Lage Raho Munnabhai – a christian Viewpoint


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Lage Raho MunnabhaiA Christian Viewpoint

-Gilbert Choondal sdb
Cinema is multilingual, like Babel after the tower fell. Visual language is the province of the director, interpreted by the cinematographer; a language of composition, camera angles, and colour. There is the language of technology: silence and sound; black and white or colour. There is the language of song and dances, language of edits.1 To assess a film, one has to take into consideration more than all that are just said now. Cinema is not only multilingual but multi complex language. To understand this complex language is not easy. However, films can be understood from another realm, spirituality. To understand spirituality in the film one has to read and view every punctuation in this film grammar with an eye of a spiritualist.

There are movies that appeal to one’s emotions. There are movies that question one’s existence. There are movies that thrill or kill our creative nature. But, movies that raise people to a spiritual realm are rather rare. Yes, movies with a content of spirituality are rather uncommon in India. Movies that awaken one’s spiritual realm need not be a religious or a Biblical movie. One of those movies I watched that filled me with the Word of God and Christian spirituality was the much hyped Lage raho munna bhai, a bollywood film. Generally, Indian films are neither Christian nor Christological in genre and content. However, there was a time in India, when Christian thematic films came into commercial market. In this article, I delve into the film, LRMB, with an eye of a Christian critic and catechetical educator. To begin with, let me introduce the role of Christian films in India.

Indian Christian films of yesteryears

In the popular media, films are the most popular media even today. It was South Indian Film industries like Mollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood that introduced Christological and Christian thematic films in India. As early as 1973, the Mollywood introduced Snapakayohannan (John the Baptist) directed by P. Subramanyam in Malayalam with a commercial success. Followed by P.A. Thomas who directed the first Jesus movie in India was in Malayalam. Though the artistic expressions in the movie were more iconic in nature than realistic, it was a success story. Later in 1975, he directed Thomasleeha (Thomas, the Apostle) in Malayalam too. In 1976, the first Malayalam Film studio in Kerala, Navodaya, was started by a Catholic, Mr. Appachan.2 Though there were Christian movies on Our Lady of Veilankanni, St. Anthony, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Tamil in late 70s, the Jesus-movie made in Telugu (Karunamaidu), captured the entire nation unlike previous Christian movies. In 1978, the Karunamaidu, directed by Bhim Singh, produced by Dr. Vijay Chandar (Who also played Jesus) in collaboration with Amrithavani Communications (Catholic media centre of Andhra Pradesh) was a popular hit of the year. Fr. C.Coelho, A catholic priest wrote its screenplay. It ran for 100 days in many theatres. The Karunamaidu (later as Dayasagar) provided an Indian approach to the entire story of Jesus. But the era of Jesus movies came to a standstill soon after this in India. Though Films are the most popular media in India, the Church is yet to tell the story of Jesus through this medium effectively today. Hence, LRBM was something that brought Bollywood genre of Christological movie with Christian message. To begin with let me provide a short synoptic view and critical view of the movie in order to understand the Christian view of the movie.

Synoptic view of Lage Raho Munnabhai

The central protagonist, Munna Bhai (Sanjay Dutt), interacts with an image of Mahatma Gandhi and learns the principles of Gandhian philosophy in Lage Raho Munna Bhai. He is helped by his sidekick, Circuit (Arshad Warsi). They both speak in Bambaiya Hindi, a dialect specific to Mumbai, India. Munna is in love with the voice of Jhanvi (Vidya Balan), a radio jockey. He devises a plan to meet her when she announces a contest on the life and beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi set for October 2—Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday celebrating the birth of Gandhi. Circuit helps Munna win the contest by kidnapping and then bribing a group of professors. As the winner, Munna is granted an interview with Jhanvi where he lies to her, presenting himself as a professor of history and a Gandhi specialist. Jhanvi subsequently asks Munna to present a lecture on Gandhi to a community of senior citizens who live in her home, called the Second Innings House. In order to prepare for this event, Munna engages in a period of intense study of the life and works of Gandhi.

It is during this period that the image of Mahatma Gandhi (portrayed by Dilip Prabhavalkar), referred to by his nickname, Bapu, or father, appears offering help and advice to Munna. He also encourages Munna to tell the truth about himself to Jhanvi. Indeed, Gandhi continues to appear each time Munna sings Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram (a song often sung in Gandhi's memory). With Gandhi's help, Munna succeeds in impressing Jhanvi and cultivates a new life based upon Gandhism (particularly non-violence and truth) which transforms everyone with whom he comes into contact. Indeed, Munna starts to co-host a radio-show with Jhanvi and Gandhi's spirit, guiding his audience to use Gandhigiri (a neologism for Gandhism) to solve everyday problems.

Several subplots in the film highlight the power of Gandhigiri. One of the most prominent of these details the story of Lucky Singh (Boman Irani) and his daughter Simran (Dia Mirza). Lucky is an unscrupulous businessman who employs Circuit and Munna Bhai to conduct underworld activities for him. His daughter, Simran, is engaged to marry Sunny (Abhishek Bachchan), the son of a powerful businessman, Kkhurana (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). Kkhurana, however, is superstitious and his activities are controlled by his astrologer, Batuk Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla). Maharaj's particular use of numerology led Kkhurana to add an extra K to his real name (Khurana) as well as to the conclusion that the Second Innings House would be the most auspicious place for Sunny and Simran to live. Maharaj also convinces Kkhurana to reject the marriage between Simran and Sunny when it is revealed that Simran is considered to be a manglik (an individual whose Vedic astrological makeup is believed by some to be devastating for marriage).

After Lucky appropriates Second Innings House through unethical means, Munna launches a non-violent protest called Get Well Soon, Lucky in which he asks his radio-show audience to send Lucky flowers to help him recover from the disease of dishonesty. Munna, along with Circuit, Jhanvi and the senior citizens of Second Innings House, begin a peaceful satyagraha in front of Lucky's house. It is during this time that Munna decides to tell Jhanvi the truth (via a letter he gives to her). Heartbroken, Jhanvi leaves Munna. Munna receives another setback when he is tricked by Lucky into revealing his conversations with Gandhi before a public audience (which serves as proof for a psychiatrist in the audience that Munna is delusional; Gandhi's monologue at the end of the film, however, questions this conclusion). Munna, unperturbed by the setbacks in his life, however, continues to use Gandhigiri, a decision which transforms Lucky, brings Jhanvi back to him, and resolves Simran's marriage.

In this manner, the application of Gandhi's concept of satyagraha (non-violence) to day-to-day modern life (and thus the revival of Gandhi's spirit) becomes the central thematic issue of the film. The film also tackles issues related to social justice such as the impact of astrology and numerology on daily life.

Evolutionary view of the film
The sequel was initially known as Munnabhai Meets Mahatma Gandhi and was later re-titled Munnabhai 2nd Innings before being given its current name. One of Hirani's goals in making the film was to revive an interest in Mahatma Gandhi, a figure whom he felt had been forgotten in contemporary India. To highlight this fact, Hirani recounted (during an interview) an incident with a chai-wallah boy (a boy who brings tea to the crew) during production: “The boy was curious; he was a big Munnabhai fan and kept asking the name of the film. The first working title was Munnabhai Meets Mahatma Gandhi, and Shantanu (Moitra, the music director) told him. So he said, 'Munnabhai to theek hai, yeh Mahatma Gandhi kaun hai?' ('Munnabhai is fine, but who is this Mahatma Gandhi?') So this is the sad state of affairs today. I was shocked. And it's not just the chai-wallah. A few days ago on TV a lot of politicians were asked India-related questions on the news channels, and I can't believe a lot of them don't know October 2 is Gandhiji's birthday! Many didn't know his first name. They kept saying, 'what's in a name, we respect his ideals,' but come on! How can you not know his name?”

Sanjay Dutt (Munna Bhai) also confessed that he had to watch the first film eight to nine times in order to recapture the persona of Munna Bhai. In addition, Dutt stated in an interview that he did not read Gandhi's autobiography My Experiments with Truth as a preparation for Lage Raho Munna Bhai.

Commercial view and social impact of the film

Lage Raho Munna Bhai is the third top grossing Bollywood film of the 21st century, according to, earning Rs 69.97 crores (699 million) net gross in India alone (and has also been rated a Blockbuster). Lage Raho Munnabhai has become the first full length Indian movie to be shown in the United Nations auditorium and has won praise from diplomats, staff and journalists alike. It was shown on November 10th, 2006 as a part centennial observation of the first Satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi.

The thematic attention to Gandhi's theories in Lage Raho Munna Bhai has both revived an interest in Gandhism under the new term, Gandhigiri in India and has likewise made Gandhi suddenly hip. Inspired by the hit movie, Indians are increasingly embracing his philosophy, staging nonviolent protests, starting Web sites, handing out roses to enemies and putting on peaked white caps from the Gandhi era. Indeed, according to reports, Gandhi is now a new pop icon in India and as Arunabha Ghosh notes, “Gandhi, the man, was once the message. In the India of the post-liberalisation brand, Gandhigiri is the message.”

Some have suggested that this phenomenon could be attributed to the film simplifying Gandhi's lofty ideals and conveying them "in contemporary, colloquial language. Others, according to The Christian Science Monitor, have noted that the appeal of the film lies in the fact that “Gandhi gets his hands dirty. He appears as an apparition only visible to the wayward gangster, counselling him on how to help others deal with everyday problems.”

Since the release of the film, there have been a number of Gandhigiri - style protests. In the United States during July 2007, piles of flowers were sent to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office by individuals who were legally in the U.S. but caught in a green card backlog. This was an act of Gandhigiri (or nonviolent protest) copied from Lage Raho Munna Bhai.

There have also been numerous Gandhigiri protests in India. Farmers staged a protest with flowers in the Vidarbha region, and people who organized a protest in Lucknow claimed to have been inspired by Lage Raho Munna Bhai to use roses to convey their message. In Lucknow students claimed to have been inspired by Lage Raho Munna Bhai to do volunteer work, planting trees “to conserve nature which is bound to benefit public health.” Mafia don Babloo Srivastava claimed to have been inspired by Lago Raho Munna Bhai to distribute roses as a “message of love and peace.”

The Gandhigiri movement has also had a political and social impact. In New Delhi, on 29 January and 30 January 2007, a two-day conference (which included about 400 world leaders) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of satyagraha in South Africa was held. Partial inspiration for the conference came from Lage Raho Munna Bhai. The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, announced the creation of a new Public Services Bill to combat corruption in a press release dated 17 November 2006 and cited Lage Raho Munna Bhai as one of its influences.

Lage Raho Munna Bhai has also inspired a new interest in books about Gandhi, including requests for copies of Gandhi's autobiography, My Experiments with Truth from prison inmates. Management teachers in Indian management institutes have planned to incorporate Gandhian strategies shown in the film as well as the success-story of the film in teaching courses.
Reviews from the media world

Lage Raho Munna Bhai has received high praise from many critics particularly Poonam Joshi of the BBC who notes that “everything about this film works [...] It's rare to see a film that bounces between humour and sentiment so seamlessly. And it is rarer still to see characters become etched in the memory so enduringly that audiences become almost protective of them. It is testimony both to the quality of the writing and the performances, that Munna and Circuit have taken on a life of their own”. Phelim O'Neill of the The Guardian supports this view stating, “as western romantic comedies become more vapid, this delivers a credible message of peace, while never forgetting to be magnificent entertainment.” Nikhat Kazmi of The Times of India also observes that “Vidhu Vinod Chopra gives the great Indian family one more let's-go-goodwill-hunting entertainer, even as director Raju Hirani proves that sequels needn't have the been there-done that feel...” Furthermore Sparn Verma of adds that “we live in a cynical world, but even in such times, sometimes a person, book or film comes along and shows you a tiny crack in the wall behind which there is a lot of light, and suddenly your heart is full of happiness. Lage Raho Munnabhai is one such film that makes you laugh, makes you cry, and also makes you feel good to be a human being.” Taran Adarsh in (via Yahoo! India) cites Lage Raho Munna Bhai as “a sparkling example of qualitative cinema” arguing that it “not only entertains, it also enlightens.” Sarita Tanwar states in a review for Mid-Day, “Lage Raho… is just what this generation needs, a revival of values and ideals without being preachy. The film’s impact is far greater than all the textbooks you’ve read (and forgotten) in school. Mahatma Gandhi is back — and well, what a comeback.” Shastri Ramachandaran further notes, "True, there have been memorable films on Mahatma Gandhi by distinguished directors, namely Richard Attenborough and Shyam Benegal; one offering a respectful cinematic acquaintance and the other being didactic but inspiring. For all their earnestness, neither film stirred the popular imagination like LRM has done now.”

Others disagree. Ajit Duara argues in The Hindu that “the accomplished cultural sophistication and political genius of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has to be dumbed down to the astoundingly moronic levels of Lage Raho Munna Bhai “ and S. Ganesh in The Economic and Political Weekly adds that the film trivialises Gandhi: history as farce. A blurb in the LA Weekly film review section by David Chute notes a preference for Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. over Lage Raho Munna Bhai stating that “this odd-duck sequel to one of Bollywood’s smartest recent crowd pleasers edges perilously close to repudiating the beloved original” while filmmaker Jahnu Barua notes, “Gandhian philosophy is serious business and Lage Raho Munna Bhai is not the right way to show it.”

The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh was given a private screening of Lage Raho Munna Bhai. After viewing the film, he stated that the movie “captures Bapu's message about the power of truth and humanism.” In a speech during his visit to South Africa, Manmohan Singh said, “I was heartened to see recently that back home in India the most popular movie this festival season is a film about a young man's discovery of the universal and timeless relevance of the Mahatma's message.”

Christian view of the film

The strong message that comes out of the film is Gandhian teachings, which are nothing but the teachings of Jesus. The teachings on forgiveness, Truth and peace come out so strongly in the entire film. Viewing through the film one can find several Christian views contained the film. Let me enumerate some of them which I found quite Christian in nature. The movie moves from a world of reign of evil to a world of reign of God

1. From Dadagiri to Gandhigiri: A shift from bad news to good news

The film opens with one of the social evils in the Indian Society, the world of dadas (rogues). Bribery, abductions, street dialect, law of the jungle fill the opening scenes of the film. But, the movie moves from this world of dadagiri to a world of Gandhigiri which is filled with peace, love, forgiveness and truth. The agents of such Gandhigiri are the heroes of dadagiri themselves. The land grabber, Lucky Singh and his associates Munna and Circuit turn out to be agents of Gandhigiri who spread good news in the very plot and setting where they were once spreading bad news. The gospel is good news with teachings on forgiveness, truth, peace and love for enemies. The movie has several scenes depicting these ideals like father and son forgiving each other (almost like the return of the prodigal son), flowers to the one who is sick with evil thoughts and actions (“overcoming evil with good;”Rom.12:21) and most of all hard act of telling the truth of one’s own evil act to the one he loves. Like the words in the gospel, “Truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32), Munna becomes a free person, free from all evil inclinations in his life.

2. From Revenge to forgiveness: From OT to NT

Another shift in the movie is the passage from revenge to forgiveness. The villain of the film, Lucky Singh is depicted as evil in the movie. So too, the hero, Munna along with his associate, Circuit, too have some evil inclinations at the beginnings of the film. Their relationships lead to hate as the movies advances. Munna hates at one moment his own associate Circuit. Lucky Singh hates his once collaborates, Circuit and Munna for turning against him in his evil plan. However, with the inspiration from the teachings of Gandhi, all these hate-hate relationships turn out to love-forgiveness relationships. Eye for an eye of the OT law is changed by New Testament law of “forgiving unconditionally” with the entry of Gandhi. Here Gandhi’s entry into this world can be compared to the coming of Christ in the world of hate and revenge.

3. Secret of flower power: Power of Good over evil

The symbol of flower power is very strong in the film. Smile and be gentle with the one who troubles. Offer a bouquet of flowers to the enemy as to get well soon of his evil ways. These were the powerful scenes in the film that depicted strong gospel value of Jesus teaching such as loving the enemies, walking the second mile, offering the other cheek to the one who hits you. These acts do have positive effect finally. The evil is overcome by these good acts and finally good thrives.

4. Truth that set free: From deceit to truth

The gospel maxim, “Truth will set you free” is quite true in the movie. The hide and seek life-game of Munna does not go on forever. He finally tells the truth about his game to the one he loves at the insistence of Gandhi though it was hard for him. There are two Christian values portrayed here. It is hard to speak to the truth. Truth hurts. It really hurt him too after the admittance. But, however, eventually, the same truth frees him to be a free person of such evils. Secondly, he said the truth at the insistence of Gandhi. Of course, from Christian perspective, how many of us stand for truth and speak truth at the insistence of the Word of God?

5. Faith and doubt: Test of authentic Christian life

The film has several scenes where Munna is supported by Gandhi (unseen by others) whenever he is in difficulty. But, at one crucial moment when he really needed the help of Gandhi, Gandhi abandons him. Many critics wondered why at all that scene was included in the film. I believe it has purpose to indicate that our life is not entirely based on help from others especially God. At times, God leaves us to test our faith. That was the clear moment, Munna was tested in his faith in Gandhi. Authentic Christian life is combination of faith and doubt. Faith is a search. In that search, one faces the moments of doubts and conflicts. Christian life is tested by moments of uncertainties like gold that is tested by fire.

6. Role of Gandhian books: Task of the Word of God

The Gandhigiri in the film begins by introducing Munna reading the Gandhian books to know him more. Though he was not interested in knowing him much (his first choice of the book is the smallest book available from the library stack!) he eventually gets enthused to read more and more. Reading more and more, he is taken to a world of Gandhi where he is filled with much of his ideals. And almost like a dream or apparition, Gandhi comes alive in front of him. The reading of the book is almost equated to the person of Gandhi himself. Here I find a strong similarity with the words of St. Chrisostum who said, “Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Jesus Christ”.

7. Christ figures in the film: Gandhi and Munna

According to Lloyd Baugh, the cinematic Christ-figure is to be found in films of every genre: dramatic films, westerns, science films, comedies and satires, adventure films, films of social and psychological analysis and as one might expect, religious films.3 At times, the Christ-figure is dominant presence in the film and the Christological action governing in the theme. At times, the Christ-figure may limit to one image or a shot.4 Most of the Christ-figures in such films are not intentionally desired by the director or scriptwriter. The Christ-figure is neither Jesus nor the Christ, but rather a shadow of faint glimmer or reflection of him. In this sense, we find the character of Gandhi portraying some elements of Christ. The most important resemblance comes not from his act but from his words. His teachings on truth, forgiveness and love are placed as though they are coming from the mouth of Christ. He is the inspirer for the troubled. He is there at the hymn. He is anywhere and everywhere but seen with the eyes of faith. Gandhi’s words are hard to live by, foolish for the non-follower. Second level Christ-figure in the film is Munna himself. Munna represents the old word of the new world of post modernism where new law of Gandhigiri is not rational for a world of eye for eye. Munna reforms the present law by bringing back the old Gandhian principles in a new form (flower power). It was something like Christ who came to fulfil and reform the old Mosaic Law. Munna taught by his example and his words. His teaching on the mountain was from the world space radio station. His teaching by his life was his letter of truth about himself to the girl he loved. Munna was victim of misunderstanding and when he felt his inspirer, Gandhi almost abandoned him. A feeling of suffering and death of Christ when even Christ called out to his Father, “my God, my God, why did you forsake me?” And this Christ-figure is vulnerable and weak (scenes of alcoholic addictions, dada styles, dishonesty before truth, etc..). But, there is sunshine in the life of Munna almost like resurrection in his life.

8. Problematic elements in the film

However, LRMB is neither a purely Christian film nor a film produced for Christians. The film contains usual Bollywood formulaic ingredients. Some of the ingredients can be objectionable from a Christian viewpoint. The usual love affair theme with its agonies and ecstasies, song and dance sequences in unreal settings with unreal costumes and unreal characters are not to the taste of a normal Christian. The first song and dance on the road and the three wheeler is typical unnatural plot and with scanty dressed or provocatively dressed girls around. The Goan number is too a typical hero-heroine love song. Besides, movie contains several artificial discontinuities that make the film all the more unreal. Some of them are given below:

- The heroine who works in World space is broadcasting through FM for anyone in the street!

- It looks as though the heroine was waiting to take hold of the fallen ring of Munnabhai during the Goan number.

- Lucky sing shoots up and the secretary in lower floor looks up to see the bullet mark!

- Circuit has only just one set of costume throughout the film.

- The entire first song plot, girls and settings look unreal to Indian society.

Perhaps, a film without the Bollywood formulaic ingredients would have been just right to the message of the movie. Unfortunately, Indians expect fulsome entertainment from Indian movies hence the Indian movie makers add ingredients like songs, dances, love scenes, scantly dressed girls, new fashions, melodramatic contents so that viewers get a little of everything. Meanwhile, the message and the focus suffer.

Indeed, director Rajkumar Hirani has compared this format to the films of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, as well as to the James Bond series. In Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Jhanvi's opening line for her radio show, "Gooooooood Moooooooorninnnng Mumbai!", resembles Robin Williams' opening for his radio show ("Gooooooooood morning, Vietnaaaaaaaaammm!") in the 1987 film, Good Morning, Vietnam. Critics have also noted similarity with the 1977 film Oh, God! where God appears as a kindly old man to the protagonist. In addition, parts of the melody of the song Pal Pal...Har Pal are reminiscent of the Cliff Richard song Theme for a Dream. At times, one wonders the origin and other family members of Munna, Circuit, Janvi etc. they are not be questioned nor thought of neither by the director nor by the viewers. Such questions do not have answers in films like this. But it is movie to be cherished for its sheer Gandhigiri concept which is very much Christian.

1 Cf. Jayne Loader, Film Language and communication: From Cecil B. De Mille to Martin Scorcese in Paul A. Soukup, Robert Hodgson (eds.), From one Medium to Another (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1997), 197.

2 He was approached by the CBCI to produce a TV serial on Bible in the National TV channel, Doordarshan. Financed by the Indian Catholic Church and other foreign agencies, the serial started in the manner of popular religious serials like Ramayana and Mahabharata, but stopped after a few episodes due to protest from fundamental groups of Muslims and Hindus.

3 Cf. Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine (Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 110.

4 Cf. Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine (Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 110-111.


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