Censorship? Blasphemy? The Nanak Shah Fakir debate

Two major cinema chains cancelled screenings of the Indian film Nanak Shah Fakir after a sit-in protest in a branch of Cineworld in Wolverhampton.

Over 50 Sikh protesters entered the cinema on April 19 to demand its cancellation. The protesters sat down, shouted and refused to leave until cinema bosses accepted their demands. In response, management evacuated the cinema complex and promised refunds.

Mohan Singh, of the Sikh Awareness Society, told the BBC: “The sister of Guru Nanak is played by a human being, and we are also lead to believe that a human actor played the role of Guru Nanak Dev ji, and that is blasphemy and is one part of why Sikhs around the world are objecting.”

But of course, faith inspires a diversity of interpretations, and others take a different line. Dr Rajwant Singh looked at the human need for imagery and the educational benefit of the film. In an opinion piece for Sikh24 he wrote:

“One can buy calendars on street corners adorned by artistic representations of Gurus. Some artists, like Sobha Singh, have been phenomenally successful. What do you think, when Sobha Singh painted a representation of Guru Nanak or Guru Gobind Singh, did a model sit for him or not?  Is this a religious crime committed both by the artist and the needy model? In the 1970’s the primary Sikh regulatory body, the SGPC bought the copyright of Sobha Singh’s work and officially gave it their seal of approval.”

The press material for Nanak Shah Fakir clearly stated that the depiction of Guru Nanak is non-human:

“It is pertinent to mention here that keeping in line with the tradition, Guru Nanak has been portrayed through computer graphics only and that too from the back, amidst a ray of light. The extraordinary experiences during the production yet were overwhelming and deeply humbling. While some have been recorded on reels, others are embedded in the heart, forever.”

That same press material claimed the film received the blessing of the highest Sikh authority – Sri Akal Takht Sahib. But now the film is now temporarily withdrawn globally following weeks of controversy. In a statement, the director Harinder S. Sikka stated: “As this project has been made with a lot of passion and hard work and only with the intention of spreading Sikhi to the world, we will be working closely with the Akal Takht Sahib and SGPC to reach a resolution.”

Why the change of heart? A blog Anuhema Yadav provides a detailed context.

The journalist Sunny Hundal took a stern line on Twitter:

Along the faultlines of the importance of free speech and the right to protest is something deeper: politicising a debate around taste and decency (in religious terms) owes more to a desire to be the most ‘authentic’ voice and ‘defender’ of the faith.