Incredible as it may sound, India is turning into a “fatwa factory”.  Or, so it seems. Even as a nation as rigid and rigorous as Iran is breaking out of this mindset, India, never failing to tout itself as a liberal and secular democracy, is sinking into a web of bans and restrictions.

A R Rahman faces the music
Rahman is facing the music along with Majid Majidi

After the Indian media and the masses cried foul over the prohibition on the slaughter and sale of meat, the country is now facing another kind of regression. An Islamic group, Mumbai (once Bombay)-based Raza Academy, has issued a fatwa against two celebrated men in cinema today — Iranian auteur-director Majid Majidi and Indian music composer A R Rahman.

What is their “crime”? A film directed by Majidi and set to music by Rahman. Titled Muhammad: The Messenger of God, this big-budget Iranian movie includes shots of the prophet’s back, and another of his hands and legs when he was a baby. There is also a scene where teenage Muhammad is seen against the sky.

The prophet’s face cannot be shown, according to the tenets of Islam. Many Muslims, especially those from the dominant Sunni sect, view physical depictions of Muhammad as blasphemous.

Although Majidi has not exhibited the prophet’s face, a peeved Academy still felt that the film mocked Islam.

Mullahs in India also decried the fact that the $ 35-million movie had some non-Muslims in key roles.

The Academy wants both Majidi and Rahman to make amends for this sacrilege by re-solemnising their marriages and re-reading the Kalima, an important Islamic doctrine. The clergy has also demanded that Muhammad: The Messenger of God be banned in India.

Paradoxically, Iran, often denounced for its stiflingly narrow-minded views, has allowed the film — the first part of a trilogy — to be screened freely, and it is now running to packed houses all over the country. On its first day, which was August 27, the movie made $ 60,000 from 143 screens.

The Guardian‘s Phil Hoad, who saw Muhammad… at the Montreal Film Festival in August, praised the epic as “an evocative and engrossing account of Islam’s gestation”.  The movie traces the prophet’s life from his birth to age 13. Two sequels will take up his life from that point.

Variety reviewer Alissa Simon was, however, not quite bowled over by Majidi’s creation.

She wrote: “Restricted by both its narrative scope (it follows Muhammad from the year of his birth to the age of 13) and religious prohibitions against showing the prophet’s face, Majidi tries to enliven matters whenever possible with action scenes (legendary battles, chases through the marketplace, pilgrims circling the Kaaba, hand-to-hand combat, camel caravans, horses galloping across the desert), but action is not this helmer’s forte. These cliched scenes, in combination with the elaborate but cheesy-looking special effects, register mostly as second-rate copies of Western cinematic conventions…The end result is something more akin to 1950s Hollywood biblical fare rather than Darren Aronofsky’s recent Noah or anything in Majidi’s previous oeuvre”.

Yes, indeed. Majidi has to his credit some brilliant cinematic works. His 1998 Children of Heaven was the first ever Iranian entry to vie for the foreign language Oscar, and his subsequent films like Colour of Paradise, Baran, The Willow Tree and The Song of Sparrows have made waves in movie festivals.

As for Rahman, he is reverentially described as the “Mozart of Madras” (former name for Chennai). He is also called “Musical Storm”, and his basket of accolades includes two Oscars, two Grammys and several national trophies. In 2009, Time included Rahman on its list of the world’s most influential people, while the UK-based music magazine, Songlines, in 2011 named him one of “Tomorrow’s World Music Icons”.

Men like Majidi and Rahman are not just citizens of their respective countries, but ambassadors of goodwill.

While Majidi has not yet commented on the fatwa, Rahman — born a Hindu and converted to Islam in 1989 when he was 23 — said in a Facebook re-joinder to the accusations made against him: “What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name’”

In the context, it may be interesting to recall that while the fatwa to kill British author of Indian origin, Salman Rushdie, for his 1988 Satanic Verses was lifted by Iran in 1998 (when President Mohammad Khatami came to power), India’s ban on the novel remains. Of course, just about everybody has read it — as it once, long ago, happened in the case of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was also proscribed.

Worse, Rushdie was stopped by fundamentalists from attending a huge literary fair in Jaipur (in Rajasthan state) and a book fair in Kolkata (once Calcutta).

It is very sad that while countries like Iran, though firmly entrenched in the Islamic mould, are embarking on  a journey of progress and broad-mindedness, India — home to many religions and which often wants to be viewed as secular and liberal — appears to be digressing into a road that is dark  and repressive — even intimidating.

Intimidating, yes, if one were to see what happened to Indian rationalist and author Narendra Dabholkar, who was urging the Maharashtra (an Indian state) government to pass an anti-superstition and black magic bill. He was shot dead while he was on his morning walk in Pune (a city in Maharashtra, known for its literary and cultural liberalism) in August.

Has India stopped being liberal and liberating?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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