rama and the warrior king Shivaji emerging as symbols of resistance to foreign rule, whether wielded by the British or, before them, Muslims. The legacy of this, in parties such as the Shiv Sena (and the footage of Bal Thackery’s oratory is chilling) is an identification of Hinduism with the warrior tradition of Marathas and Rajputs, which also includes such pleasant customs as the immolation of widows.
Muslims (“eunuchs” or “foreshortened,” referring to their circumcision) are not the only enemy, so too are secularists: they “wear saris.” They, along with women’s groups, demonstrated against the sati of Roop Kanwar in Deorala. Patwardhan parallels the burning of a widow to defend Rajput honor with the destruction of the Babari Masjid to defend Rama. Both acts defended culture as a righteous absolute, as opposed to nonviolent, namby-pamby alternatives. No group is let off the hook: Sikhs gesticulate with blades as they chant in favor of Khalistan. Muslims are shown condemning Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy and divorcing their wives with triple talags. In the second part, there are interviews with a Hindu couple whose two children were killed, and a Muslim woman who was repeatedly raped after seeing her husband beaten to death. These are not pretty pictures.
Part Two, “Hero Pharmacy,” continues the parallel between defense of culture as narrowly interpreted and the fear of impotence. From the pitch of the peddler of potency pills to scenes of little boys mobbing the popular cultural icon, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, in his visit to Bombay, the high value placed upon phallic masculinity is conveyed in no uncertain terms. Muslims rally, glorifying sacrifice. Women too participate in this construction: Sadhavi Ritambara is heard condemning secularists as eunuchs. After this, footage of peace rallies can bring only a feeble flicker of hope. Each part is approximately sixty minutes long, which makes a convenient package for showing to courses on current Indian politics, on religion and ethnicity, on women’s issues, the sociology of violence, or popular culture. The subtitles are clear, but there are nuances that have not been translated that you can catch if you understand Hindi, Urdu, or Marathi. “Father, Son and Holy War” is powerful stuff, but the faint of heart should be forewarned of its harrowing content.