Utpal Borpujari

April 27, 2010

Religion seems to be taking a turn for the pugnacious: Philip Pullman

Much-awarded and controversial British author Philip Pullman, whose trilogy His Dark Materials has been published in 39 langauges, is back at what he does best – critiquing the Church. If his previous trilogy was attacked by many Christian groups for its strong criticism of institutionalised religion, even as the first of it was made into a successful Hollywood film titled The Golden Compass, in his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, he has tried to give a new take to the life story of Jesus Christ. Even though the book’s back cover mentions in bold letters that “THIS IS A STORY”, Pullman uses it as a medium to again raise questions about religion and the Church. In a long-distance interview, Pullman, a believer-turned-atheist who has proposed in his book that Jesus had a twin named Christ, tells Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari about the genesis of the story

You have been a critic of institutionalised religion. Is your new book an exploration of how religion is misused by some?

Yes, I think it is. If I sound tentative here, it’s because I really don’t like to say authoritatively what any of my books mean or say or are. To have the author interpreting the meaning for the reader limits any possible response. I hope the book is about many things; your suggestion may well be one of them.

Were you not apprehensive that it might attract controversies? Did you add the legend “This is a Story” on the back cover to avoid any, marking very clearly that it is a work of fiction? And are you surprised that there has not been any till now?

The author owns the inside of the book – the publisher own the outside. That was the publisher’s idea, not mine. I thought it was a good idea to remind people of the story-ness not only of this, but also of the Bible itself, but I’m not the originator of it. As for controversy, my work always attracts people who want to be offended. There is no shortage of those people in the world, unfortunately.

You have spoken about people not reading the Bible deeply, and more or less going by what the Church tells them about what it contains. Is that how people, whatever religion they may belong to, get misled about religious scriptures by religious leaders who have vested interests in keeping it that way?

I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m no expert in the history of religion, but simply looking at my own case and that of people I know, I believe it to be true: we don’t examine stories closely until we have some urgent professional or personal reason for doing so. It’s simply too much trouble. Most of the time we accept what we half-remember, and make do with that. Authorities of every kind, of course, and not just religious ones, have a vested interest in ‘owning’ the stories by which we live. That’s why they need to be challenged.

What are your views on religious fiction? Do you agree that writing fiction based onreligious figures is a risky business in today’s world?

In today’s world, religion seems to be taking a turn for the pugnacious. This, of course, is a matter for regret. Some religions are more trigger-happy than others. That’s a matter for regret also.

Are the twins in your book symbolic of what could have been the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of Jesus Christ?

Yes, in a way, but each is more complicated than that. We all – even children – know that good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.

Is this book in a way a continuation of the idea behind “His Dark Materials” series, where the world is ruled by an authoritarian Church? Or a prequel to that series, in a sense that it sets the pitch for what is to come in future?

His Dark Materials is a fantasy, of course, set in an imagined world, and The Good Man Jesus is a fantasy of a different sort, set in this world. But the impulse behind each of them is the same: to point out the dangers and drawbacks of allowing religion to get its hands on political power.

You refuse to explain the “meaning” of your stories, and say that you are not in the “message business” but in the “once upon a time” business. Would you elaborate on it?

What I mean is that when you allow a story to be hijacked by a cause, then the story suffers. My critics would say that I allow that too often; I would say in response that they are quite happy to see fiction that supports causes they like. The poet W B Yeats spoke of the dangers of letting the will do the work of the imagination, and I remember that whenever I’m tempted to ‘preach’.

You are a self-proclaimed “Church of England atheist”. How does your atheist status help you in writing about subjects that has a religious or religion-related backdrop? And what made you disbelieve in God in the first place?

I can write about Christianity because of my Christian background; I wouldn’t presume to write about Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, because I know very little about those worlds, and my imagination has nothing to work on. As for what made me disbelieve in God, it was mainly the fact that I could see no evidence for his presence in the world. He may be somewhere else, but he is not in this universe, and as far as I can tell there is no other.

How much do you think this book would interest people following other religions?

Of course, I hope it will interest many people whatever their religious background. I also hope that it will make people want to read the Gospels in the New Testament, and see what they actually say, as opposed to what they think they say.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 27-04-2010)


April 26, 2010

Sherlock Holmes in Scotland of the East

By Utpal Borpujari

Sign of Four in Shillong? Well, that’s what will unfold soon on the big screen, as much-awarded filmmaker Ashoke Viswanathan, arguably for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, has adapted a Sherlock Holmes story to local conditions. Viswanathan, the director of a number of arthouse films as well as documentaries, has adopted a middle-of-the-road approach in tackling the Sherlock Holmes classic, keeping its suspense-thriller element intact along with his sensibilities.

Viswanathan has transposed the story onto the landscape of the Scotland of the East, as Meghalaya is popularly known thanks to its sylvan surroundings, cold climate and the beautiful British-style houses, and by making the film in Hindi, he has ensured that the film would have the potential of accessing a pan-India audience when it is released.

The director, whose last film Sesh Sanghat was a take on the Maoist issue, has taken an ensemble cast comprising internationally-acclaimed Victor Banerjee, the highly-talented Rajit Kapur, along with Priyanshu Chatterjee, Simone Singh and Raj Zutshi to tell his story that has to do with the famed detective – or his Indian avatar played by Kapur in this case – trying to resolve a case involving diamonds and death, with all the subtlety Arthur Conan Doyle used to impart in his writing. While the story retains the flavour of the story from which it has been adapted, the use of Meghalaya as the location lends a special beauty to the film, making one wonder why Indian filmmakers so often run to foreign locales when such beautiful regions exist within the country.

Viswanathan had his specific regions about both adapting a Sherlock Holmes story and using Meghalaya as location. “I wanted to do a film noir in Indian context and with elements of fantasy, something that would be more than just finding out the criminal. So I thought the best place to go for inspiration would be Conan Doyle. Having read the Sign of Four again, I found that Shillong and rest of Meghalaya would be the right place to place it. Not only I have an Indian detective playing Sherlock Holmes, we have the original literary Sherlock Holmes also there along the river, in a place called Umtingar in the Jaintia Hills, which imparts a fantasy element to the movie,” says the director.

“We wanted to explore the Meghalaya landscape, which is known as the Scotland of the East. Arthur Conan Doyle is known as a British writer but he is from Edinburgh. Our idea was to adapt the story to Indian conditions and present it to viewers in a way that would be interesting and entertaining, but also something beyond that, because the adaptation that my father N Viswanathan has done has a literary backdrop with subtle nuances and resonances,” he says. “The story is set in a cold place with colonial houses, open spaces and a big boat chase at the end, for which we chose the Umiam, the lake of tears, near Shillong,  formed by blocking the Barapani river for a hydel project.” Viswanathan has lent a touch of reality to the film, by referring to real events in the region. For example, while the shooting was on in Shillong, the serial blasts in Guwahati happened in 2008, and there are indirect references to it in the film.

Selecting Sign of Four among so many classics by Arthur Conan Doyle was quite a task for the director. And Viswanathan agrees to that, “I revisited quite a few of the Holmes stories, but finally I thought it was the most striking. But I think The Valley of Fear is also very interesting.”

Selecting Rajit Kapur for the detective’s role in Gumshuda, where the story starts with a nightclub singer played by Simone Singh receiving a fistful of diamonds from an unknown source, was the easy part for the director. “Rajat had played Byomkesh Bakshi earlier, but his character is not at all like that. He is a bumbling detective, eccentric, idiosyncratic, drinks and quarrels a lot, and is seen as a misogynist, though actually he is not. Rajit is a thinking actor, and he has been able to bring out all the nuances,” says Viswanathan. According to him, while Simone Singh gives a very convincing performance, the film’s surprise package, however, is Priyanshu Chatterjee as an associate to Rajit who shares a love-hate relationship with his senior.

The film has music by famous tabla player Bickram Ghose, who has used a lot of Indian and other instruments to create a special ambience suiting the subject as well as the locale.

“We have used a Khasi song by a group from Shillong called Dohar. We have put in a lot of local colour. Since Meghalaya is Christian dominated, we have used Church bells in the music. Bickram has used instruments like the Rabab, the Duduk and the flute, which go very well with the landscape. We have used a string instrument typical of Meghalaya. We have 5-6 songs, and all of them take the narrative forward. A song titled Dhundo by Sonu Nigam I feel would be a highlight of the film,” Viswanathan says.

Quite interestingly, Simon Wilson, who was the British Deputy High Commissioner based in Kolkata during the period when the film was shot, appears in the film as the real Sherlock Holmes. “This happens in a hallucinatory sequence in which protagonist Prashant Sehgal, played by Rajit, meets him,” says Viswanathan. “Wilson’s appearance happened just like that. I was acting in a play, which he had come to watch. I thought he looked like Sherlock Holmes, and asked if he would act. He was very hesitant because there are diplomatic issues. But finally we quietly went to Umtingar to do the shooting, but by the time we finished the local press had got wind of his presence,” he recalls. How they found out, probably calls for an investigation by Sherlock Holmes himself, but then it was worth it, says Viswanathan. Hopefully, the film too would be an equally worthwhile experience for viewers.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 25-04-2010)


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