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Hindutva Activists Target Tamil Film ‘Annapoorani’

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Hindutva Activists Target Tamil Film ‘Annapoorani’

The movie’s claim that the Hindu deity Ram was a meat eater has raised the hackles of Hindu hardliners.

Hindutva Activists Target Tamil Film ‘Annapoorani’
Credit: X/Zee Studios South

Last week, the Tamil language film “Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food” was pulled by Netflix following protests by Hindutva activists. The latter were livid over the film’s claim that the Hindu deity Ram was a meat-eating god.

Significantly, the film had been cleared by the censor board and had already been screened in movie halls with no objections being raised. However, when it was released on the OTT platform Netflix this month, just days before the inauguration of the Ram Mandir (temple) at Ayodhya, it was viciously attacked for being “anti-Hindu” and insulting upper caste Brahmins.

The film is helmed by Tamil actor Nayanthara, who plays Annapoorani, a Brahmin girl from a conservative, strictly vegetarian household. She aspires to be a chef, and during her culinary training, she is conflicted about whether to cook and eat meat.

At that juncture, her good friend Farhaan, a Muslim, quotes Sanskrit verses from the Hindu epic Ramayana to show that Ram and his brother Lakshman hunted animals during their exile in a forest and cooked meat to assuage their hunger.

This enraged Hindu right-wing organizations. While the Bajrang Dal filed a complaint in a Mumbai suburb, Ramesh Solanki of the Hindu IT Cell lodged another in south Mumbai. Solanki alleged that the film and the filmmaker intentionally hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus and demeaned Lord Ram specifically at a time when “the whole world is rejoicing that the Sri Ram Mandir Pran Pratishtha will take place on January 22.”

India has been in the grip of a wave of a Hindu majoritarian frenzy amid celebrations for the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

In his complaint, Solanki cited scenes that he felt specifically demeaned Hindus. The daughter of the temple priest, Annapoorani wears a hijab and offers “namaz” before making biryani in the last scene of the film. In another scene, her Muslim friend Farhaan “brainwashes her into cutting meat,” Solanki alleged. Outraged by visuals of the girl eating meat being intercut with visuals of her father, the priest, performing religious rituals, Solanki insisted it was intentionally done to hurt Hindu religious sentiments.

Solanki then deployed another popular tool of Hindu nationalists to attack minority Muslims — love jihad. The film, he alleged, promotes “love jihad” since it depicts a Hindu Brahmin girl falling in love with a Muslim man, offering namaz, going for iftaar, and eating biryani.

Love jihad is a conspiracy theory propagated by Hindutva activists, which alleges that Muslim men are trapping Hindu women into marriage with the sole intention of converting them to Islam.

A police complaint has been filed against the actors, the director Nilesh Krishnaa, and the filmmakers. Faced with the vitriolic backlash, Netflix removed the film from the OTT platform globally on January 10. Soon, Zee Studios, the producers of the film, issued a formal apology to the Hindutva-affiliate Vishwa Hindu Parishad, stating that they had “no intention to hurt religious sentiments of Hindus and Brahmins.”  Zee said that the “objectionable content” would be removed.

For superstar Nayanthara, the film marked the 75th film in her career. She issued a formal apology last week, with the masthead of her letter prominently proclaiming the Hindu salutation, “Jai Shree Ram” (Victory to Lord Ram). She said she had intended to highlight communal amity and not to cause distress.

The filmmakers’ capitulation underscores their fear of Hindutva fanatics. However, such a meek surrender by the film fraternity only emboldens the right-wing Hindutva army to bully and threaten.

In an incisive article titled “Like it or not, Ram did eat meat in the Ramayan” published in The Wire, media practitioner and artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta delved into the original Valmiki Ramayana in Sanskrit, in which Sengupta is well-versed, to argue that Ram was a meat eater. He drew on the “Ayodhyakand” or the chapter on Ayodhya to point out that the tired and famished Ram and Lakshman hunted boar, antelope, spotted deer, and great stag and ate the meat. He cited other passages in the text to argue that Ram, a Kshatriya (warrior caste) king, hunted animals and ate meat. It was upper-caste Hindus with their strict vegetarian sensibilities who subsequently cast Ram and all the gods of the Hindu pantheon as non-meat eaters, Sengupta argued.

I have written previously in The Diplomat about this frenzy of enforced vegetarianism in India that Hindutva groups are foisting on Indians. Ascribing notions of purity and spirituality to vegetarianism, they portray meat eaters as being unclean. It is not surprising then that Muslims, who are primarily meat eaters, are relegated to the latter category.

Islamophobia also contributes to this enforced vegetarianism.  Moreover, as I pointed out, there is a concerted attempt to portray meat-eating or non-vegetarianism as an exception to the norm in India. This contradicts data that reveals that the number of meat eaters has increased across the country.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that Hindutva groups have resorted to bullying and threatening filmmakers. A year ago, it was the saffron-clad Deepika Padukone in the Hindi film “Pathaan” that raised the hackles of the right wing. They even labeled it as “love jihad” since the Hindu actor was romanced by a Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan in the movie. In 2021, Amazon Prime had to tender an apology for the OTT series “Tandav,” as some of its content allegedly offended the sentiments of some Hindus.

While South India’s film industry has largely been silent over the controversy triggered by the movie “Annapoorani,” a few like outspoken actor Parvathy Thiruvothu described it as a “dangerous precedent” and accused the industry of “censoring left, right and center until we won’t be allowed to breathe.”

This attempt by Hindutva activists to control creativity, and thwart free speech has resulted in art becoming poorer, and society weaker .

Thrusting normative forms of religion, culture, dress, and food on a country that is marked by diversity and plurality has become the order of the day in India under Narendra Modi. Such authoritarian diktats will further intensify should the Hindu right wing and the BJP continue their winning streak at the hustings well beyond the 2024 polls.

India now truly bears all the markings of a Hindu majoritarian nation.