Suppose you have a shop where you do good business ripping off gullible customers by selling them religious trinkets. Then, out of nowhere, an earthquake strikes and reduces your shop to rubble – but the insurance company refuses to pay off, claiming that it was an “act of God” and isn’t covered by your policy. Facing financial ruin, what do you do?
How about suing God?
That’s the premise of a film I watched recently, Oh My God. It’s from the neo-Bollywood stable of films; Bollywood these days is willing to experiment a bit, unlike what it used to be like back in the 1970s or 80s, when each and every film followed a set and predictable pattern, too stereotyped even to be mocked.
Well, these days, in Bollywood, lovers do kiss each other on the mouth, and they do have sex before and outside marriage, and women even prefer having a job to breeding babies. But the more things seem to change, the more they remain, at the core, the same.
You’ll know what I mean in a minute.
This is what happens: Kanjilal is a sharp businessman who – while an atheist – is the proprietor of a shop which sells Hindu religious knickknacks, such as idols, to the gullible. One day, he has a spat with a crooked Hindu monk, Siddheshwar Maharaj, and that very night a mild earthquake strikes the city – and his shop is the only piece of property destroyed.
When he goes to the insurance company, they tell him that “acts of god” aren’t covered by his policy so that they don’t have to pay him a thing. Faced with financial ruin – including the loss of his rented home – he has a sudden brainwave. If an earthquake is an “act of god”, then god is responsible for wrecking the shop, hence god should pay. Logical, isn’t it?
The problem with this is, of course, that one actually has to get hold of this god in order to lodge a legal complaint against him, and no lawyer was – obviously – willing to take on this “crazy man’s” case. Left without an option, he finally finds an elderly, crippled Muslim lawyer (played by veteran thespian Om Puri, who’s put on an amazing amount of weight since I saw him last) who offers to prepare a brief for him so he can act as his own lawyer in court. But to file a suit, there has to be a respondent, so Kanjilal sends off copies of his legal notices to various monks and temple heads around the country.
One of these notices reaches one Leeladhar Maharaj, a sleazy “religious leader” of the kind Indians will immediately be able to identify. The country crawls with them, each with a bunch of adoring fans who treat him or her as a living god. This Leeladhar is the leader of the group which includes Siddheshwar Maharaj, the monk with whom Kanjilal had the initial spat before the earthquake. Leeladhar and Siddheswar decide that it will be excellent publicity to show the upstart atheist his place, and decide to turn up in court on “god’s” behalf.
With the case coming to court, the resultant publicity actually gets rather unhealthy for Kanjilal, as frenzied Hindunazi mobs begin chasing him through town. He’s rescued by a mysterious biker, one Krishna Yadav, who claims to be a “consultant”. Kanjilal’s wife, meanwhile, leaves him, taking the children with her, because she’s no longer able to take the public hostility. It’s at this low point that Krishna reappears in Kanjilal’s home, and reveals that he’s bought it from the original owner and is now the legal proprietor. But he’ll let Kanjilal live there, and in fact will help him with his court case.
[I might as well say now what each and every Indian viewer of this movie will have realised at this point – that this “Krishna Yadav” is the Hindu god Krishna, come to earth to “help” Kanjilal. In an old Bollywood movie this would take the form of Kanjilal going to a temple and yelling at the idol, whereupon there would be some kind of miracle. In this film, there,,,isn’t exactly that kind of miracle.]
On Krishna’s advice, Kanjilal goes to the media and is interviewed on TV, where he kills the studio audience with his logic and completely wins them over to his side. Instead of being at the receiving end of Hindunazi ire, it is now he who’s on the offensive, and the crooked monks who are feeling the heat. Meanwhile, hundreds of other people screwed by the insurance company turn up demanding that Kanjlal fight their cases as well. Since they are of all religions, a mullah and a Catholic priest soon join the Hindu sleazeballs on the board of defenders of their gods.
They don’t defend their gods very well. Kanjilal rips them to shreds, pointing out a stark truth about organised religion today – that it’s basically a business, whose only purpose is to gouge as much money from the faithful as possible, to enrich already obscenely rich temples and churches, and those who run them. If this was a courtroom drama only, and Kanjilal a lawyer, he’d have been a grand success.
To cut a long story short, the case finally hinges on whether Kanjilal can prove that “god” was responsible for destroying his shop (and, by extension, the lives of the other complainants). On Krishna’s advice, Kanjilal reads the holy books of all the three religions implicated – the Hindu Gita, the Bible and the Koran – and points out in court that all three state that their respective gods say nothing can be created or destroyed without their knowledge and action. This is the clincher, the point at which the case is won, and if the movie ended there, I’d have given it about four out of five stars.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. This is where that thing I said earlier about the more things changing the more they remain the same comes in. As Kanjilal finishes his argument, he says that he now knows for sure that there’s no god, and promptly loses consciousness. The doctors say that his survival now is “in god’s hands”. Krishna then magically appears in his hospital room, revives him with his magical key chain, and reveals that he is, after all, Krishna. And then he tells Kanjilal that during the month he’s been hovering near death, Leeladhar and his gang have declared him - Kanjilal – a god, and built a temple where his shop used to be; within a short time this temple will recoup for them all the money they lost in the lawsuit, and more.
I won’t go on to describe what happens next, because it can be readily guessed, but I’ll make a few points.
First is the truly regrettable fact that the director decided to ruin the film by injecting a completely unnecessary godly flavour into it. I do understand that he probably felt compelled to do it in order to placate the real life Hindunazis, who otherwise probably wouldn’t have let the film run. But it still ruined the entire idea.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the commercialisation of organised religion. Back in school, I read a story called Sri Sri Siddheshwari Limited, a satirical tale set in late 19th Century Bengal and revolving around the plans of a group of businessmen to build a temple as an out and out business venture. Though meant as a satire, it was if anything tame compared to the reality of what goes on in the world of professional religions. In India, for example, religion is a full-scale commercial business, to an extent which would probably astonish even the most rapacious Western churches. As Kanjilal points out in one of his speeches, the devotee has to pay at every single point of his temple experience. From a parking fee for his car, to flowers and milk to pour on the idol (while beggars starve at the gate), each and every stage involves money. God, apparently, loves money.
The third point is something which finds only tangential mention in the film, but which I, personally, think the most important bit of all, because it explains so much about Hinduism. Unlike Islam or Christianity, Hindu deities do not demand belief from their devotees. They don’t demand “good acts” or anything of the sort. No.
Hinduism is a transactional religion. In Hinduism, you don’t just “pray” to a god if you want something. You go to a temple, get hold of a priest, and have him bribe the deity with offerings – be they a sacrificial goat or a pile of fruit or milk, and also, invariably, a lot of money. Each prayer is a transaction in and of itself – and each demands the intermediary of a priest, since the Hindu gods demand they act as middlemen. In fact, Hinduism is probably the religion constructed most transparently for the purpose of enriching an idle priestly class.
Even when a Hindu dies, whether he goes to “heaven” or ”hell” or – if you believe that sort of thing – his level in the next reincarnation cycle isn’t dependent on whether he led a good life. It depends on whether his children, or other relatives, pay a priest to perform rituals to bribe the god concerned to be kind to his “soul”. It’s entirely a religion based on bribery and appeasement of a deity by means of material things, which of course end up enriching the priests. I wonder if this bribery so integrated in our culture is the reason we Indians accept corruption as part of the course of nature? If the gods can be bribed, why should we be exempt?
(And this is also why the Islamic conquerors first came to India about a thousand years ago – to loot the obscenely rich temples, which were obscenely rich even then. It was also the reason why Buddhism and Jainism arose long before that; as a reaction to the corruption and ritualism of the Hindu priestly class. Hinduism retaliated by converting Buddhism and Jainism into little more than Hindu sects, and the founders of both these religions ultimately became, like Kanjilal, Hindu gods.)
I realise that I’ve drifted a distance from the purpose of reviewing the movie, but I wouldn’t have reviewed it if I hadn’t something to say.
One minor point – if you enjoy that sort of thing, you can keep yourself entertained by watching Kanjilal’s beard stubble grow, shrink, disappear and reappear at different points in the same scenes. It’s probably the nearest to a miracle the film has to offer.
Overall, the rating would be three out of five stars.