This article was also published in ABCDlady Magazine's July Edition.
Over the years, I’ve met more than a few ABCDs who have stories of how Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – full of monkey-brain-eating Hindus and a murderous Kali-worshipping villain changed their lives. The stories differ in details (some were teased at school for a while, others so mortified that they hid their religion from their friends for years), but are all eerily similar in how traumatically the film affected how we looked at our faith. We’ve considered starting a support group for Temple of Doom survivors.
Okay, so I’m being facetious about the support group thing – but only a little.
The truth is that when a film depicts a religion – especially a minority faith – it can cross the line between harmless entertainment and hurtful distortion. There are times when a depiction of Hinduism is so grossly twisted, cruel or disrespectful that it is almost certain to offend even the most tolerant or reasonable Hindu. Such portrayals seem as if they were created with the intention of belittling or denigrating others or are in such poor taste that their creator ought to have known better.
In fact, some media depictions can so horrendously distort or maliciously denigrate one’s faith that boycotts, petitions and other acts of protest are not just good ideas – they are a must.
The Love Guru, however, is not such a case.
Don’t get me wrong, I personally found the film to be crass, vulgar and generally gross. But worst of all, The Love Guru just wasn’t all that funny. The few genuinely good jokes were buried under mountains of flat, cheap, misguided attempts at humor. There were moments that I can only compare to that tipsy uncle who corners you at a cousin’s wedding and tries to tell you a racy joke, but then forgets the punch-line half-way through. Yes, that bad.
To be clear: There are plenty of valid reasons to not like The Love Guru.
But for its many cinematic faults, The Love Guru is not an anti-Hindu film, and if approached in the right spirit, the film (and the controversy surrounding it) can teach us some valuable lessons about ourselves and what it means to be a Hindu in America.
For one thing, it reminds us that humor is always subjective, often silly, and in the case of this film, sometimes even crass and vulgar. If you don’t care for a lot of jokes about penis size, bodily functions or sexual conquest, you may want to skip The Love Guru altogether, however a gross movie that happens to use Hindu motifs doesn’t automatically equal a blasphemous attack on Hinduism.
Some Hindu leaders are convinced that The Love Guru mocks the faith, but when asked to provide specifics about what makes the film particularly hurtful to Hindus, they can merely point to its crassness, vulgarity and bathroom humor. In other words, they tell us only what most of us already agree on: the movie is tasteless.
For instance, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reviewed the film (as it does with dozens of commercial films), and found it “unabashedly vulgar and tasteless” and awarded it a rating of “O” – morally offensive. It might be tempting to conclude, as some Hindu leaders seem to have, that the USCCB is thus showing interfaith solidarity with Hindus who feel that the film targets their faith. But this is, at best, wishful thinking; at worst, it is dangerously fuzzy logic.
For starters, the USCCB review never questions the film’s portrayal of Hinduism and says absolutely nothing about offense to Hindus. Instead, it frets about the “sexual and scatological humor and innuendo, some crude language, adultery and an implied premarital relationship, drug references and comic violence.” The review makes it clear that it is not an anti-Hindu sentiment but rather “the sheer volume of coarseness” that “finally pushes this into the morally offensive category.” In fact, the USCCB finds movies that barely touch the subject of religion (Baby Mama, Harold and Kumar and Sex and the City to name a few) tagged with an “O” for almost exactly the same reasons as The Love Guru. Must we now conclude that all of these movies are anti-Hindu, too?
Conflating The Love Guru’s potty-mouth with its depiction of Indian spirituality oversimplifies the situation and promotes knee-jerk reactions. So does jumping into protests and petition-signings without considering the alternative.
Another lesson the hype surrounding The Love Guru can teach us is “choose your battles wisely.” Unfortunately, some self-proclaimed defenders of Hinduism seem to think that the only appropriate response is to always cry foul and play victim. I believe that this fosters extremism (comparisons to the Taliban come to mind), encourages a mob mentality and in more serious cases, undermines the community’s credibility. Like the fabled “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the Hindu who mindlessly protests every time his faith is depicted on the big screen may find himself ignored when his community needs help the most. Personally, I’d rather save my voice and raise it in cases in which Hindus (and other religious communities) are being denied their religious freedoms or are actually the victims of hate speech and discrimination.
Jumping into attack mode, as some of my Hindu brothers and sisters seem to be doing, also blinds us to the bigger picture. We miss the forest for the trees. For instance, the mere fact that The Love Guru employs Hindu concepts as a premise tells us that the faith has truly arrived in the American mainstream. But if we want to fully be a part of the pluralistic landscape, we have to be willing to take some good-natured ribbing along with everyone else. This, of course, requires both a sense of humor and humility (not coincidentally, humility and humor are derived from the same root). Too often, the Hindu-American community is eager to be recognized in the mainstream media for our accomplishments, but unwilling to be on the receiving end of a parody or to share the screen with a handful of crass jokes. We can demand a seat at the table, but why should we expect it to be any more padded than anyone else’s?
But what about the other thing? You know, the thing about the average American mistaking the antics of The Love Guru for an accurate depiction of Hinduism?
I would hope that most viewers would be able to tell the difference between satire – especially one as over-the-top as this one – and a documentary. But if some walk away thinking the caricature they saw on the screen accurately represents Hinduism, then aren’t we in the Hindu community largely to blame? If people are so religiously illiterate that they mistake satire for truth, then rather than complain about the film or try to censor it, can’t we take it as an opportunity to examine how we can educate them?
Wouldn’t it be great if, despite the poor reviews and modest box-office figures, The Love Guru helps to start a conversation at the office water cooler? Hindu-Americans can welcome that opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and share their beliefs with others. By using Hindu concepts, The Love Guru gives us the choice to either build bridges and reach out to others, or – as the protests and boycotts are likely to do – erect walls and continue to be seen as a defensive, isolated community.
And that is the biggest danger I see in branding The Love Guru as anti-Hindu. It is, with all due respect, a cop-out. For many of us, the real issue is not that the film offers an exaggerated caricature of the faith, but that we’re not doing enough to balance that caricature with something better. To this, The Love Guru offers us a robust challenge. Can we be ambassadors of the faith so that others don’t need to rely on a Mike Myers movie for Hinduism 101? Can we educate ourselves so that we can answer people’s questions with clear, articulate responses? Can we accept responsibility for our spiritual lives and inspire others to learn more through our own example?
These are tough questions, no doubt, but we must answer them. If, instead, we busy ourselves with protests, petitions and photo-ops and pat ourselves on the back each time a reviewer pans the film, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow. We risk losing the war even while scoring some minor short-term victories for ourselves.
Still, I know that when it comes to religion, things can become personal and emotions quickly take over. I am aware of the fact that, despite the thoughts I’ve tried to share here, some will continue to view The Love Guru as an attack on their faith. As much as I might disagree with them, I can sympathize with them. Perhaps they see a film with a saffron-robed guru telling dirty jokes and – like my 9-year-old self did while watching Temple of Doom – think to themselves, “This isn’t my Hinduism.” I can appreciate that. But the protests and petitions, the fuzzy logic and soapbox posturing, the knee-jerk reactions and inflammatory rhetoric – these don’t represent my Hinduism any more than Guru Pitka does. My Hinduism celebrates tolerance, encourages broad vision and teaches me to have a good sense of humor. My Hinduism helps me to see The Love Guru as an opportunity to grow and help others grow. My Hinduism guides me on my journey from confused to confident.
|Vineet Chander is an attorney and communications consultant. He is the Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton University, and the Director of Communications for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in North America.|