Naatu Naatu and Naren!

13 Jan,2023




By Avik Chattopadhyay


Avik ChattopadhyayWe woke up on January 11 with the news that the song ‘Naatu Naatu’ from ‘RRR’ had won the Golden Globe for best original song. The nation erupted into celebration. It was almost as if Indian cinema was finally redeemed. Some celebrations also took curious routes. A very close national awardwinning friend of mine wrote on social media, ‘Naatu Naatu gets Golden Globe…bad day in wokistan. All agenda driven films of Marvel and Disney are failing…people are tired of woke messaging of diversity and inclusion…” Now, where did that come from seriously?! But it surely did!


January 12 was the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda aka Narendranath Dutta. Along with the usual social media chatter and media articles, especially in West Bengal, some went into overdrive. Times Now news published a piece titled “How Swami Vivekananda’s ideals influenced PM Narendra Modi?” A certain MLA in West Bengal declared that the current Narendra is the incarnation of the then Narendra!


Both are equally powerful brands – Indian cinema and Vivekananda.


To me, the Golden Globe award was the perpetuation of the stereotypical image that a larger part of the world has created for Indian cinema…of escapist over-the-top song and dance! This is a far cry from the 1950s to 1970s when film makers like Ray, Ghatak, Sen, Kasaravalli, Gopalakrishnan, Benegal and their contemporaries across languages represented Indian cinema and helped create a certain image of sensitive neo-realism. Over the last 20-odd years the image of celebratory escapism has largely been consciously and deliberately created. And this award goes further into reinforcing that image. I do not wish to judge whether the image is the desirable one or not. But I do question whether brand “Indian cinema” wishes to continue operating in this very space or wishes to do a personality re-jig? Will it continue to be sustainable this way or will it have to paint a fresh image soon? Will it continue to thrive within the box it has created or have to look outside?


For when one talks of looking and thinking outside the ‘box’, one must study brand Vivekananda.


The prevailing image of the man within the country is quite different from that outside. Most Indians see him as a “Hindu monk” who was always about “Vedanta” and the pride of being a Hindu. This image has been appropriated and used to the hilt by the current political party in power to immense effect. The current Narendra almost takes refuge and recourse under the shadow of the then Narendra to justify his thought and action. It is like a “guru-shishya” relationship which has been conjured up. And that is most convenient as it miraculously panders to the sensitivities of the majority.


Brand Vivekananda is about constant reinvention and recalibration of theology, thought and action. If one were to read his works and lectures, one will understand what brand revisioning is all about. The brand is like water, having a physical form but not confined to a fixed shape and always ready to change course. Yet it does not lose its relevance and core identity. From a non-believer he turned into the biggest disciple of Ramakrishna. In fact, the world would not have know about the teacher had the student not set up an institution like Ramakrishna Mission. He would have remained a local spiritual guru like his contemporaries Byamakhyapa or Loknath had it not been for the Naren who questioned and challenged him no end before agreeing with his theology. And he kept exploring and experimenting right through his short life of less than 40 years! He adapted to where he stayed and incorporated the customs and habits to both expand his mental horizon as well as evaluate what would be best for the India of his dreams. Hence, beef was his staple when in Chicago while it would always be fish when in Calcutta. In one his lectures he said, “I do not come to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.” Amongst his admirers and followers were Lord Kelvin, Nikola Tesla, Sarah Bernhardt, Herman Helmholst and Robert Ingersoll.


On June 10, 1898, he writes to his friend Mohammad Sarfaraz Husain, “I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind. We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonising the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best. For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.”


Simultaneously, in the same year he composed the song “Khandana Bhava-Bandhana” dedicated to his teacher and master, which has now become the anthem for the Mission.


And then in 1899, his translation of the first six chapters of “The Imitation of Christ” were published in his periodical “Brahmavadin”!


On a ship-ride together with Jamsetji Tata in 1893, he inspired him to set up a research and educational institution of world standard in the country. Yet in 1900, when Tata asked him to head the proposed Research Institute of Science [eventually the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore], Vivekananda politely refused saying it required someone more dedicated to the cause as it conflicted with his spiritual journey!


Brand Vivekananda is possibly one of the finest manifestations of Trotsky’s theory of “perpetual revolution”. It is a brand that has gained its stature by exploring, challenging, pushing boundaries, experimenting and thereby remaining highly relevant to people across countries and cultures. In spite of the attempts of institutions here, including the Ramakrishna Mission, to put him in a straight jacket, for their own convenience and limited benefit.


Will Brand “Indian cinema” take inspiration from Brand Vivekananda, ever?


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