Director: Sartaj Singh Pannu
Actors: Arif Zakaria, Tom Alter
I know as much about religion as you know about this film (assuming that you haven’t seen it already). I’m told Sikhism, like Islam, forbids the use of a human form to depict its founder. This diktat, like so much about religions in general, is debatable. But that’s another matter.
I suspect the logic behind not allowing an actor to portray Guru Nanak is that it might mess with the image that comes to the believer’s mind when they worship the great saint. A lot of us, to give you a totally unrelated example, naturally visualise Ben Kinglsey when we think of Mahatma Gandhi.
The restriction mentioned above puts the filmmakers here in a uniquely tight spot. They have to pull off a biopic where you don’t actually get to see the protagonist at all. Guru Nanak, on whose life this film is based, appears like a hologram, radiating light from the outlines of his body and robe. The camera hardly ever peers in his direction. Most of the talking and zooming in for reactions happen through the great saint’s Man Friday, fellow traveller, and the film’s narrator, Mardaana—a rabab player, played by Arif Zakaria.
At one level, this film is a beautifully picturised, ambitious travelogue, recalling the parts of India that Guru Nanak went in search for footprints of the finest sages and philosophers of his time. The camera pans across Varanasi, Kamrup (in Assam), Tibet, Jagannath Puri… This allows the film the kind of natural scale that may have been impossible if it was only relaying an important sermon.
Guru Nanak was a relentless traveller, testing the bounds of human endurance. The film faithfully captures a lot of the legends and miracles attributed to him. His followers would have probably known about these anyway. But the beauty of the world’s youngest religion is that it bears strong resonance to a relatively contemporary history as well. We watch the rise of the Mughals with the help of cannons inIndia in the early 1500s, which coincides with the fall of the Turks. The battle scenes in the film do fair justice to this turning point in the history of both Punjab and the Indian sub-continent. It goes beyond mythology.
The art direction is simply first rate. Tom Alter, bloated up to a point that you can’t recognise him anymore, plays the king, Daulat Khan. Guru Nanak’s first job was in the government’s ration shop in Sultanpur where he would distribute free grains without affecting the supplies at all.
The film effectively charts the journey of a fakir who goes on to spread the message of oneness of God and equality among men, debunking myths surrounding warring religions and caste.
As I said, I know very little about religion. Much less is discussed in popular culture for fear of offending some over-sensitive devotee or the other. Followers of religions (and cults), like agnostics and atheists, usually preach to the converted.
This film is a notable exception. I hear a ban has nonetheless been imposed against it in Punjab. The last time I heard such news was over another movie called MSG, starring Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh jI Insan. Now, many who had seen that film have hardly recovered from it yet.
The press show for this picture had not more than a dozen reviewers inside a massive hall. The expectations, at least mine, were rather low. Every once in a while though, as a viewer, you’re pleasantly surprised while making a discovery such as this film. It’s sensibly made; for the most part deeply engaging; and therefore universal in its appeal. I think you should catch it on television, if it’s sadly not playing at a theatre near you.