Even as Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars, Indians found themselves torn on many fronts: “How does one celebrate a film that so openly depicts the horrors of India’s urban underbelly?”, “Is this really an ‘Indian’ film or one more film about India made by a foreigner?”, and so on.
Thankfully, there were no such qualms in greeting A.R. Rahman’s Oscar success. The accolades for the global recognition of his prodigious talent were universal.
Or maybe not. A brewing debate is beginning to surface, one that could be more divisive than the anger about the offensive depiction of India in the film. It has to do with Rahman’s conversion from Hinduism to Islam about 20 years ago. Rahman was born Dileep Kumar and remained so for much of his extraordinarily difficult early years. His conversion to Islam came in 1989, after his sister went through a serious illness that was cured by a Muslim cleric, soon after which he had a dream to convert. Today, Rahman is a devout Muslim, finding enormous solace in his faith. As he said in his Oscar acceptance speech, “Ella pughalum iraivanuke (All glory and fame is to God).”
This is a quandary for many Indians. If Rahman were born Muslim, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But in a predominantly Hindu society, where the communal undercurrents run deep with scars of the past neither being forgotten nor given an opportunity to heal, the conversion issue is a volatile one.
While this was already known to those who knew Rahman, the Oscar fever has brought Rahman’s life story far more widely into the public arena. The hornet’s nest is stirring, and Web blogs are beginning to buzz. One blogger, Ram, writes, “What Rahman has achieved is due to his conversion of religious faith from Hinduism to Islam. I guess Hindus should be ashamed of the way Dilip was treated so as to get him converted to Islam and renamed as Rahman. Indeed he has brought fame to Indian movies, but sadly Hindus cannot claim success.”
Disha, another blogger, writes, “That was very stupid of him to convert to Islam. Hinduism is the best religion..! Hare Krsna Hare Ram! Jai Sri Ram..!”
In response, Zalmer writes, “When he won the Oscars, Golden Globe, all the Indians were praising him, but when they got to know that he is a true Muslim and he accepted the best religion and converted to it, then everyone is jealous of him.”
This developing controversy has parallels to another film that is now running on Indian screens, Delhi-6. Set in a densely populated, mixed neighbourhood, the film is about how the harmonious Hindu-Muslim brotherhood is broken by a surreal “monkey man” sighting. It seems that when the going is good, touchy subjects are tucked away, and all is well in mixed-community India. But the slightest hint of conflict, and the placid thin ice of frozen emotions is shattered by old resentments.
These are real tensions in real India. It’s hard to comment on them in abstraction, as though analysing a laboratory experiment. The reality is that this ecosystem is all around us. Even in my own circle of acquaintances, I know that the tiniest scratch on the surface of people, and the poison of swirling angst comes pouring out—“They are like that only!”, “We can never really know them.”
Delhi-6 offers some clues to the resolution of the tensions that are beginning to emerge in the Dileep Kumar-Rahman conversion story. It is about a transformation in each one of us—finding the hidden demon of the “monkey man” within us and destroying it. The film revolves around the celebration of Ramlila, where the rakshasa, Ravana, is finally killed. The metaphor here is about the deep-seated Ravana of hate and animosity in each of us; the path to exorcising it is to first acknowledge its existence—only then can it be purged.
Some of these moderate voices are also appearing in the blogosphere. One blogger—Menon—writes, “What a shame! Even in this moment of glory where every Indian wants to relate himself with A.R. Rahman, (someone) comes up with this stupid religious prejudice. Rahman is what India can be. Different religions, mixed faith, (and) education to shape a true Indian.” Echoing this, Hassan writes, “Our great culture and tradition is based upon our mutual recognition of our differences. But we all are united as Indians. True Indians will think beyond any caste or religion or colour in our success.”
This isn’t a Hindu or Muslim problem as much as one of individual responsibility. Perhaps the celebration of Rahman can be more special because it can happen only in India: a Hindu who converts to Islam, and by his sheer genius and dedication, rises to fame and success. Hopefully, we can say, “Dileep Kumar ya Allah Rakha, we will slay the monkeymen in our minds, honour you, and feel proud.” After all, it is our diversity that makes us Incredible India.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org